Thursday, May 26, 2011

VA Sesquicentennial Signature Conference - May 21

Virginia's Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission has already sponsored two Signature Conferences in Richmond (2009) and Norfolk (2010), both of which were excellent. This year, the conference was hosted in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech. Dr. James I. Robertson, one of the leading scholars in the field, was the conference host and it was his last official act prior to his retirement. That made this conference a little more special than the previous two. Dr. Robertson was presented with the annual award given by the Commission for lifetime achievement at the start of the conference and he presided over the event like a proud grandfather all day long, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd at the end.

This year's theme was Military Strategy and the list of speakers was impressive, as always. The opening session outlined military strategy at the onset of the war. Dennis Frye, Chief Historian at Harper's Ferry, gave an impassioned speech about the use of John Brown's raid on the arsenal as a rallying cry for the newly seceded Confederate states. Richard Sommers, Senior Historian at the Army Heritage and Education Center and US Army War College, discussed the military education system of the time and the general lack of preparedness and bloated seniority system of the US Army at the war's outbreak.

The next session focused on strategy in the eastern theater of the war. Sommers was once again at the podium to begin, discussing the failure of Union strategy in the first two plus years of the war. From there Dr. Gary Gallagher of the University of VA took over and discussed the mid-war period. Gallagher was as solid as ever in his presentation. The panel was concluded by Dr. Joseph Glatthaar of the University of NC talking about the Army of Northern Virginia and Confederate strategy, while wrapping up the end of the war. This panel was very good and certainly met expectations, if not exceeding them.

Lunch featured a performance of the Stonewall Brigade Band. I'm not a big fan of marching band music anymore these days so I took the opportunity to check out the rest of the coliseum, the book shop, and the rest of the exhibitors.

The first afternoon session focused on strategy in the western theater of the war. William C. Davis of Virginia Tech gave an excellent overview of both Union and Confederate strategy in the west early in the war. Dr. Richard McMurry discussed the horrible relationship between Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. He basically laid the failure of Confederate strategy in the west at the feet of Davis and his poor relationship with Johnston. The session was brought to a close by Dr. Steven Woodworth of TCU, discussing the western theater after the fall of Vicksburg. I was looking forward to hearing him speak, and though he was good, I was a bit disappointed. I'll give him a pass though, because he did agree to sign three books for me outside of the assigned book signing time. Thanks to him and the Virginia Tech conference organizer for allowing that to happen.

The final session focused on "forgotten elements" of the Civil War. John Bowen, a highly regarded veterinarian talked about the horses and mules that perished in the war effort. William C. Davis did an interesting presentation on weather, how it effected operations, and how often and in detail soldiers wrote about it. Finally, Dr. Robertson ended the day with a discussion of water and how important (and scarce) it was for both armies.

All in all, this was a very good conference. The staff at Virginia Tech was by far the friendliest of any of the three conferences so far. They went above, beyond, and well out of their way to make the conference easy for me (remember, I've got one leg in a cast and have to use either crutches or a knee walker to get around). They were very accommodating and helpful all around and I can't thank them enough! Next year's conference will be held March 22 (the day after my birthday) at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, the topic being Leadership and Generalship. I can't wait!

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