Yesterday Lori and I attended the 2009 Signature Conference of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission, entitled "America on the Eve of the Civil War." We were met there by three colleagues from NC DCR, Chris Meekins, Tom Vincent, and Mike Hill. Though they said there were 2100 registered, I think the number in attendance was somewhat smaller than that, maybe about 1500. It was certainly a full day for us, leaving the house at 3:30 a.m. and getting home about 8:30 p.m. I'm not going to give a full accounting of the conference, but if you want details you need to head on over to Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory blog. Kevin live blogged the whole shooting match and it was very nice to see him again and get a chance to say hello.
Session One - Taking Stock of the Nation in 1859 (Gary Gallagher, Christy Coleman, Walter Johnson, and Joan Waugh) Gallagher was great; engaging, funny, and just very good in general. Lori and I were both surprised by Walter Johnson. He was very serious, but made some very good points and brought things to light that otherwise may have been overlooked. I really enjoyed hearing him, having no previous knowledge of any of his work. Christy Coleman was very good, and Joan Waugh was OK, but certainly in my mind, not the best on the panel. I took four of Gallagher's books with me for him to sign at the book signing session and he did so very graciously. Lori took a photo of me and Gallagher with her phone; whenever she figures out how to get it off of her phone I'll put it up on the blog.
Session Two - The Future of Virginia and the South (Charles Dew, Robert Kenzer, Gregg Kimball, and Lauranett Lee) Dew and Kimball were my favorites on this panel, and Kenzer was very good as well. I didn't hear as much out of Lee as I expected to; I felt she should have added more to the discussion. Kimball was a pleasant surprise, much like Johnson in the first panel.
Sesson Three - Making Sense of John Brown's Raid (David Blight, David Reynolds, Manisha Sinha, and Clarence Walker) I'll admit it, David Blight and Gary Gallagher were the two biggest reasons I chose to go to this conference. Having heard Blight speak two years ago at AASLH, I was really looking forward to this. Blight did not disappoint; I thought he was spectacular. I also got the feeling that was increasingly annoyed with his fellow panelists, particularly Sinha. I was not very impressed with Sinha, but Walker was pretty good. Reynolds...how do I talk about him without saying something I'll regret. I just didn't like him. I didn't know whether to shoot him or myself; either way, one of us would have ceased being miserable. I think he was terribly out of his league and completely overshadowed by Blight. He bored me to tears and I'd never go to another lecture of his again. Sorry if I've offended anyone out there, but that's my honest opinion. I did have Blight sign two books for me as well, and he was wonderful and gracious to talk with.
Session Four - Predictions for the Election of 1860 (Jean Baker, Daniel Crofts, Nelson Lankford, and Elizabeth Varon) I think this was the most equally arranged panel of them all. Varon and Lankford were solid. Crofts, another of my book signers, was very good. I was impressed with him and glad that I got to hear him speak. Not to mention he pronounced my last name correctly on the first try (something most folks don't accomplish). Baker was a very pleasant surprise for me and Lori. She was knowledgeable and funny, just very engaging I thought.
Edward Ayers, history professor and President of the University of Richmond, moderated the whole thing and did a commendable job. He kept the speakers focused and on point, and most importantly kept things on time. And did all of this in a very friendly, gracious, and affable manner. The University of Richmond has a beautiful campus and is located in a very nice area of the city. It was just a really enjoyable day.
I saw lots of folks that I know, or at least have met at previous conferences, and it was nice to catch up with a lot of them. They are far too numerous to mention here, but suffice it to say that I was very pleased, albeit very tired by the end of the day and I look forward to future programs in this series.