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

A computerized check-in system processes attendance on the spot at meetings, allowing the Brunswick Civil War Roundtable to more actively engage its members.

(part four of a six-part series)

ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski has been talking this week with Mike Powell, president of the Brunswick (NC) Civil War Roundtable, which has more than 1,200 members. In the first two segments, they talked about attracting and keeping membership. Today, Chris digs into the demographics of their membership a bit more.

Chris Mackowski: You’d mentioned a little while ago that a large percentage of your members were retirees. And we’ve talked before about your desire to get more young people involved. How would you describe your demographics, and what are the challenges you face with them?

Mike Powell: Overwhelmingly, it’s retirees around here. Overwhelmingly.

As for younger people, there are two high schools, and both of those are actually pretty far away. There’s one that is sort of the local school, and then there’s another one halfway between here and Myrtle Beach that draws from Myrtle Beach as well as from this area. So, there’s just not a lot of kids. 

There’s just not enough jobs to keep ’em, y’know? You either do real estate or construction, and if you can do real estate, that’s great. That’s the biggest industry here, real estate: trading sand! (laughs) And then construction. But if that’s not your thing, then you leave. That’s kind of a shame, but that’s just the way it’s been here since the ‘50s, once the fishing died. . . .

Hurricane Hazel in ’54 demolished Southport. There used to be piers all up and down Southport’s harbor front, and they were all wiped out. And of course, the shrimping’s gone down. In the 1920s, Southport produced as much shrimp as the entire rest of the state, and that’s kind of fished out now, so that’s kind of a problem.

There’s just nothing to keep the kids here. Very few folks that you talk to now are in their 20s or 30s, because once they get out of school, they bolt. You can’t blame them.

CM: So, do you guys do anything to try and reach out to those young people who are here?

MP: Yes. Both of those schools had ROTC classes, so Wally [Rueckel] and I went out to them, spent two days there—a day at each one. Wally talked about the roundtable. I gave them a little talk on North Carolina in the Civil War.

You figure: ROTC, military. They might take an interest. I’m not sure we got one recruit out of that.

I felt like I could’ve put up a picture of Abraham Lincoln and one of Jefferson Davis and they wouldn’t have know who was who. And I asked them, “Don’t you guys get this in school?” And a guy says, “Well, we had a half a day.”

Last night, a pair of folks who came with one of our board members, they brought their eight nephews and grandkids and stuff. That’s the most kids we’ve ever had in that building.

Susie Whalen, who joins me here for a picture, helps at the Sutler’s Table with her dad. Attracting young people remains one of BCWRT’s biggest challenges–as it is for most roundtables.

CM: The guy who was selling books—he had his daughter with him. I had the chance to talk with her afterwards.

MP: She’s a treat. She comes to every meeting. Her and her father have been doing that for a while now. They lug those damn books in and out every night! They do great.

I had a vice president from General Electric that joined the roundtable, and he wanted to get involved. And I said, “Okay, you want to get involved. Here’s a task for you: We want to get kids involved. We want to come up with some kind of program for schools. Not a short-term thing. I want it to be a long-term plan we can attack these schools with.”

And he got so frustrated because they’re just not interested. Just. Not. Interested. He came back to me about six months later and say to me, “Mike,” he says to me, “I can’t do a thing.”

And everybody I talk to, everybody, I always ask them the same question: “What are you doing with the youth?” And they all have that same question, and it’s all the same answer. We try, but either the schools rebel or the teachers don’t want to spend the extra time coming to the meetings. Teachers have been reluctant to even talk about it: “Don’t talk about that subject because we don’t have any real answers!” (laughs)

We have had a little better success with college students. Chris Fonvielle up at UNC-Wilmington is one of our advisers and he’s able to give some of his students extra credit for coming, so that’s about all the success we’ve had.

CM: It is a lament I’ve heard from people all across the country.

MP: We haven’t given up. It’s just that we need a different approach. Do we need to go directly to the state boards that control that and ask, “What can you do?” But we haven’t given up—we just haven’t had any success yet.

CM: You also make an effort to appeal to women, too.

MP: We may be the only Civil War roundtable with a women’s auxiliary. About three years ago, Charen Fink, our vice-president, started a women’s forum. The ladies meet quarterly. Several come in period dress, and they prepare period refreshments, followed by a speaker on women’s issues of the war. She gets about 100 ladies for each meeting.

Charen just published her first book, The Civil War Ladies’ Department. It’s a compilation of articles she’s written over the decades for various roundtables.

With the roundtable, we made the decision very early that we were going to appeal to women, which means you can’t do blood and mud every month. You’ve got to diversify your topics. And that’s fine. If it were up to me, I’d do blood and mud every month—I’m a military historian. But I have to admit, I think we’re all better off for having the diverse topics. I mean, topics I’m not going to sit down and read a book about, but if I can get 45 minutes from an expert to talk to me, I’m good, y’know?

And then we brought in the refreshments. And that was a big hit. We go through fourteen dozen cookies a night (laughs). And you don’t charge them for anything, right? You just put a basket out there with “donations” on it, and you’ll get two-hundred, three-hundred dollars a night from people just throwing dollars in there. Nobody’s missing it. They’re not charged. It’s there if they want to; if they don’t want to, that’s fine. So it’s just little things like that.

We do pre-speaker slides with information on them about our events, about our trips, about other roundtable trips, about other roundtables, about symposiums, what’s going on at the Maritime Museum, what’s goin’ on over at Ft. Fisher—it all adds up. If you can get ‘em interested in it, they’re going to look for not just that but other outlets, too.

CM: Something else might spark their interest.

MP: Something else might come up. If they find they enjoy the history, there’s plenty of history around here for them to enjoy. You’ve just got to get them interested.

CM: You guys also do some things with data management to help with your membership.

MP: We keep track of “meetings attended” by the membership. And the reason we do that is on the theory that the people who come to meetings more often than not are going to be the best choices for volunteers. And we probably have forty volunteers—that’s a roundtable for some folks.

But keeping track of that stuff is a nightmare. It wasn’t bad when we were three, four hundred folks. Twelve hundred people? And you’ve gotta keep thumbing through these things and put a check, and afterwards, someone’s gotta go in and tick off all four hundred of those names after the meeting to record the data—and that was a problem. I did it one month just to see what it was and (laughs) I was, like, “Not again!” (laughs) “We’ve gotta come up with something else for this.”

So I put out some feelers for folks to see if anybody knew anybody who had that kind of expertise. And a gentleman over here at one of the churches, Len Trasinski, writes programs. I talked to him, and he wrote us a program. It’s cloud based, so as soon as you give them your last four numbers and—click!

And it’s good. By the time we leave there at night, I know how many people were at the meeting. And before, it would take us weeks, days.

And of course, my media guy, that’s his thing: “Mike, when am I gonna get my numbers? When am I gonna get my numbers?” And I’d tell him, “I’m tryin’! I’m trying’!”

And it’s funny: Len doesn’t even stay for the meetings. He comes in, he does his thing with the computers, packs up, and goes—and won’t take a penny for it. Won’t take a penny for it.

So, we’ve had a lot of luck. Believe me. We’ve had a lot of luck. I always tell Wally: everything that could have gone wonky or good, we end up on the good. Y’know? That doesn’t have anything to do with anybody else—that’s just luck. You’ve gotta get break every now and then!

CM: But there again, if you’re putting out a good product, doing good things, doing good community service—luck tends to fall your way.

MP: Well, the prepared are lucky, yes. That’s true. But, we’ve had some very, very fortunate things.


When their conversation continues tomorrow, Chris and Mike talk about a state-wide collaboration the Brunswick Civil War Roundtable is undertaking with other roundtables in the state—and how that’s paying dividends for everyone involved.

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

  1. This hits the core of the problem. How are you going to attract much younger members if American history is generally treated by the education system – public and private – as irrelevant? And this despite the fact that of all events in US history beyond a “look back” window of 25-30 years the ACW is still impacting us. Another issue is that fewer and fewer kids today can trace their ancestry to the generation that experienced the war. We need desperately to figure out ways of making this material relevant to kids from a variety of perspectives.

  2. It’s very exciting to read about the Brunswick RT’s successes as well as the challenges they encounter. I volunteer with a veterans group speakers’ bureau that has to overcome the kinds of issues Mike Powell and his RT face getting into schools, reaching out to students and engaging them. A strategy we use, that the Brunswick group might try (if they have not already), is to find and work with a social studies teacher on providing some presentations that align with that teacher’s curriculum. The RT would be providing a free resource that complements normal classroom fare with outside voices and expertise. There may already be some teachers in the Wilmington area who examine the history of the battles for Fort Fisher during the school year. Trying to build a relationship with one or two such teachers might be a job one of the dedicated RT member/volunteers Mike describes— maybe a retired educator— could take on.

    The Civil War Trust might be able to help Mike’s RT make teacher and school connections. They run an annual institute on Civil War history and teaching methods, and have free resources for teachers on their website. They also offer a small grant program to support school field trips to a historic battlefield that teachers can apply for (https://www.civilwar.org/learn/educators/resources/field-trip-fund). The prospect of a funded fieldtrip to Ft. Fisher, accompanied by Brunswick RT members— who already have spoken to students in class— might appeal to area teachers (especially in Wilmington, next to the Ft. Fisher peninsula.) and most importantly, to their students. And there is the potential for collaborating on an education program with the staff or volunteer history interpreters and guides at the park (assuming they have them).

    In-school programming about the Civil War might not attract high school students down to Oak Island for an RT event (It can be hard to get students to go to extra-curricular events in students’ back yards!), but it would be breathing some much needed new perspective and energy into existing school curricula on the conflict. A few students might get engaged enough to attend a meeting, but most importantly (in my opinion), the programming you do would be building knowledge about and, hopefully, interest in the Civil War within your area’s teachers and students.

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