Reflections on the Civil War Institute 2014 Summer Conference

I have returned to St. Louis refreshed and re-energized after five days at the Civil War Institute’s 2014 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College. I really enjoyed myself and learned a lot of new information about the Civil War in 1864 that I believe will help me do a better job of interpreting U.S. Grant’s experiences during the Civil War in my work with the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Once again I cannot thank the staff at the Civil War Institute enough for awarding me a scholarship to attend my fist CWI summer conference and for providing all conference attendees so many opportunities to network and socialize with some of the best Civil War scholars in the field. I made a lot of connections with students, enthusiasts, scholars, and public historians at the conference and hope to stay in touch with these connections well into the future.

There were a lot of presentations during the conference, most of which I got to see. Here are a few personal highlights:

  • Brooks Simpson of Arizona State gave an excellent presentation on the challenges that Ulysses S. Grant faced as a Civil War General in Virginia during the 1864 Overland Campaign. Simpson argued that Grant’s strategy for engaging Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces was as much about providing his subordinate generals in other theaters of the war a chance to win the conflict as much as it was about defeating Lee. By neutralizing Lee in Virginia, Grant enabled General William T. Sherman to advance upon Atlanta in 1864 and eventually commence his March to the Sea and trek through the Carolinas.
  • Simpson also gave fantastic tours of both the Wilderness and Spotsylvania battlefields in Virginia despite our bus’s A/C breaking down, the bus driver going the wrong direction for about ten miles, and a subsequent shortening of our time on the battlefields.
  • Ari Kelman of Penn State gave a wonderful presentation on the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre that challenged us to view the Civil War as not only a war for Union and emancipation but also a war for empire and conquest of western territories. I also had an opportunity to sit in on a “dine-in” session with Kelman in which he discussed the process of writing his award-winning book A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory at Sand Creek. Kelman described how he conducted more than 1,000 hours of interviews with National Park Service staff at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and local Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes while also admitting that he re-wrote the draft of this book “at least six times.” Wow!
  • Independent writer Megan Kate Nelson gave a talk on the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, by Jubal Early’s Confederate forces in 1864 and how popular media responded to this event through the use of pictures, drawings, and editorials. Even though Early openly admitted his role in burning Chambersburg, northern publications gave a range of responses that placed the blame for the attack on the Union military and even the citizens of Chambersburg. Nelson also gave another fantastic presentation on soldier doodles, drawings, and sketches on the last day of the conference. She showed us how soldiers used these drawings (which were often included in personal letters) to communicate the soldier experience to loved ones at home.
  • Emmanual Dabney of Petersburg National Battlefield gave an excellent presentation on the Battle of the Crater, one of the most fascinating yet sickening battles of the entire Civil War. Dabney argued that the Crater tells us more about racial divisions in Civil War America than it does about tactical maneuvers. Civil War scholars have known for a long time that some Confederates engaged in ruthless killing of United States Colored Troops (USCT) during the battle, but Dabney showed us that some Union troops also started killing USCTs once Confederates began their slaughter “in order to preserve white [Union] lives.” I was stunned when I heard that.
  • Eric Leonard of Andersonville National Historic Site discussed the experiences of Civil War prisoners throughout the conflict, but especially 1864. Prior to 1864 Confederate and United States leadership regularly engaged in prisoner exchanges during the conflict, but once Confederate leadership began refusing to exchange black prisoners of war and in some cases even tried to sell them back into slavery, all prisoner exchanges stopped. Sites like Andersonville began to exceed their holding capacity once prisoner exchanges stopped, leading to truly horrific conditions for prisoners stuck in these places.
  • Crystal Feimster of Yale University had an eye-opening presentation on rape and mutiny at Fort Jackson, Louisiana. In one incident she discussed how white Union soldiers attempted to rape an African American laundress who was working in a nearby contraband camp. When questioned about the incident, the soldiers expressed shock that a black woman would not want to have sex with white men. They also resorted to threats, name-calling, and victim-blaming to otherize the woman.
  • Antwain Hunter of Butler University had a nice talk on African American firearm usage in North Carolina prior to the Civil War. Hunter pointed out that the use of firearms was often seen as a form of labor, and black slaves were sometimes given weapons by their masters as a part of their labors in the rural fields of North Carolina. A complex regulatory system for black firearm usage emerged by the 1840s, however, and free blacks in the state were often prevented from carrying arms.
  • Sue Boardman, a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg, gave a nice battlefield tour of Culp’s Hill, which is on the eastern part of the battlefield. Boardman found the diary of Michael Schroyer of the 147th Pennsylvania in an estate sale several years ago and used this diary to lead us through the Battle of Gettysburg through his eyes. It was an amazing tour, and I loved the way she used this primary source to help us build a sense of empathy for the experiences of those who fought at Gettysburg. One woman in our group actually came to tears once she realized her Virginia ancestor had most likely died at Culp’s Hill.

Over the next few days I will share some additional thoughts in future posts about the conference and about the Civil War in 1864. As always, thanks for reading.



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