Friday, March 16, 2012

Let's Talk About it: Making Sense of the American Civil War

I recently completed participation in this 5 part series, held locally at the Boone County Public Library, and must say I really enjoyed it, much more than I expected. I know I've mentioned it here before, but it is worth discussing again, especially since it is now, unfortunately, over.
This series, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association, took place at 65 libraries across the country and only 2 in Kentucky. I was fortunate to have a local library earn the grant to be able to conduct this program.

The groups featured a series of shared readings, with one monthly meeting (at least the way the Boone County Library ran the program) to discuss the readings. The main book involved was the anthology America's War compiled by historian and University of Richmond President Edward Ayers. It includes a series of writings, speeches and literature about different aspects of the war. Both fiction and non-fiction works were used, and a few of them were modern, while many were from the war years. Among the authors and speakers whose works appear in this book are Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Shelby Foote, Gary Gallagher and Bobbie Ann Mason. It will not go down as a groundbreaking piece of Civil  War literature, but I thought it met its intended purpose and provided a nice variety of perspectives. (A question that I raised during one of the sessions was how the author chose which writings/speeches to include and which other ones may have been good fits. That may be something I try to explore in future blog entries. It's not a criticism of the book, but, rather, an attempt to look at the "memory" and "perspective" side of it, and how his choices influenced the discussions and what we talked about. The writings published in the book certainly led the discussions in certain directions, so why were these particular selections chosen?)

Some of the additional reading included James McPherson's Antietam: Crossroads of Freedom and Geraldine Brooks' March. (See my reviews and comments about these here and here.) I did not particularly care for the novel March, but perhaps reading some fiction is good for me and can help me further understand the concept of memory and perspective about the war. Maybe I need to expand my horizons in this direction, at least occasionally.

Each of the five session focused on one theme, starting with "Imagining War" before moving onto "Choosing Sides" and then "Making Sense of Shiloh." The final two categories were "The Shape of War" and "War and Freedom."  The local scholar who served as moderator of the series (a colleague of mine from the Ramage Museum - that is how I heard about this series) did a good job of focusing on these areas in a brief "lecture" to start the meetings, but once we broke into separate groups the discussions sometimes veered to topics related to the war and our readings, but perhaps not exactly on the theme of the night. That did not matter, however, at least to me.

These smaller discussions, consisting usually of around 10-12 people grouped together, were the heart and soul of the series and the most interesting part of it. Even if we did not always stay exactly on the subject, it was nice to just sit around and talk about the Civil War, sharing opinions and perspectives about our readings, and various battles, personalities, theories and other general Civil War topics. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was glad to find out that I could fit in and contribute to it without embarrassing myself in such a situation.

I hope to find a way to help lead or at least participate in similar future events that engage the public, either through the library and/or through the Ramage Museum, in the future. It was a great way to involve the public in the study of the war and even how we remember it, as people shared how they had been taught about the war and how they perceived events during the war. Participants had lived in areas both north and south, and had visited many different Civil War sites, and their perspectives were very valuable.  It was not merely a lecture with people sitting around listening to a scholar or author, nor simply a static display in a museum. I've seen some discussions on other blogs about engaging the public during the sesquicentennial and this program definitely did that. The first few sessions had about 40 participants while the last one was down to about 30, but I thought that was a good turnout, and was impressed that the drop-off was so small over a 5 month period (1 meeting each month from November through March). Everybody I talked with seemed to enjoy it, which I guess is why so many kept coming back for the additional sessions.

If any reader has the opportunity to join a series like this, even through some other program, I strongly encourage you to participate and be active in it. Do not be afraid to make comments or ask questions. That is not nearly as fun or as informative as being an active participant - at least that was my experience anyway.


  1. Richard--It sounds like a great series, and I am glad you had what sounds like a rewarding experience. I am encouraged to hear the numbers in attendance, as you mention. When you think about it, 30-40 people for such an academic-type discussion is pretty impressive over the course of several months and in this day and age. I am glad to hear that there are even that many people who want to talk about the war in one locality. How were the demographics of the group?

  2. Most people were older. Several seemed to be retired and others were probably in their 50s. I'm 38 and there may have been a couple of people near my age, but I was just about the youngest most of the time.

    I think having these on weeknights made it tough for people who have to work. I know I was not anxious to go at the start, after getting home from work & it being dark so early, but I enjoyed it enough to back.


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