More than 350 scholars and enthusiasts met November 16-18 at the Wyndham Gettysburg Hotel for three days of discussions about Lincoln and the Civil War at the 24th annual Lincoln Forum. It was the largest crowd in the forum’s 24-year history.
Lincoln biographer Sidney Blumenthal (right) meets his biographical subject (impersonator George Buss)
Presenters discussed issues such as the causes of the Civil War, Lincoln and the Constitution, and the 1860 and 1864 elections.
Anderson University (IN) professor Brian Dirck, who spoke on Lincoln and the Constitution and on his recent book, The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death, praised the conference. “It is gratifying to be around people who are literate about the Civil War and who understand that Lincoln remains important to the present day.”
Civil War Times editor Dana Shoaf, presenting at a panel about the state of scholarship and interest in military history, said that the Lincoln Forum is “one of the best conferences in the field.” He described it as “vibrant and growing,” and that it “contains a lot of energy.” He agreed that it “bodes well for Civil War scholarship.”
Although a discussion about events that happened more than 150 years ago may appear to lack present day relevance, many Civil War issues still resonate in modern politics. One of these is the question of “What Caused the Civil War?” Was it slavery or was it “federal government overreach?”
During a discussion led by Civil War historians Gary W. Gallagher and Joan Waugh, both panelists agreed that Southern fears that Republicans would take action against slavery lay at the root of secession, but also pointed out that Lincoln’s election drove only seven states to secede while the remaining slave states waited until Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress the rebellion.
During a panel on the future of Confederate monuments and the state of public interest in military history, a panel of scholars agreed that many southern monuments, such as the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, were erected long after the Civil War commemoration era and were intended as signals of white supremacy. The panel concluded that there will continue to be adverse attention to Confederate monuments and that frequent suggestions to leave them in place but contextualize them or move them to museums are problematic.
A panel on military history observed that while some indicators, including membership in round tables and participation in reenactments, are indicating declining public interest, Civil War scholarship is experiencing a Golden Age and people now experience the Civil War through a much more diverse range of sources, including online material.
Forum chair Harold Holzer (left) talks to award winners Sidney Blumenthal (center) and Michael Beschloss (right).
Panel members asserted that historians and historic sites must update their methods of presentation to recognize the different ways younger people consume information.
During the conference, Lincoln biographer Sidney Blumenthal received the first annual Lincoln Forum book award, and presidential historian, biographer, and TV commentator Michael Beschloss was given the Richard Nelson Current Award of Achievement.
In the closing lecture on Monday evening, Beschloss contrasted President Lincoln’s wartime leadership with that of other wartime presidents, including James Madison (War of 1812), James K. Polk (Mexican-American), William McKinley (Spanish-American), Woodrow Wilson (World War I), Franklin Roosevelt (World War II), Harry Truman (Korean conflict), and Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam War). Beschloss criticized many of the wartime presidents for lack of frankness with the American people and bringing the US into war on false pretenses. He concluded that “I have studied all eight (wartime presidents) closely and none comes close to Lincoln.”
Leon Reed, freelance reporter, is a former US Senate staff member, defense consultant, and history teacher. He is a seven year resident of Gettysburg, where he writes military history and explores the park and the Adams County countryside. He is the publisher at Little Falls Books, chaired the Adams County 2020 Census Complete Count Committee and is on the board of SCCAP and the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. He and his wife, Lois, have 3 children, 3 cats, and 5 grandchildren.