One of the most startling things that we learned since the 150th sesquicentennial is that over seventy Civil War Round Tables (CWRTs) have closed their doors and ceased to exist. In fact, that is the very reason why we formed the congress.
So why exactly did that happen when new Civil War scholarship and interest is booming as evidenced by the publication of more history books, more blog sites and posts have appeared, more website dedicated to the Civil War-era have sprouted and more social media channels dedicated to a variety of aspects of 19th century life engage greater numbers of followers? The answer to that question is both nuanced and troubling.
To begin with, Civil War Round Tables are all independent organizations. Many have been around for decades and have served their members well. As the years have passed, their members have also grown old, moved away and lost interest as they became sick and died. Some of those CWRTs decided early on that membership growth was not something they would seek. And, as a result, their passing away was neither unexpected nor loudly proclaimed.
Other CWRTs have become so happy with their earlier successes that they fail to acknowledge that change is necessary. They continue to send notices of their meetings to the local newspaper, hold annual fundraisers that have become a way for members to save money rather than to financially support the CWRT. They find no need to seek the advice of their members and may even scorn those who suggest that. As a result, the old ways prevail until the predictable occurs.
Still other CWRTs rely on one or two members to carry the ball forward. They develop excellent programs, publish the newsletter, make arrangements for dinner meetings, take payment for food and drinks, set up projectors and other equipment and conduct every meeting. They are indeed the driving force behind the success of their CWRT. But, when their health fails and they can no longer proceed with the same vigor as before, there is no one ready to step in. There may not even be anyone who understands the nuances of the business. Then, the inevitable occurs.
Among the different types of CWRTs there are those that have met at the same facility (museum, restaurant, community center, church, etc.) for years. When that institution closes its doors or raise the rent beyond the means of the CWRT, leaders are faced with the seemingly undaunting task of finding a new venue. Unless they are lucky, they find that a large percentage of their members disappear. With fewer members, they are unable to bring in the top speakers they once entertained and must rely on their members to provide the program. Some members are excellent, while others are not. Interest wanes.
Finally, there are CWRTs that realize only too late that they are dying, but don’t have the energy or understanding how to administer life support. They lament the fact and wonder what happened even after their beloved organization is no more.
Among those CWRTs are those that have experienced unimaginable success. Their leaders have an enlightened vision and the wherewithal to attract others with the knowledge, skills and abilities to grow their organizations while avoiding the pitfalls others have known. They realize that their communities have changed and that they are now challenged with a new set of circumstances. They rise to the occasion and adapt.
Then, there are CWRTs with leaders that take on one challenge at a time. They learn from their mistakes and succeed one project at a time until they have transformed their inwardly focused organization into one that has many community partners, a younger core of members, like what they have created and believe in their future.
Every CWRT is at a different stage of decay or development. The CWRT Congress seeks to tell the story of those organizations with fantastic success and inspire those who believe they can make it happen in their town. For others, we seek to train, support and mentor to those CWRTs desiring more incremental change. The Congress is an idea broker that believes in our tagline Improvement through education and networking. As President Garfield once said, “Ideas are the great warriors of the world…” Let the ideas flow!