Last week I attended the first biennial meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians (SCWH) in Philadelphia, at the historic, exclusive Union League. Rather than bounce back and forth between the conference and the venue, and in the interest of brevity, I’ll write four separate articles: one on each day of the conference, and one on the Union League.
The meeting kicked off on Sunday afternoon at 4:00 PM; I showed up about five minutes after four, but the program in the club’s second floor Lincoln Hall had started on the dot. By the way, the League’s dress code for guests is business casual from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with jackets required and ties preferred in the member’s only areas. My uniform for the three days was collared silk shirts and khakis, so I was “in bounds”. But while there were two or three other fellows who were similarly dressed, most of the male participants opted for jackets and ties. So I felt a little conspicuous right off the bat. That feeling would be exacerbated by frequent references by speakers to a commonality of academic experience between the presenters and the audience. While I have an advanced degree, neither it nor my bachelor’s is in history. There couldn’t have been more than a handful of similarly unlettered folks like me among the 200 or so in attendance (see here for my definition of a historian). I was a fish out of water.
Like I said, I was about five minutes late, and the SCWH are apparently a punctual bunch. Mark Neely of my alma mater, The Pennsylvania State University, had just begun his opening night address, “Reconsidering Nationalism in the American Civil War”. One of the thrusts of his talk was that, in the North, rather than the press inciting nationalism in the populace in the early days of the crisis, it was the other way around, with rallies, arranged and impromptu, resulting from the actions of citizens. In some cases, mobs descended upon newspaper offices to voice their opinions. Taken with, among other things, Mark Grimsley’s writing recapped here, I’m scrapping my notions with regards to traditional interpretations of the influence of the press in the 1860’s.
A cocktail hour and buffet followed Neely’s talk, during which I ran into acquaintances Jeff Prushankin and Susannah Bruce and friends Carol Reardon and Tom Clemens of SHAF and his wife Angela. Seeing Tom and Angela was a pleasant surprise indeed – we spent a good deal of time together over the three days. I also met the Museum of the Confederacy’s John Coski, with whom I have corresponded before, and the former Executive Director of Jefferson Davis’ Beauvoir, Patrick Hotard.
The evening program was a roundtable discussion, “Beyond Inside War: New Perspectives on Guerilla Warfare”, with panelists Daniel Sutherland, John Inscoe, Paul Anderson and Michael Fellman. This discussion focused on issues raised in Fellman’s Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri during the Civil War. In the end, Fellman disputed conclusions in Neely’s The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction and Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War that Yankee “atrocities” were exceptions and that the North fought the war with restraint. He was not gentle in his criticism of Neely’s work, though the author was sitting in the front row.
After the session, I toured around the second floor with Tom and Angela, checking out some of the incredible artwork that decks the club’s walls. We ran into Kevin Levin and his wife Michaela in the process. I’d never met Kevin before and would run into him periodically during the conference, but never long enough to have a full fledged conversation. After a visit to Tom and Angela’s room in the club to find out what had happened at the U.S. Open that day, I walked the six or so blocks to my friend’s townhome on Locust St., where I stayed while in town.