Civil War Weekend to explore the power of place

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A contemporary shot of the McLean House, the site of General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, overlays a photograph of the McLean family sitting on their porch soon after the Civil War ended.
A contemporary shot of the McLean House, the site of General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, overlays a photograph of the McLean family sitting on their porch soon after the Civil War ended. (Courtesy of Ron Zanoni)

The stillness of a long-ago battlefield, the suffering of soldiers in a prison camp, and the unexpected origins of a historic cemetery will all be explored at the 27th annual Civil War Weekend.

This year’s event — to be held at The Inn at Virginia Tech on March 16 to 18 — will focus on significant Civil War sites.

“The war left its lasting mark not only on the people who fought it, but also on the places where it happened: the battlefields, the towns, the homes, the rivers and forests and mountains,” said Paul Quigley, director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, which sponsors the event. “This year, we’re asking our speakers to reflect on a Civil War site that they find particularly evocative, perhaps even one to which they feel a personal connection.”

William C. “Jack” Davis, a former director of the center, will open the conference with the close of the war, as he reflects on Appomattox Court House, the Virginia hamlet where General Robert E. Lee surrendered.

“For me, Appomattox evokes ancient echoes like no other place on the American firmament,” Davis said. “The costliest, most dreadful conflict in our history didn’t close on a battleship or a formal field before assembled armies or an Orient Express car. This war, which more than anything else was a people’s war, began to end in a simple people’s village, where we can yet feel and hear the country stillness.”

Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, will offer a personal view of Antietam Creek in Maryland. Frye’s understanding of the famous battleground doesn’t come from archival sources alone; he and his wife have made their home nearby, in the renovated house of General Ambrose Burnside’s post-Antietam headquarters.

Other presenters will include James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., the founding director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies and an Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech. Robertson will bring his legendary insights into the Battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee.

Christy Coleman, chief executive officer of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia, will discuss Historic Tredegar, a nineteenth-century iron foundry that supplied about half of the Confederate Army’s artillery. The site of the Richmond foundry will soon become home to a new Civil War museum.

Additional speakers will focus on the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania; Georgia’s Ebenezer Creek, the site of the tragic abandonment and even drowning of former slaves who had sought refuge with the Union Army; and Belle Isle, a notorious wartime prison in Richmond.

Quigley will conclude the program with an exploration of the complex origins of the Arlington National Cemetery, which was built on an estate confiscated from the family of General Lee’s wife.

“I find the cemetery a powerful place to visit,” said Quigley, who also serves as the James I. Robertson, Jr. Associate Professor of Civil War Studies in the Department of History. “Even though it was a major symbol of reunion, it also represented an imperfect reconciliation, with African Americans initially buried in a segregated section of the cemetery, and the Confederate section being created only in the 20th century.”

Registration for the Civil War Weekend ends March 9.

“There’s always more to learn about the Civil War,” said Quigley. “That’s why Virginia Tech alumni and other history enthusiasts come together in Blacksburg each year to hear new perspectives from some of the nation’s leading Civil War experts.”