Skip to comments.Civil War buffs get their fill at talks
Posted on 03/16/2004 11:59:37 AM PST by stainlessbanner
DALLAS - Eyes shifted from side to side, and anticipation began to build.
The objective rested only a few feet away.
Suddenly, with a slight nod from their leader, they surged ahead. The foe never stood a chance.
Mounds of golden fried fish and green beans were wiped out. The victorious charge on the buffet brought to order the monthly meeting of the Dallas Civil War Roundtable.
Round tables, which began in Chicago in 1940, give historians the chance to promote their work and allow dedicated Civil War buffs to gobble up endless information -- frequently the nuts and bolts of key battles or the leadership qualities of Union and Confederate generals.
"They started originally to study the war, to have a speaker come in. Since the early 1970s, a number of them have become very interested in historic preservation," said Ed Bearrs, former chief historian of the National Park Service and frequent speaker to Civil War groups.
The number of round tables began to grow rapidly before the Civil War Centennial celebration of the 1960s, said Bearrs (pronounced Bars), an octogenarian who dazzles audiences by rattling off obscure battle details on demand.
A typical meeting includes topics like "Lee and the Appomattox Campaign" or "Booth Shot Better Than he Thought he Did." More than 200 groups of varying size exist in the United States.
The groups make a point of welcoming competing views, and talk of subjects like Confederate Gen. James Longstreet's performance at Gettysburg can spark spirited disagreement.
"Some of the Southern round tables, you better choose your subjects carefully," Bearrs said.
Some round tables have annual dinners or other events dedicated to raising money to save endangered battlefield sites. The Austin Civil War Roundtable, for example, has donated $43,000 to the Civil War Preservation Trust over the last six years.
"It's a big source of funding for us," said Jim Campi, Washington-based spokesman for the trust, the nation's largest nonprofit organization devoted to preserving endangered Civil War battlefields. "Once you have an interest in the war, it's only natural to have an interest in saving the places where the war was fought."
Attorney Dan Laney, president of the Austin group and an officer with the trust, said another mission is to pass on Civil War history.
"We've just got to get that over to the younger generation that there's more out there to learn than video games," Laney said.
The fervor for the war -- found in numerous books and re-enactments that prompt participants to don wool uniforms and trudge across battlefields in summer heat -- comes from basically one thing -- "It's the greatest drama in America," said Frank Williams, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island and founding chairman of The Lincoln Forum, a national organization that supports the study of President Lincoln and the Civil War. "These characters were giants on the screen of history."
About 60 people recently crammed into the side room of a Dallas steakhouse for an animated speech by historian Gordon C. Rhea, an international lawyer and award-winning author of four books on the war's Overland Campaign of 1864.
Rhea's interest in the war originated from tales his father heard veterans tell.
"My dad was born in 1901 in a little town in Tennessee," Rhea said. "He grew up hearing stories and related them to me, and I was fascinated."
Doug Waters, a 39-year-old claims adjuster who listened to Rhea's story of heroism by a Confederate private, traces his interest in the Civil War to first grade. His family took a trip to the Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee, site of the first major battle in the war's Western theater.
Waters has attended the Dallas round table for about 10 years and has taken about 20 battlefield tours.
"Just the feats of the men back then compared to nowadays never ceases to amaze me. Not just necessarily the high casualty rates, though that still astonishes me, but what they could physically do," he said. "I respect both sides, what they were willing to do for their beliefs, marching long distances, going without eating, charging cannons without backing away."
Interest is not confined to the nation's shores. Civil War buffs in England visit London for round tables, said Peter Lockwood, a group president.
Great Britain's involvement in the war is among the chief topics of interest by the more than 250 members, a number that has doubled in the last five years, he said.
"It is quite common for members to travel 200 to 300 miles to attend meetings," Lockwood said.