Over 220 Civil War enthusiasts gathered at Central Connecticut State University on Friday, April 15, to participate in a daylong series of lectures and seminars commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.
CCSU history professor and co-chair of the state's Sesquicentennial Committee, Matt Warshauer, greeted the attendees and introduced Yale University history professor David Blight, the event's keynote speaker.
Professor Blight, whose books have garnered eight awards-- including the prestigious Bancroft Prize-- gave an interesting and insightful address centered around this question: Why can't Americans get over the Civil War?
One possible explanation Blight offered was that "loss draws us." There is plenty of loss to examine in the Civil War. Over 620,000 soldiers died in the war - more than the sum total of all of the other wars in American history combined. In addition, more than 1.3 million soldiers were wounded. In drawing a parallel with the Vietnam War, Professor Blight noted that had soldiers died in Vietnam at a rate comparable to the proportion of the general population during the Civil War, the casualty rate for Vietnam would be over five million.
He said "serious research" is being done on both civilian casualties and casualties in so-called "contraband camps"- refugee camps for slaves during the war. Blight predicted that people will be "stunned" at the casualty numbers revealed for these two groups.
He also suggested that another reason America has an enduring fascination with the Civil War is because "it is a great story - an epic." Noting the American propensity for romanticism and their "need for a narrative of progress," Blight said, "Americans want to be known as the nation that freed the slaves, not the nation that owned them." In citing Mark Twain's good friend and fellow novelist, W.D. Howells, Blight remarked, "The American people always love a tragedy with a happy ending."
Another factor cited for our persistent interest in the war is the remarkable statistic that one third of Americans had someone in their family involved in the war. One person at the conference who had an ancestor who fought in the Civil War and is living proof of the truth of Blight’s assertion is Ben Hawley.
Hawley's great-great grandfather, Orrin B. Hawley, was a private in Connecticut's only all-Black regiment, the 29th CV. Pvt. Hawley was wounded in the leg during the Battle of Darbytown Road. Ben Hawley led one of the "breakout sessions" following the keynote address. His presentation centered on the history of the 29th, and it is abundantly clear that he takes tremendous and justifiable pride in his great-great grandfather's service to the Union.
Blight noted that in his opinion the best centennial Civil War address was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s address on August 28, 1963 - King's famous "I have a dream" speech. Blight stated that people forget that during the first 16 minutes of his speech, King's focus was on the Civil War's centennial and the need for a re-founding of the nation in terms of equality for all citizens , regardless of race, creed, or color. Blight openly wondered who would be giving the sesquicentennial keynote address on the Civil War during the next four years of its commemoration.
Seminars and lectures were not the only activities available for the attendees.
A very nice art exhibition of 18 hand-colored lithographs by the Kellogg brothers of Hartford was available to view in the Chen Art Center at Maloney Hall. In addition, there was a Civil War exhibit on display in the Elihu Burritt Library. CCSU Professor Matt Warshauer's new book "Connecticut in the American Civil War: Slavery, Sacrifice, and Survival" was also available for purchase at a discounted rate for all participants.
For a Patch profile of Professor Warshauer and his new book, click .
For other activities planned for the kickoff of the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War see the Patch story “"
Notes and Links:
1. For more information on the 29th Connecticut Regiment, visit http://conn29th.org/index.html