The dilemma for roundtables

A few years ago I experimentally attended a couple of meetings of the Camp Olden Civil War Roundtable near Trenton, NJ. Despite being well attended and occasionally helped in fundraising by local writer James McPherson, the group is a kind of weak sister to the better-known, -funded, -organized, and -attended Robert E. Lee Roundtable in North-Central Jersey.

I encountered the Robert E. Lee group years ago as a guest speaker, part of a monthly schedule. My topic was McClellan's national, multi-theatre plan for winning the war in 1862 and its rejection by Lincoln. This obscure topic drew well, earned an honorarium, a souvenir coin, and even a video recording of my talk. Clearly, the Lees had been doing this thing for some time. I was not/am not a celeb, but I do count as an outside speaker.

My Olden meetings were those of an outside attendee. The Oldens alternated programs of member talks with chats from special invitees. My two visits came on the cusp of executive elections and I noticed a division in the membership.

The issue was whether the purpose of a Civil War roundtable was to offer a forum for member papers and discussion or whether the roundtable was to be a venue for celebrity speakers.

I notice that Olden is hosting a regional roundtable conference. From the looks of this press release, the scale in this argument has tipped in favor of the local faction:

In addition to Dr. McPherson, others scheduled to appear include, Dr. David Martin, Jeffry Wert, Troy Harman, Patrick Falci, George Wunderlich, Jane C. Peters Estes, Stanley Saperstein, Joe Bilby, Craig Caba, and the African-American performance group, Seven Quilts for Seven Sisters.

Saperstein (listed above) was the Oldenite favoring local talent in those meetings I attended. McPherson is again acting as angel and probably made the Princeton venue available.

ACW roundtables are susceptible to the worst of pop culture - movies, Ken Burns, trashy nonfiction ... all these drive membership and agendas. A self-centered roundtable points to the possibility of an ACW history revival; constant external orientation bodes ill. It's not as if there is a great pool of ACW scholars to draw on. There may be 6 - 12 active. You draw your own water on a farm like this.

The Lee way suggests high attendance and a kind of "entertainment" ethos. The Olden way, if this is what it is, may produce good history as well. This Mid-Atlantic event suggests an emphasis on grass roots that may be healthier for history in the long run.