The cover story of the newest issue of Civil War Times asks, “Do we still care about the Civil War?” ECW is pleased to partner with Civil War Times to extend the conversation here on the blog. Today, we’re pleased to welcome a guest post from Mike Movius of the Civil War Roundtable Congress.
After working with Civil War Round Tables (CWRT) over the past four plus years while leading the CWRT Congress, I am both frustrated and heartened. By our estimation, over seventy CWRTs have disappeared from the landscape in the past 6 or 7 years. They have disbanded for a number of reasons, including the aging and disappearance of membership, ineffective marketing, no discernible community presence, members who feel their occasional attendance is adequate, and the resistance of key leaders to embrace change. Combined, those factors have sealed their progression into obscurity.
However, there are other CWRTs around the country that are wildly successful, such as the 1,270 member Brunswick CWRT in Southport, North Carolina. When I visited them in February 2019, they had over 670 in attendance, having registered 10-20 new members. Imagine hundreds of Civil War enthusiasts attending a meeting to listen to a local historian, participate in a 50-50 drawing, buying history books, making donations for cookies and coffee and thoroughly enjoy themselves as they talked about their lives and interest in the Civil War.
Aside from the monster in Southport, the variety in the types, programs and activities of CWRTs is absolutely astounding.
- There are CWRTs like Old Baldy CWRT that have developed a culture wherein they are an integral part of their communities by sponsoring well-attended themed events aside from their monthly meetings. They are reversing a decline in membership.
- There are CWRTs like Bull Run CWRT that have taken on important projects designed to enhance the understanding of the Civil War, their community’s place in that struggle, and emphasize the relationship of Civil War history to today’s society.
- There are CWRTs like Quincy Gilmore CWRT that have elected to rely on word-of-mouth marketing about their organization. Although they have experienced a decline in membership since the Sesquicentennial, they continue to hold monthly meetings to discuss Civil War-related topics.
- There are CWRTs like Columbus Barracks CWRT that have no governance structure, do not charge member dues, and have no elected leadership positions. But they have thrived in that loosely defined environment for decades.
- There are CWRTs like Hawaii CWRT that are remotely located that have developed innovative ways to bring published historians to their meetings without incurring the high cost of transportation.
- There are CWRTs like Scottsdale CWRT that have developed a genealogy committee to assist their members write the story of their ancestors who participated in the Civil War, publish those stories on their website, and emphasize the importance of ancestral contributions at every meeting.
- There are CWRTs like Bella Vista (Arkansas) CWRT that are in the beginning stages of organization and development. By developing a significant partnership with a local museum, recruiting a contingent of 30 enthusiasts and not being burdened by past ineffective processes, they have a bright future.
And, yet the challenges for every CWRT remain. Many point to inadequate history education in public schools and generations of Americans disinterested in their history. Equally threatening is an active and vocal minority seeking to rectify American history by defacing and destroying Civil War monuments and statuary. Their aggressive tactics tend to keep people who might otherwise be inclined to study the Civil War away from controversy.
The CWRT Congress was established to assist CWRTs to be sustainable and to provide answers to the organizational and leadership issues that confront CWRTs. At our third annual Congress event held at the Missouri Civil War Museum on Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, the enthusiasm to succeed were palpable. Leaders from twenty-four different CWRTs and a variety of museums, education, historical and preservation organizations gathered to learn best practices, share their successes, and network with one another.
In addition to great speakers, a fun trivia contest and inspired post-Congress tours, three challenges were made:
1) Encourage active involvement in American history education supporting libraries, historical and genealogical societies, and celebrating CWRT members who do so;
2) Study and plan field trips to neighboring CWRTs, museums and historical sites and participate in their activities; and
3) Expand the CWRT mission statement to include emancipation, reconstruction and civil rights such that Civil War study is relevant to people of color.