Exploring the Essence of Leadership During the Civil War Weekend

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Ann Pamela Cunningham, seated fourth from the right, gathers with other members of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, an organization she created to help save George Washington’s home during the Civil War era.
Ann Pamela Cunningham, seated fourth from the right, gathers with other members of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, an organization she created to help save George Washington’s home during the Civil War era.

The orator Edward Everett stood on stage in Richmond, Virginia, and began his speech on the character of George Washington. He would repeat this talk in 129 other venues to support Ann Pamela Cunningham and the preservation of a national landmark, Mount Vernon.

Ever a determined South Carolinian, Cunningham refused to stop her mission of purchasing, restoring, and preserving the first president’s home, even during the Civil War.

Her story, along with many others, is exemplary of the theme of the 28th annual Civil War Weekend: leadership.

“Ann Pamela Cunningham stepped out of the normal bounds of female roles in the 19th century,” said Paul Quigley, director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, which is hosting the event weekend along with the Virginia Tech Alumni Association and Virginia Tech Continuing and Professional Education. “She had a vision and achieved it against the odds. She is an extraordinary example of leadership.”

Quigley, who is the James I. Robertson, Jr. Associate Professor of Civil War Studies, will delve into the history of how Cunningham’s forethought and fundraising savvy saved the neglected property.

Another example of a Civil War leader to be presented during the weekend is Robert Smalls, a South Carolina slave who had been conscripted to man a Confederate ammunition transport ship. Caitlin Verboon, a postdoctoral associate in history at Virginia Tech, will explore Smalls’ successful commandeering of the same vessel to escape to freedom with other enslaved crew members and family. Once safe, Smalls assisted the Union and, after the war, served in the South Carolina Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Whether the leaders of the Civil War were unsung heroes, such as Cunningham or Smalls, or more famous historic figures, examples from the past provide learning opportunities,” Quigley said. “The heightened stakes of the war make leadership an ideal topic to explore.”

Robert O’Harrow, who earned his degree in economics and history from Virginia Tech in 1982, will discuss Montgomery C. Meigs, quartermaster general of the U.S. Army. O’Harrow, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post, was part of a 2017 Pulitzer Prize–winning team.

Richard Blackett, the Andrew Jackson Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, will present on J. Sella Martin, an escaped slave and abolitionist. Martin, who later gained renown as a preacher in London, used his pulpit to speak out against the influence of the Confederacy.

And because one cannot talk about the Civil War without mentioning those whose names are synonymous with leadership during the war, they too have their place during the weekend. At the opening session, Phillip Stone will present on Abraham Lincoln as a model for presidential leadership. Stone, a past president of both Bridgewater College and Sweet Briar College, is a member of the United States and Virginia Lincoln Bicentennial Commissions and the Advisory Board of the Lincoln Forum. He is also president and founder of the Lincoln Society of Virginia.

Joan Waugh, a history professor at UCLA who is the president-elect of the Society of Civil War Historians, will cover Ulysses S. Grant as a soldier-statesman. Her coauthor of “The American Civil War: A History of the Civil War Era,” Gary Gallagher, will discuss the generalship of Robert E. Lee. Gallagher is the John L. Nau III Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Virginia.

A mainstay of the Civil War Weekend — founding director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, James I. “Bud” Robertson Jr. — will present “The Virginia Orphan and Christian Soldier: Stonewall Jackson.” Robertson is the Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Virginia Tech.

The conference will conclude with a talk by the other past director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, William C. “Jack” Davis, who will discuss Jefferson Davis as an anti-leader.

Each year, the Civil War Weekend draws more than 100 scholars and history buffs alike to enjoy the presentations, discussions, and general camaraderie. This year’s conference, held at the Inn at Virginia Tech, runs March 22 through March 24. (Due to the event’s growing popularity, Virginia Tech Continuing and Professional Education is now keeping a waiting list for those interested in participating.)

Among those attending will be 14 public school teachers from Montgomery County and other regional school districts who have received scholarships for the weekend.

“I love that the teachers participate, learn new lessons, and take fresh perspectives back to their classrooms,” Quigley said. “The impact of this conference multiplies and cascades out.”

Written by Leslie King