Reflections on #cwi2015

By Ian Isherwood ’00

On Wednesday we said goodbye to over three hundred of our best friends here at the Civil War Institute. Each summer, our conference brings together Civil Warriors from across the country (and pond!) for five days of fun in the classroom (and sun) learning about the Civil War. This year our theme was ‘The War in 1865’ and we concluded the sesquicentennial of the war in fine fashion: two days of lectures and two full days of tours in the Richmond/Petersburg/Appomattox region.

Our speakers presented on a wide variety of topics that complemented each other in ways that helped attendees understand the debates within the field. Aaron Sheehan-Dean opened the conference presenting an overview of the war’s final years and the historical debates over interpretations on the way the war ended. He challenged participants to examine the war through the lens(es) of those who lived through it as well as through our advantageous lens of hindsight. To those who lived through the events of 1865, the nation’s future was anything but[1]

The theme of uncertainty was one that continued through each talk over the next two days. CWI Director Peter Carmichael moderated a conversation with James McPherson that began with a discussion about tragedy in South Carolina. McPherson and Carmichael discussed the ways in which the legacy of the Civil War was still relevant and why conversations about history are so vital to understanding our sense of identity in the present. McPherson took questions from the audience and offered plain advice to young historians in the audience. ‘Study,’ he said.

Saturday was a full day of lectures – 13 hours of Civil War learning – on topics that were varied in their subject matter, but taken together, demonstrated the vibrancy of the field of Civil War scholarship. Joan Waugh spoke on U.S. Grant and Appomattox. Stephen Cushman gave a lecture on the different accounts written by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Lee’s surrender. Harold Holzer spoke on Lincoln and the press, the subject of his Lincoln Prize winning book from this past year.

After lunch we had breakout sessions with Jim Downs on the medical crisis of emancipation, Barbara Gannon on African American soldiers in 1865, and Caroline Janney on the burial of Confederate dead taken from Gettysburg. In the evening Gary Gallagher discussed Robert E. Lee and the realities of defeat and then Gallagher moderated a panel discussion on civil war photographs based on the book Lens of War.

Sunday was our final day of lectures before we took the band on tour. Greg Downs started the day with a lecture about the war’s ending and the complications of 1865: did the war end with Appomattox or did it continue into the era of Reconstruction? Lesley Gordon spoke on the 16th Connecticut, the subject of her recent book on the sad story of soldiers in that hard luck regiment. William Blair then spoke on treason and loyalty in the Civil War Era.

After lunch we packed up our Civil War carnival and took to the road, most of our attendees bound for Richmond for two days of tours on the war in 1865. Fighting our way through Beltway traffic that at times seemed as slow as Grant’s Overland campaign, we arrived at our hotel in time for Pamplin Park historian A. Wilson Greene’s lecture on Petersburg and

Monday and Tuesday were tour days. Our attendees were divided up into six buses each accommodating a different tour. Topics included the Petersburg Campaign, ‘Why Appomattox’, Lee’s retreat, and a staff ride on how the war ended. Tuesday’s tours included a walking tour focused on Lincoln’s Richmond, one on the fall of Richmond, a tour of the Virginia State Capitol, and a staff ride of Petersburg’s battle sites.

In five days our attendees got an all-encompassing Civil War experience that combined both the best of classroom learning combined with historic tours that enriched their understanding of history on site. Overall, #cwi2015 was a success. Onto #cwi2016: Reconstruction.

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