Today is a day of remembrance that has its origins at the conclusion of the Great War. On November 11, 1918 an Armistice was signed that ended the war on the western front between the allies and Imperial Germany. Though peace would formally come the following summer with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the Armistice meant that, for the time being, the killing would stop.
For some, the Armistice signaled the end. British officer Hugh Peirs began a letter to his father plainly by writing ‘so that’s that’. The war was over and his life was spared. Others were less certain of what the day meant, but as the weeks went on, it became clear that this pause in the fighting really was peace, and that their home nations were forever altered by the war.
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 certain.
July 2012. My best friend and I packed into my 2003 VW Jetta wagon and headed out from Gettysburg, bound for Virginia. We were on Grantcation, a Civil War road trip of two former college buddies. Our mission was to wander battlefields in 100 degree plus heat, a trip which our wives endorsed willingly, I suspect, because they both knew it was far better for us to do it together than subject them to such unabashed nerdery.
Today marks the ninety-sixth anniversary of the end of the First World War. For the Great War generation, Armistice Day was a yearly reminder of the war’s lasting significance for both nations and their people. Though people reflected upon the war in greatly contested ways, nearly all remembered the significance of the war on their lives.
As I was thinking about Armistice Day 2014, I had a look at some letters from Lt. Colonel Hugh J.C. Peirs, D.S.O. Peirs was the commanding officer of the 8th Battalion Queen’s West Surrey Regiment (BEF) and had survived fighting on the western front from September 1915 until the ending of the war. Peirs was a veteran commander: he survived wounds in the line of fire, witnessed many friends and comrades killed, and had been decorated for his heroism. His battalion was, by 1918, both battle-hardened and trench-weary. Lt. Colonel H.J.C. Peirs, D.S.O. Photo courtesy of Dracopoli/Zorich Family and Special Collections, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.
I feel a little strange writing a reflective blog since I helped staff CWI 2014. Obviously, I am happy that conference went well, that our attendees and speakers were happy, and I am very proud of my co-workers for pulling off another great event. But it seems propagandist to point these things out. So I am just going to give a few observations, for whatever they’re worth.
The program was really well structured. There was a superb blend of topics/lectures that gave something for everyone. More importantly, the program emphasized what has been a running theme of the sesquicentennial: this is not your grandfather’s Civil War. Traditional military history certainly has its place and is extremely relevant and interesting, but the CWI blended military history with other fields, to make for a more comprehensive ‘war and society’ approach.
Today was one of touring and teaching. Our attendees examined Gettysburg through the eyes of soldiers on their morning tours. Then they spent the afternoon in classrooms engaging with a wide variety of topics.
Here were our tours:
Michael S. Schroyer of the 147th Pennsylvania led by Sue Boardman
William C. Ward of the 4th Alabama led by Garry Adelman
William Henry Francis of the 14th U.S. Regulars led by John Rudy
Lieutenant J. Warren Jackson of the 8th Louisiana Infantry (Louisiana Tigers) led by Ed Bearss & Scott Mingus
Colonel David Ireland of the 137th New York led by Jennifer Murray
Private Reuben Ruch of the 153rd Pennsylvania led by Charlie Fennell
Our Civilwarpalooza started at 7:15 AM, a bracing hour, when our tour busses loaded and departed for Virginia. A sixth bus left later for Monocacy, their late rise something envied by us all.
(Sidebar: It has been exactly one year since I have used a clipboard. The experience of checking in attendees, ticking their names off my list with a sense of invented authority, perhaps one of the most satisfying of bureaucratic activities.)
Like yesterday, breakfast was a success. (The addition of bacon was a wise choice by the folks at Servo. The shredded cheese next to the scrambled eggs, perhaps, a stroke of genius.) Warmed with coffee and bacon, adorned all manner of Civil War related sartoria, our conference attendees packed the ballroom for the day’s work of understanding different angles on the war in 1864.
It is hard not to see the Gettysburg College Ballroom as one of the great fields of honor for Civil War historians. Here Civil Warriors introduce new ideas, revisit old interpretations, frolic in Clio’s fruitful orchard searching for the right ingredients for their ambrosia.
And today there was an intoxicating elixir concocted by our presenters. At the start was Keith Bohannon presenting on Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. With a military map towering over his head, Bohannon argued that Sherman’s great legacy was one of supply and maneuver and not battlefield success. The anxious general was a master logistician – one unmatched by his foes – and the Atlanta campaign demonstrates what a talented Civil War general could do with an army of high morale under him, political support above him, and the ability to resupply his army behind. Bohannon took a well-known story and gave it some analytical heft.
Our first full day of CWI 2014 began with a hearty breakfast at the college dining hall (Servo). Armies, they say, march on their stomachs (and whatnot), and our army of Civil Warriors received the necessary sustenance of made-to-order omelets and assorted cereals to confront the day’s historiography.
Well-breakfasted, the ballroom was packed full of attendees by 8:30, all carrying their travelers of coffee (or tea) and waiting for CWI Director Peter Carmichael to speak on Robert E. Lee’s elusive search for a battle of annihilation. With C-Span and PCN’s cameras filming, we began.
Carmichael emphasized that commanders in the Civil War made decisions based on many different factors, not all of them represented in the established historiography. A neglected factor by many historians is the culture of sensibility, a prominent part of the worldview of all Americans 150 years ago. Notions of sensibility shaped nineteenth century men like Lee, men who were concerned, at their core, with matters of honor. Lee’s sense of heroic masculinity, argued Carmichael, influenced his command decisions. Carmichael challenged us in a fundamental way: to understand the past we need to immerse ourselves in the way people felt about the choices they were making, and not just on the decisions they made (or didn’t).