By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: Mel Maurer is a past president of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable and served for many years as its Historian. The address below was delivered at the November 9, 2016 meeting of the Roundtable commemorating the 60th anniversary of the club’s founding.
Three score years ago this month – our founders brought forth in Cleveland a new Civil War Roundtable dedicated to the “belief that the American Civil War is the defining event in U.S. history.”
Now we are engaged in a great celebration of its 60th anniversary. Our beloved CCWRT has enhanced the history of America’s Civil War over these years through its members’ and guests’ research, articles, talks, debates, discussions, preservation funding, and books.
There is something special about gatherings of people with shared interests in any subject or endeavor – and there is no subject with more aspects and importance – with its people, politics, battles, romance, great drama and some humor all coming together – while in the process of tearing our nation apart – in the greatest drama in our country’s history.
Other wars have been fought by our country but not against each other – brother against brother – and not for the very future and soul of a country becoming a nation.
No wonder we have been learning its details, reviewing, discussing and debating them for 60 years – and still have only touched the surface of all there is to know. As with this defining struggle, the history of our Roundtable is replete with its people, politics, facts, figures and even some Imagineering.
You have received a brief summary of our history so expertly prepared by Dale Thomas, now retired long-time Roundtable historian. My thanks to Dale for his great service. The summary provides a structure for my brief history of the Roundtable tonight. Dale’s full history in great depth is available on our award winning website.
Our history began when a lady, one of a small group having dinner, asked a man named John Cullen if he was interested in the Civil War. She then asked if there was a Civil War Roundtable in Cleveland.
That simple casual exchange between that lady and John Cullen of Shaker Heights was the conception of our club, but not yet its birth. John was the father of what followed. Inspired by the lady’s advice, John contacted a man in Milwaukee. That city’s Roundtable was founded as the second Roundtable in the country. The Chicago Roundtable was first.
This man, Norman Fitzgerald, had John contact a man in Rocky River named Kenneth Grant, who was a member of the Chicago Roundtable. Cullen and Grant began their founding work in earnest on October 12, 1956 with a letter to others with interest in the Civil War.
Here are just a few words form this founding document: “For some time we have talked about a Cleveland Civil War Roundtable…Those of us who enjoy a discussion of the phases of the ‘War between the States’ are of the belief that such an organization would receive strong support from ‘experts’ in this area… That a Roundtable will be established is definite, it’s up to you and others to decide the pattern to be followed.”
You have no doubt noted that while this letter seeks to found a Civil War Roundtable it uses the term: “War between the States.” Maybe we should be called the War between the States Roundtable?
Kenneth Grant, despite his name, was a “crusty conservative Englishman who believed that the South’s loss was a tragedy of history.” Another founder, George Farr, Jr., “was a flaming liberal who would have hung Robert E. Lee as a traitor.”
John Cullen, described as a “charming fellow,” kept the peace between these men. Also involved early was Charles Clarke. If memory serves, he and his wife were here for our 50th celebration.
By the way, the initiating letter spelled roundtable as one word – and so it’s been ever since – despite all warnings of spell check to change. May it ever be so.
John’s letter brought 10 people to a dinner on November 20, 1956 downtown at a popular restaurant – the Hickory Grill. Their names are in the summary. Out of this meeting came assignments to write bylaws and a constitution.
The new Roundtable was organized following the pattern set by Chicago’s Roundtable, which was also used for other Roundtables then in existence. As such it was simply a men’s club restricted to men only.
That was not unusual at that time – any more than exclusive women’s clubs then. Not unusual, but ironic for sure since it was a woman who initiated the idea of a Roundtable to John Cullen. Women were always welcome as guests, and for years the last meeting of the club year was “Ladies Night.”
Times change of course and over the years, attempts were made to include women as members. This finally happened – with some controversy – in June 1997, as Dick Crews and president, Dan Zeiser, pushed the issue and won women the right of membership. While no cannons were fired, a brief civil war did erupt among the membership. It ended with the secession of some who left to form their own group.
Our first woman member was Lou Braman, a history teacher. It took a while to have our first woman president – partly because we did not have many women members and partly because the women we had were not interested in working towards the job. (And we still need more women as debaters.) Lisa Kempfer became our first woman president in 2010. Jean Rhodes is now president and Ellen Connally is in line for it.
After the inaugural November meeting in 1956, the next meeting of the new Roundtable was in January 1957 at Kiefer’s Restaurant in Ohio City. George Farr, Jr. gave the first talk entitled: “Civil Law in Southern Courts.” Farr became president in April 1958 with the death of Kenneth Grant – and was reelected the following year.
The club was soon a success and some concerns were raised about having too many members. One member even quit because of this. It seems the highest number of members was 135 in 2001. Having Shelby Foote as a speaker that year brought attention and new interest to us – when William Vodrey was president.
The first talk by a non-member was by the noted Civil War historian and author Bruce Catton in 1957. His talk was entitled: “Civil War Influence on Social and Political Outlook.” Mr. Catton was the first of a great roster of well-known and distinguished historians to address our Roundtable over the years.
They include: General Ulysses S. Grant III, the grandson of U.S. Grant, Ed Bearss – a number of times since 1962, Dr. Richard D. Mudd, grandson of the infamous Doctor Mudd , Stephen Ambrose, Bud Robertson, Mark Neely, Shelby Foote, Gabor Borritt, President Garfield’s grandson, Craig Symonds, John Marszelak and Harold Holzer. Abraham Lincoln also addressed the club once. (Well he looked a bit like Lincoln.)
Our treatment of our speakers – famous or not – has given us a national reputation for hospitality and knowledge. I’ve heard from speakers I’ve hosted that they’ve never been treated better than here. And then, from others in various symposiums, etc., how they’ve heard how well we treat our guests.
Back now to Club FIRSTs: the first field trip was in 1957 to Antietam, Harpers Ferry, and Winchester. The first woman speaker was Mrs. S. Dannett on January 17, 1961. Her topic was: “Union Women under the Guns.”
Not that it matters, but I am the first member named Melvin. And the first president named Maynard served in 2003.
The club also had a movie night back then. The first movie night was April 15, 1958. The movie was: “Robert E. Lee and the True Story of the Civil War.” Given the southern leanings at that time, I’m surprised it wasn’t “Birth of a Nation.” I hope now I haven’t encouraged anyone here to schedule that Robert E. Lee movie.
Dale nicely summarized the topics of all the talks given in the first 40 years as follows: personalities – 109, battles, tactics and strategies – 72, political and social – 34, Ohio and the Civil War – 19, logistics – 12, and reconstruction – 4.
While the membership was somewhat weighted with doctors and lawyers in the early days – thank God those days are gone (joke) – we now have a mix of businessmen and professionals, retirees, educators and, yes, those pesky doctors and lawyers are still gratefully still with us. We have not had many meeting places over all the years. The club moved to the Hermit Club in the 1960s. When service there became intolerable in 2000, we moved to the Playhouse Club and when it closed in 2009, we came here to this grand old building filled with its echoes of over 90 years of Cleveland history.
We can record for history the names, dates, events, facts and figures of clubs such as ours far better than we can ever capture the feeling involved of their many members: their joy of learning, the pleasure of hearing good speakers, the breaking of bread with special friends, the sharing of what we know, the agreements and disagreements of opinions, often passionate but always respectful, all of which forms the spirit of our Roundtable.
I close as I began: our Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, founded 60 proud years ago, has always been of the people, by the people and for the people – very special people. Here’s to many, many more years. I love you guys. Thank you!