Sunday, June 29, 2014

My last Gettysburg hurrah

I may have attended my last Gettysburg College Civil War Institute.


For those who know me, that sounds incredibly sacrilegious. I mean, after all, I've attended 24 consecutive Institutes, which is basically a week-long assembly of field trips, lectures, seminars, an after-hours pillaging of restaurants, bookstores, bars and other assorted vacation-type indiscretions. Or, to put it in a clearer light, I started going to the Institute in 1990, when I was 39. I'm 63 now.

In that span, I've heard speak nearly every important Civil War scholar, from Pulitzer-Prize winning James McPherson to Gary Gallagher to James Robertson to Doris Kearns Goodwin, as well as other informed luminaries. I've been on field trips with some of the best guides in the business, from Ed Bearss to Scott Hartwig to Charlie Fennel.

So what's changed?

For nearly 20 of those years, the focus of the Institute was primarily on the war itself: on strategy and tactics, on weapons and personalities, on meaning and perspective. Perfect for the Civil War buff. We'd stay in a dorm on the campus of Gettysburg College, which provided us room and board — including three square meals a day — for six days during the anniversary week of the battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3).

But the Institute went through a change of command about four years ago when founder and director Gabor Boritt became ill and stepped down. His successor, Pete Carmichael, recreated the CWI in his own vision. The conference was pared down to a cost-cutting four-and-a-half days, although the basic tuition remained the same or slowly increased. Next year, tuition will be nearly $1,000, up significantly from the $650 I paid just a few years ago for the six-day conference.

While the CWI has grown — about 370 folks attended this year — most of them are now teachers who can receive credit for their attendance. The buffs are disappearing. There were 250 first-time attendees this year listening to lectures about (these are actual seminar titles from this year) "Doodles and Drawings in Soldiers' Letters," "African Americans and Firearms in the Confederate South," and "A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek." (Sand Creek was an atrocious Federal massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in Colorado in 1864, an action separate and unrelated to the carnage going on east of the Mississippi River.)

Pam pays respect to her ancestor in the 153rd PVI.
 These discussions are all well and good in their own right, but not what I want to spend nearly a $1,000 on. Even Carmichael told us that the CWI has finally achieved his vision of a deeper study of the social/racial implications and ramifications of the war. Instead of studying the Civil War, we seem to be studying the Civil War era. There's a difference. It was time for me to make a decision — and I decided it's time to opt out.

There was one interesting moment this year. I occasionally participate on a Civil War Internet discussion board, and a couple years ago, I cybernetically met a woman, Pam, whose ancestor fought for the 153rd Pennsylvania Volunteers, just as three of mine did. There's not a lot of us out there, as far as I know. The 153rd was a nine-month outfit that fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before mustering out.

She's an English teacher in a town not far from Gettysburg, and several times we thought we could meet on the battlefield whenever I marched up from North Carolina, but it never panned out.

Until this year. She was going to to be in Gettysburg with a small group of Internet discussion board buffs the same time I was going to be at the CWI, so we decided to meet, have lunch at the Lincoln Diner and then drive out to pay respects to our ancestors at Blocher's Knoll. It was kind of a mini reunion of the 153rd several generations removed. It was a nice moment.

Meanwhile, what of the CWI? Clearly, things change, as I've learned yet again. I suppose I could go back at some point in the future for one more conference, just to get that nice, round 25th year in. We'll see.

But I have to say, it was a pretty good run, though.

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