A Report from the Field: The 18th Annual Sarasota Civil War Symposium

By John Hildebrandt
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2010, All Rights Reserved

There are relatively few Civil War sites in Florida, but for three days every winter, Sarasota is the center of the Civil War universe. This past January, my wife, Marie, and I attended the Civil War Education Society’s 18th Annual Civil War Symposium at the Helmsley Sandcastle Resort on Lido Beach in Sarasota, Florida. For most of us, the Civil War is best studied on the field of battle—be it Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Fort. Sumter, or Vicksburg—but in the midst of an Ohio winter the beach on Lido Key is a better than fair substitute. This was our fifth symposium, spaced over the past eight years, and it has become a January tradition.

The event begins with a reception on Wednesday night. The symposium presentations run Thursday and Friday until mid-afternoon—allowing plenty of time for personal pursuits—and conclude by noon on Saturday. This year’s faculty was excellent, including Ed Bearss, William “Jack” Davis, Joseph Glatthaar, Gary Ecelbarger, Robert Krick, Charles Roland, Dale Phillips, and Terrence Winchell. Jeffrey Wert was a last-minute scratch. Each year the symposium attracts about 100 participants, Civil War enthusiasts from all around the U.S., though the biggest representation is from Florida and the Southeast. This year, Marie and I were the only representatives from the Buckeye State.

Jack Davis, longtime editor of Civil War Times and now a professor at Virginia Tech University, served as Head of Faculty, organizing the presentations and handling introductions. Robert Krick, a leading authority on the Army of Northern Virginia and the author of many books, opened the symposium with a presentation on Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory: Chancellorsville. The basic story of the battle is familiar, but Krick provided some interesting insights. Although Jackson is mainly identified with the famous flank attack which turned the battle in the Confederate’s favor, Krick argues it was Lee’s idea and Jackson was the person who executed it, albeit brilliantly. As evidence, he cites a post-war letter from Lee to Jackson’s widow in which Lee wrote, “it was decided,” a gentleman’s way of saying it was Lee’s idea, not her fallen husband’s. He also noted that Lee opened the campaign with a major mistake—allowing Hooker to maneuver into a position where he could seriously threaten Lee’s army—but managed to turn things around completely. Krick is an excellent presenter, with a dry wit and a folksy style.

Terrence Winchell, Chief Historian at Vicksburg National Military Park, gave an excellent presentation on the civilian experience during the siege of Vicksburg. He illustrated his talk with a number of photographs of Vicksburg residents. The civilian experience is often overlooked in books about the Civil War, and Winchell really brought home the tremendous suffering experienced by non-combatants involved in the siege of Vicksburg. He noted that just about the only time shooting stopped was when the Yankee soldiers stopped to eat. Of the city’s 1860 population of 5,000, about 1,500 were slaves. About 15 civilians were killed during the siege. Interestingly, the Confederate authorities made no attempt to evacuate the civilian population prior to the siege. Many civilians spent much of the siege in caves dug into the hills around the city. According to Winchell, six caves are still in existence, although all are in private hands and not accessible.

The famous Ed Bearss, retired Chief Historian for the National Park Service, gave a talk on the Battle of Monocacy and attempted to answer the question: did it really save Washington? In Ed’s view, the answer is a qualified “maybe.” Bearss is a master storyteller. After seeing him so often on TV, it was a real treat to see him in person. He did not disappoint.

After lunch there was a roundtable discussion on the best—and worst—of recent Civil War books. It was a lively exchange. Most everyone came down pretty hard on British historian John Keegan’s new book The American Civil War: A Military History. Keegan has a peerless reputation as a military historian—his The Face of Battle is one of the best books ever written about war— but his Civil War book is full of factual errors—too many to forgive in the opinion of all but one of the faculty, Jack Davis, who feels Keegan’s “unique insights” outweigh his problems with the facts. Terry Winchell lauded Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Jack Davis recommended Vicksburg, 1863 (Vintage Civil War Library) by Winston Groome, also the author of a great book on the 1864 Nashville campaign—Shrouds of Glory: From Atlanta to Nashville: The Last Great Campaign of the Civil War—and, of course, Forrest Gump. Winchell also recommended A Strange and Blighted Land: Gettysburg, The Aftermath of a Battle by Greg Lococo. Robert Krick recommended Lincoln and His Admirals by Craig Symonds.

There was plenty of discussion during the Thursday evening reception around the hotel pool. The average age of attendees was what you would expect at a Civil War gathering, but there was a variety of backgrounds, Civil War interests, and life histories. Faculty members are open, friendly, and ready to talk. In the evenings you could find a number of attendees and faculty members gathered around the Tiki Bar to sip a libation, perhaps smoke a cigar, and press their point of view on John Bell Hood, the Battle of the Crater, or what would have happened at Gettysburg if Stonewall Jackson had been there. After each presentation there was lots of Q&A, even a few polite disagreements.

The highlight of Friday morning’s session was a presentation by Charles Roland, retired professor of history at the University of Kentucky and the author of many Civil War books, including a well-respected biography of Albert Sydney Johnston. A World War II veteran (like Ed Bearss), Roland is an excellent presenter. But he gave himself a tough assignment: “Slavery and Secession in the Eyes of a Contemporary Southern Moderate.” He read an 1860 letter from a Louisiana planter to his old college friend, a businessman in Indiana, offering a rationalization for both slavery and secession. The letter was fictional, written by Charles Roland and created to provide the perspective of a reasonable, moderate, educated Southern man doing his best to calmly and logically explain to a dear friend why slavery was a good thing and secession, though regrettable, was legal and necessary. Roland is Southern by birth and speaks in a careful, but beautiful, drawl. Close your eyes and you are transported back to 1860. The letter is very well written—a credit to Roland—and in its context you can understand why and how people like this fictional planter rationalized human bondage and secession.

Gary Ecelbarger, author of several Civil War books, including Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester (Campaigns and Commanders) and The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination, followed Charles Roland with a presentation on how Lincoln managed to win the 1860 nomination against some very long odds. As was the custom in 1860, Lincoln was not in attendance at the convention. In fact, none of the candidates was present. Judge David Davis, Lincoln’s unofficial campaign manager, was the person who really masterminded the strategy that gave Lincoln the nomination. His plan: trash Seward (the leading candidate); spread the message that Lincoln was not interested in the VP slot; push the idea that Lincoln was the ideal compromise candidate; and make sure Lincoln gets 100 votes on the first ballot (he got 102). It worked.

Robert Krick gave a spirited talk on a little-known but very interesting ANV officer, General Roswell Ripley. Krick titled his talk: “General Roswell S. Ripley…‘A big fat whiskey drinking loving man.’” A colorful character who managed to irritate and offend both Beauregard and Joe Johnston, Ripley fought at Antietam and Gettysburg, wrote a very good history of the Mexican War, and thought Robert E. Lee was a buffoon. A strange man who graduated with U.S. Grant from West Point in 1843 (where he ranked fifth in his class), nothing has ever been written about him. He is buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Richmond.

Rounding out Friday was a presentation by Jack Davis on “Numbers, Nonsense, and Secession.” He made the point that, although “statistics are enormously dangerous things,” they can also tell the truth in a way nothing else can. The focus of his talk was using statistics to dispel the notion—often promulgated by Lost Cause adherents, both contemporary and historical—that slavery was not the cause of the war. As he points out, all you have to do is look at the contemporary writings, speeches, letters, newspaper articles, etc. of the time to know the war was about slavery and really nothing else. In 1860, virtually all Southern leaders wholeheartedly endorsed slavery. He noted that 65% of all Southern farms used slaves, and the truth is probably closer to 75%. He stated that 31% of households in the 11 states of the Confederacy had one or more slaves.

On Saturday morning, Dale Phillips, Superintendent of George Rogers Clark National Historical Park in Vincennes, Indiana, gave a presentation on the Red River Campaign of 1864. Outside of the Civil War community—and even among enthusiasts—the campaign is little known. It was a disaster for General Nathaniel Banks and the Union army and showed how a much smaller force, if properly led, can beat a larger one. The campaign ended Nathaniel Banks’ career. Confederate General Richard Taylor saved the Red River Valley of Louisiana and Texas and its cotton and cattle for the Confederacy. Phillips also told an amazing story about a Union soldier from upstate New York who was wounded in the campaign and later died of dysentery in a hospital in New Orleans. The soldier is buried in the national cemetery there. Recently, the family visited the cemetery and asked to see the grave. They told cemetery officials they wanted a new headstone. When the family looked at the headstone, they noticed that the first name was different. They wanted to change it to the soldier’s real name: a female name. This soldier was a woman, the oldest of 11 children, from a farm in New York State, who went off to fight for the Union in 1862. For two years she kept her identity a secret. Her descendants recently discovered a box of her letters and papers. She had been a brave soldier who fought in many battles. In the end, they decided to put the soldier’s male name on the new headstone to honor the cause that she served and the men she fought and died with. Phillips told an amazing story, and told it well.

Also on Saturday, Joseph Glatthaar, the Alan Stephenson Distinguished Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, gave a presentation titled “New Insights on the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Perspective.” Two years ago, Glatthaar published a landmark study of the ANV using a unique statistical sample he developed with the help of a professor of political science at the University of Houston. They created a representative sample of 600 ANV soldiers, then Glatthaar sliced and diced the data from a number of perspectives: age, birthplace, economic status, enlisted vs. officer, slave holder vs. non-slave holder, education level, branch of service, year of enlistment, religious affiliation, marital status, and casualty status by year, branch of service, state of birth, etc. This statistical analysis was the basis for his 2008 book General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. Glatthaar shared many unique insights into Lee’s army. Approximately 200,000 soldiers served in the ANV during the 4 years of its existence. Of those, 25% or 50,000 were killed in action or died of disease, a sobering statistic. Killed and wounded by branch of service is interesting: infantry – 41.0%, cavalry – 19.3%, artillery – 22.0%. An officer in the ANV was 2.5 times more likely to be a casualty than an enlisted man. Infantry constituted 92.4% of those KIA. Glatthaar used a number of charts and graphs in his presentation, since he was presenting numeric data. It was not your typical Civil War presentation.

The symposium concluded with a roundtable discussion among the faculty on some of their “most memorable moments” on the Civil War trail. Charles Roland believes Shiloh is the best-preserved Civil War battlefield, mostly an accident of location as “it was out of the way in 1862 and it is out of the way in 2010.” He considers it the most beautiful of all battlefields. For Dale Phillips, it is Chickamauga, what he calls “a soldier’s field,” and noted that outside of Gettysburg it has the most monuments of any Civil War battlefield. Ed Bearss told the story of leading a bus tour at Gettysburg in the late 1970s. It was raining and no one wanted to get off the bus. Then out of the back of the bus came a shout: “I’ll show you how to do it.” It was a Marine, Vietnam veteran, and double amputee. He got off the bus and with his crutches set off to walk Pickett’s Charge. He walked the entire field, even dragging himself over the fence at the Emmitsburg Road, where he fell to the ground, then got up and walked to the top of the ridge. Terry Winschell loves to visit Shiloh, Pea Ridge, and Antietam, which he believes are the best preserved of the major battlefields. “Parks belong to the veterans,” he said. “We need to keep faith with the veterans who fought at these places.” Jack Davis noted he did not visit Shiloh until 1991. He arrived late in the day and walked the park alone, until he met up with an inquisitive fox that followed him along.

Representatives of Broadfoot Publishing also attended the symposium and put together a nice display of Civil War books for sale, many of them specialty titles. They also carried a number of books from faculty members (and at good prices). Don Ernsberger, author of a new book on Gettysburg, Also for Glory: The Pettigrew – Trimble Charge at Gettysburg July 3, 1863, the story of Pickett’s Charge from the perspective of General Isaac Trimble’s and General James Pettigrew’s brigades, was also at the symposium offering his book for sale. I was able to connect him with a good friend whose ancestor fought with the 7th North Carolina, a regiment that “made it to the wall” at Gettysburg.

Most attendees register for all sessions, but there is the option to pick and choose. My brother, Robert, who lives in nearby St. Petersburg, drove down for the day to attend the Friday session. The CWEA is headquartered in Winchester, Virginia, and operated by Bob Maher, a well-known organizer of Civil War tours. The CWEA typically organizes and leads upwards of 35 battlefield and campaign tours a year, many, if not most, focusing on the Civil War as well as the Revolutionary War, the Indian Wars, and even World War II. Given my day job—I work every weekend late April through October—I have not had the opportunity to participate in many battlefield tours. The cost for the full program at this year’s symposium was $435.

The Helmsley Sandcastle is an interesting property. Built in the 1950s or early 60s, it is a charming piece of Old Florida, now surrounded by high rise hotels and condo buildings. (There is a Ritz Carlton next door.) One expects to see Connie Stevens or Troy Donahue lounging around the pool. Prices are reasonable, and food and service are good. The Helmsely is located on Lido Key, just a short walk from the famous Lido Beach. A short walk in the opposite direction takes you to a scenic state park at the tip of the key. A slightly longer walk, or a very short drive, is Armand Circle, a fashionable retail and restaurant area. It is truly a delight, lots of unique shops, great little restaurants, and very pedestrian friendly.

If your spouse or significant other is not all that interested in our shared passion, there are lots of other activities available. Marie enjoys reading by the pool, walking the beach, knitting by the pool, and shopping at Armand’s Circle. She does join the group for the Thursday evening pool reception. The symposium has been held at the Helmsely for 18 consecutive years, and is booked for next year’s event: January 19-22, 2011. It often sells out. If you are interested in attending, contact the CWEA at www.cwea.net. It would be great to share next year’s symposium with some fellow members of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

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