More than half a century ago, the late Ralph G. Newman of Chicago came up with a brilliant idea. Newman was a famous rare book and autograph dealer. He and his Abraham Lincoln Book Shop were featured once on the golden-age TV show, “Person to Person,” and he counted Carl Sandburg among his customers. But his everlasting contribution to the field was a great brainstorm: Hold monthly meetings with like-minded Civil War enthusiasts and invite historians to give after-dinner lectures. The result was the birth of the Civil War Round Table movement in 1940. Newman may have invented the idea to expand his customer base, but it exploded interest in the war nationwide—just by finding fans a place to congregate, socialize, learn—and refight the battles.
Chicago’s was the first, and it’s been meeting without pause ever since. CWRTs soon proliferated North and South. No national organization was ever formed to govern, regulate or even link the groups—although a regional Association of Mid-Atlantic CWRTs does exist. While this reigning “states’ rights” feeling does seem in one sense to call into question the abiding result of the war itself, the informal nature of the system has worked well. Most groups remain convivial and enthusiastic, even if they seldom connect one to another.
By tradition, round tables offer not only speakers but book raffles. They fund preservation initiatives, stage battlefield tours, and give out awards for historical achievement. New York offers the Barondess/Lincoln Award for Lincoln projects, the Fletcher Pratt Award for Civil War books, and the new James I. Robertson Jr. Award for children’s literature. Chicago’s Nevins-Freeman Award is one of the most prestigious life achievement acknowledgments in the field. And the list goes on.
As a veteran speaker at these confabs, I can attest that few organizations so dependably mete out such genuine hospitality and enthusiasm. It is always an honor to be invited, and a pleasure to attend. There’s nothing glamorous about the menus, but the audiences are well-informed, the questions expert, the faces convivial and familiar.
And therein lies one major challenge confronting the Round Table movement—familiarity. It’s not that it always breeds contempt (although even round tables have been beset recently by rancorous secession movements). It’s that the demographics at the meetings now tilt decidedly to the older side of life, and too few people of color participate. Exceptions exist, but by and large the round table movement is nearing age 60, and sometimes looks and feels like it. How to get a new generation of devotees to enlist continues to be a major challenge.
Another fact of life threatens the tradition, and it has nothing to do with age or diversity. Half a century ago, people routinely congregated at downtown events and then took public transportation back to nearby homes. But migration to suburbs and exurbs has diluted central-city Round Table rosters. In their place have sprung up suburban groups, often competing for the same speakers, or requiring of them rigorous, multi-town tour itineraries. (Maine traditionally troops its lecturers from the Joshua L. Chamberlain Round Table in Brunswick to the Hiram Berry club in Rockland; the New York Round Table often shares lecturers with Connecticut, and speakers at the Chicago CWRT often find themselves shuttled off to Milwaukee the morning after.)
Then there are the book sales. Once upon a time the round tables truly fueled book purchasing—right on site! But that was before Amazon, kindle, and other distractions changed the whole culture of publishing and buying.
Finally, the younger generation sees less need to meet in any kind of group. Why sit at a group dinner and endure a lecture of unknown quality when you can stay home and find all the information you want on C-SPAN III or online, on demand? That’s why movie, theater and concert audiences are in free fall. That’s why universities are offering classes on the Internet, rather than requiring matriculation. We’ve made it so easy to find what we want, when and where we want it that we’ve practically reduced socialization to the occasional collision with a stranger similarly glued to a Blackberry.
It’s not that there is a noticeable absence of round table organizations. A recent Google search revealed 16 in California, 12 in Illinois and 10 in Florida (Northern club veterans often move not only to retirement homes but to retirement round tables!). Indiana has 16, New York 18, Pennsylvania 26, and Virginia 20. There are six in Australia, five in Canada, and one each in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany and France. But almost all of them remind me whenever I visit that they’re suffering from sagging membership.
What’s the answer? First, obvious as it sounds: Support your local round table (go online to find and join the organization nearest to you). You don’t have to go to every last meeting; choose the ones that appeal to you and participate when you’re motivated. Visit a battlefield or historic site with like-minded lifelong learners—you will be amazed at how much you might absorb among friends of all ages who share your interests. The History Channel is fine—but even the couch potato generation can be stimulated by sharing interests with other human beings in person.
The fact is, without engaging with others we not only learn less about our past, but inevitably develop fewer shared ideas about our future—fewer opportunities to come together and find common ground. (Hello, dysfunctional Congress? Have you thought of forming a round table of your own?) Unless we embrace the commonweal and return to the group ethos we are going to isolate ourselves permanently, and not only in the way we remember our history. We may well lose more than our precious round tables if we don’t leave the computer behind for a few hours and once in a while engage our fellow enthusiasts face to face.
I’m no social butterfly, and believe me there’s no big money on the round table circuit for historians, but for conviviality and shared enthusiasm, nothing beats it. I’m just back from Cleveland, and down for Kansas City, St. Louis and Connecticut next year—and I know my colleagues will be on the trail as well. If you like listening to Civil War scholars, come on down. If you don’t like the featured speakers, come out and heckle. We can take it. Let’s not be the generation that kills Ralph Newman’s best idea.
Historian Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. His latest book is The History of the Civil War in 50 Objects from the New-York Historical Society.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.