A New Look for the Civil War: Summer College 2011

by J.B. Potter ’11

ALUMNI SUMMER COLLEGE took place on June 3-5. This year’s symposium, “Rebirth of a Nation: A New Look at the Civil War,” commemorated the sesquicentennial anniversary of the outbreak of the War Between the States.

Sponsored by the Wilson Center and coordinated by Dr. James Y. Simms and Mrs. Andrea O’York, this event provided those in attendance with different perspectives on the most destructive conflict in American history.

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Over the course of three days, eight members of the faculty, joined by Dr. Elizabeth R. Varon of UVA, the Rev. William E. Thompson, and representatives of Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Park, examined various historical, cultural, political and economic dimensions of the Civil War. On Friday evening, Dr. Ronald Heinemann delivered the keynote speech, “The Causes of the Civil War.” Calling the war “the most important event in our history,” Dr. Heinemann spoke to the fundamental issues that divided the nation during the Antebellum period. He noted how friction caused by contrasting values, institutions (e.g., slavery), and ways of life eventually ripped North and South asunder.

On Saturday, the second session—“The Ambiguity of the Founding”—featured Dr. David Marion and Dr. John Coombs. Dr. Marion discussed the debate surrounding state sovereignty and nationalism in the early days of the republic. For instance, the Declaration of Independence refers to the American people as “one people” yet concludes with the observation that the thirteen colonies have each become “free and independent states.” Dr. Coombs echoed Dr. Marion’s sentiments by keying in on another phrase from the Declaration—“all men are created equal.” In light of slavery, this rhetoric did not reflect the reality. As slavery persisted, so too did the tensions evident in the American constitutional system (i.e., national vs. state power). This fundamental disagreement over the character of the Union culminated in the secession of eleven southern states.

The formation of the Confederacy was a manifestation of “disunion,” an oft-used word before and during the War. The concept of disunion was the focus of the third session. Dr. Varon, author of the widely praised books Disunion! and Southern Lady, Yankee Spy, traced the development of secession into a multifaceted political philosophy. Using General Robert E. Lee as an illustrative example, Dr. Varon showed how secessionist sentiment evolved and increased in the South, reaching a fever pitch by 1860.

During the fourth session, Dr. Caroline Emmons explored the roles of African Americans in the War. Despite overt racial prejudice and discrimination, tens of thousands of African Americans served in the Union Army and proved their mettle. Their service, not as slaves, but as free men, underscored a significant consequence of the war—the emancipation of over four million former slaves.

Following Dr. Emmon’s lecture, Dr. Thompson, former pastor of College Church, gave a history of Company G of the 20th Virginia Regiment, known as “The Hampden Sidney Boys.” The company consisted of students who were enrolled at the College in the summer of 1861. Shortly after being mustered, the company fought at the Battle of Rich Mountain (West Virginia), where they were captured, paroled, and sent home by Union General George McClellan, who told them to “go back to their books.”

Chris Calkins, Park Ranger and Manager, headed the fifth session—a guided tour of Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Park. The Battle of Sailor’s Creek, where a quarter of Gen. Lee’s army (7,700 men) was captured by rapidly-advancing Union forces, was the last major engagement of the war (April 6, 1865). Three days later, the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox.

Saturday evening’s entertainment was orchestrated by Dr. Simms and included singing, music, and comedy routines. “Bob Hope’s USO Show Comes to Dixie” showcased the musical talents of members of the Hampden-Sydney community. Notable participants included Dr. Glen D. Bowman, Dr. Kevin M. Dunn, Dr. Marc A. Hight, Dr. James C. Kidd, Ed Palmertree, Tom Rice, Dr. Kenneth N. Townsend, and Andrea O’York. Marilyn Marks (Rochester Conservatory ’12, daughter of Dudley H. Marks ’78) delivered a moving rendition of the “Ashokan Farewell,” music made famous in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War.

The last two sessions took place on Sunday. That morning, Dr. Justin P. Isaacs ’95 and Dr. Gregory M. Dempster analyzed the economic consequences of the Civil War, in particular the perplexing effects of the war on the amount of available labor and capital in the post-war South. The final session was roundtable forum discussion; Dr. Simms, Dr. Heinemann, and Dr. Kenneth D. Lehman compared slavery in the U.S.A. to slavery in Russia and Latin America. With the close of the final session, Dr. Robert T. Herdegen, Dean on the Faculty, thanked the Wilson Center for hosting this year’s Summer College and urged the participants to return for next year’s event.

He added that the Summer College gave those in attendance “a deeper and more profound understanding of this critical event in our history.”