A Conversation with the Country’s Biggest Civil War Roundtable (part three)

There might be a few open spots in the front pew at this February 2016 Brunswick Civil War Roundtable meeting, but there was standing-room only in the back.

(part three of a six-part series)

ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski is talking with Mike Powell, president of the Brunswick Civil War Roundtable—the largest in the country. Yesterday, Mike offered some background about the roundtable and explained the importance good publicity has played in building their numbers. But as he explains today, that’s only half the battle.

Chris Mackowski: So good P.R. helped you build your audience, but what’s helped you retain your audience?

Mike Powell: We try to make it more than just a round table. It’s as much a social evening for folks—a cheap night out for couple hours. They get out, they hear some Civil War music, they buy a book, they take a 50-50 chance, they hear a good speaker.

I just discovered there’s a Civil War band in the area—Mansonboro Parlor—that does period instruments, period costumes, period music. We just had them come out. We had Jack Davis come in February, and we put the band on before him, from six to seven. The audience loved it! They were dancing in the aisles.

CM: Jack’s a great speaker, too, so that must’ve been some night!

MP: That was our record. We had 487 that night.

The band was wonderful. We’re going to try and have them back twice a year. They will be here for Kris White when he speaks here in September.

And we’ve spread the word about them, and they’ve gotten more gigs, and we hope more roundtables utilize them.

So it just works out well for everyone.

We have Civil War music on CD that we play as people come in, to set the right mood—when the band’s not here. We have the slides to let people know what’s going on in the community. [Mike refers to a PowerPoint presentation that projects on big screens above the stage in Hatch Auditorium. The slides offer news about the roundtable, upcoming Civil War-related events, and information from partner organizations.]

The more folks you can get involved, and the more folks you can get to support you if you’re supporting them. . . . You know, this is not a competition. It shouldn’t be a competition. The more outreach you have, I think the better off you are.

CM: And I imagine, with your numbers, you’re an institution people want to play ball with.

MP: Exactly. Exactly. You would be amazed by how many requests I get each month: “Can you do this little thing for us? Can you do this for us?” And we’re happy to do it.

And now I’m starting to get historians contacting me to come and speak because they all want to see four- five-hundred people in the audience. I can’t blame them. A lot of them tell me, “That’s the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken to.” I’m sure that’s a kick. I do a little of that myself [Roundtable talks], and when you get a big crowd like that it pumps you up a little bit.

CM: It sure does. It sure does.  (laughter)  So, do you ever have problems getting people to go all the way out to the end of Caswell Beach?

MP: We did. That was a big concern for us when we moved from the church. The church was right downtown, right here in Southport. You know, it’s another twenty minutes all the way out there to Caswell Beach. I’m sure we lost some folks—but not many. Not many. We probably picked up a few on Oak Island who weren’t willing to come over to Southport.

But it was a very good move. I was actually against it, because we were only paying $50 a night at the church, and I’m big into the Civil War preservation. And now here’re we’re paying $500 a night. That’s $4,500 a year that I could be using for historic preservation.

But it’s worked out. It’s a much nicer place, which I think has increased our numbers for us, so it’s been a good thing. The folks at the Assembly could not be nicer to us and give us a lot of leeway in our meetings.

Hatch holds 550, and I’m thinking to myself, “If we ever grow. . . .” Because we’re continually growing. I’ve got a chart that’s still going up. So, where do we go from there, if we outgrow Hatch? There is no other place around here that we could go. And the last thing we want to do is tell somebody, “I’m sorry, but you can’t come in because we’re already full.”

CM: I’m sure it helps that you get on the road to Oak Island and then just keep driving straight until you get to the end of the island—easy to get to.

MP: It is a nice ride along the beach road, past the lighthouse. You can’t get lost.

You’ve got the fort out there, so it has a historic setting out there. It has worked out really well.

In fact, we worked with the Assembly in April: they put on their very first Civil War Symposium. Nathan Sloan, who runs the A/V stuff for us up in the booth, is part of the Baptist team and is an adviser to the roundtable, and he came to me and he said, “We’d like to put on a symposium.” Well, he was thinking because we get 400 people for our meetings, he was going to get 400 people for his symposium. And I said, “That ain’t gonna happen.” That’s just not gonna happen. Now, if you get 50 to 100, that’s going to be a success. If you get 100, do it every year. And they had 80-some people. They gave our people a break on price. It was a three-day thing, and it was only, like, $129 and that included meals. So, that’s not bad for their first event—they hit it out of the park.

CM: Especially with meals included.

MP: Yeah. So, they’ve agreed to do it again next year. We’ll help get the speakers for ‘em, and they take care of the rest of it.

CM: Tell me a little bit more about that organization. The Baptist Church owns the property?

MP: Yes. It is a retreat center for the North Carolina Baptist Assembly. So all during the summer, there’s kids and groups that come from all over North Carolina and spend time out there.

CM: Tell me about the battery that’s out there, too—the fort.

MP: Well, the Civil War fort was built in 1826. That’s the brick structure that’s just to the left of Hatch Auditorium. You can just see the back face of it. Once Fort Fisher fell, there’s a fort there and another fort on Bald Head Island, right across the water, the old inlet, it’s one of two inlets into the Cape Fear River during the Civil War, the other was Fort Fisher at the new inlet—tricky name, right? (laughs)—but once Fort Fisher fell, that fort, the fort on Bald Head Island, and of course the fort in Southport became untenable. So what they did, they just evacuated, went up the inland side of the Cape Fear River to Brunswick Town and Fort Anderson and made a brief stand there, and then retreated back to Wilmington.

The other forts that you see out there, the concrete and rebar forts, were all built in the 1890s in anticipation of the Spanish-American War, because of everything that was going on down in Cuba. During World War I, it was an artillery center. During World War II, it was mostly a radar station. There wasn’t really a whole lot going on down there. And there wasn’t really a lot going on down there during the Civil War except for the occasional blockade ship that they would fire on, but it never took any attack or anything.

It was a pentagonal fort, and when then they abandoned it, they blew up on the opposite side from where we were, you can see where they tried to demolish it, and they only got about a third of it done—but, you know, that was enough.

CM: It’s kinda neat that you get to have your meetings on historic ground that ties into the war, though.

MP: Exactly. Exactly. I think it adds a lot to it. Twice a year, we’ll do day tours out there for folks, and there’ll be a hundred people that’ll show up. So that works out real well.


While the Brunswick Civil War Roundtable has had great success growing, it’s not been entirely without hiccups. When Chris’s conversation with Mike continues tomorrow, they’ll delve more into the challenges of reaching out to the area’s younger demographics.

3 Responses to A Conversation with the Country’s Biggest Civil War Roundtable (part three)

  1. Chris:

    Great stuff. I just gave a heads-up to the president of our local Roundtable here in Columbus, Oh., about your series. Brunswick’s membership is unbelievable!

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