Yesterday I attended Virginia's 2009 Sesquicentennial Signature Conference to commemorate the 150 Anniversary of the Civil War. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Virginia is way ahead of the game in its objective to educate its citizens about the importance of this era. In fact, this was the first major event of the sesquicentennial in the United States. We were informed in the opening welcome that over 2,100 people had registered for this free conference, and that those people represented 36 states.
The conference was unique in that the panelists discussed their given topics as if they were in 1859, and with no knowledge of future events. Some panelists struggled with this concept more than others, but those that did make "presentist" mistakes, did so with a good sense of humor.
The topic for first group of panelists was "Taking Stock of the Nation in 1859." This group brought out many fine points to give us in the audience a better idea of what both Northerners and Southerners were experiencing politically, economically, socially, and culturally in 1859. As America was expanding in the 1850s new states were added; California in 1850, Minnesota in 1858, and Oregon in 1859. Staying "in the period" mindset, it was suggested that the next state may be Colorado as a gold strike had "just been made." Another panelist suggested that Cuba may be the next state added as filibuster adventurers had made similar attempts in Mexico, and Nicaragua.
The second group took on "The Future of Virginia and the South." These panelists used a number of excellent projected images to help emphasize their points. One image that stood out to me was a set of figures for Hector Davis, a slave trader in Richmond. Davis's revenue totalled $1.7 million in 1858, and $2.6 million in 1859. Now, that is a still a lot of money today, but in the 1850s that was an enormous amount of money. Davis was only one of at least a half dozen major slave auction houses in Richmond. It is important to know how slavery affected the United States' economy in 1859.
"Making Sense of John Brown's Raid" was the subject for the third group of panelists. What I found most interesting about this topic was a discussion on the Northern response to Brown's raid. The panelists agreed that Brown's raid brought an attitude of shock and disgust at first in the North, but that many Northerners came quickly came to accept Brown's action by the time of his hanging largely though the help of Emerson and Thoreau's writings.
Unfortunately, I was only able to attend a few minutes of the final topic, "Predictions for the Election of 1860." But, what I did get to observe was quite thought provoking. The decline the Whig Party and emergence of the Republican Party in the 1850s brought significant political changes for America. The Whigs had been a national party, as had the Democrats, but the Republicans were virtually a Northern only political party, with the expressed platform of not allowing slavery to move into the western territories. The Republican Party gained significant Congressional seats in the 1858 elections, and this concerned Southern politicians about the future of slavery.
The conference brought in great historians to present interesting viewpoints, and in my opinion certainly fulfilled their committee's goal of "laying a foundation for understanding the Civil War." If we don't understand all of the social, economic, political, and cultural factors that precipitated the war, we can't understand the war itself.
There will be a signature conference held each year through 2015. The next one, in 2010, will be held at Hampton University and its theme will be African Americans and the Civil War. 2011 will be at Virginia Tech, and will be on American Military Strategy and the Civil War. 2012 will be at Virginia Military Institute, 2013 at William and Mary, 2014 at George Mason University, and 2015 at the University of Virginia. If these are anything like 2009's I hope that somehow I am able to attend one or more of these future conferences.