Raleigh’s Civil War Round Table uses history as a lens to understanding what unites and divides us.
Once a month, members of the Raleigh Civil War Round Table file into the Daniels Auditorium in the North Carolina Museum of History. Meetings begin like all good and true Southern gatherings—with food—and then, the members seat themselves. Accents are as diverse as the group itself; all voices come to a hush as a lecturer starts speaking.
The Raleigh CWRT is not, as current president Ted Kunstling is quick to point out, a political or heritage group. Since its inception in 2001, the organization’s aim has been to study the Civil War with an even-keel approach to history, through monthly newsletters, lectures, occasional field trips, and a resource-rich website. “The same rain falls on friend and foe” is the newsletter’s motto, the filter through which members approach this era.
“Through every month, we have a different speaker coming from a different perspective and I think the context continues to enlarge,” says member Josephine Walker. “And so we get a very well-rounded understanding of the war.”
“It occurred in our country, with Americans against Americans, it’s all around us,” Kunstling adds. “To try to understand the Civil War is central to understanding our country.”
Members share a proclivity for being drawn in by personal stories, those that are passed down by fathers, mothers, grandparents, relatives — on either side of the conflict.
Kunstling’s Quaker ancestors ran a station on the Underground Railroad. His great-grandfather sat up nights, listening to the escapees’ pursuers gallop past his home.
Founder Bob Farrell began researching New York’s 123rd regiment because it was from his home county; 35 years and hundreds of letter transcriptions later, he’s still studying.
Founding member Griff Bartlett’s family was from the border state of Maryland. One great-grandfather helped build the ironclad ship Monitor for the Union, while another fought for the South.
“We’re not so much worried about who charged up what hill and took what position, as much as learning about the personalities of the people, and some of the events, and how they came [about],” Bartlett says.
While each member came to the group intrigued by stories, they stay to peel back more layers each year, and, as the CWRT reveals layers, members add flesh to the bare bones of history.
Studying the mundane—the manufacturing of buttons, homefront habits, music, horses, microeconomics—takes priority as a way of understanding the bigger picture. When you begin to look at the participants of history as flesh-and-blood human beings, things become at once lucid and complex. Your heart aches for the enslaved, your mind yearns to understand the mindsets of soldiers—enlisting out of intention, blind duty or youthful bravado—defending a practice that is, today, indefensible,
Kunstling says there’s no better way to bring the reality of war home than to walk the ground it was fought on.
In Raleigh, earthworks went up throughout the city in anticipation of the Union’s approach. William Peace University couldn’t open as planned when the war broke out; it was converted into a Confederate hospital and girls whose dormitory was originally a mortuary claim men in gray still wander the halls. On Morgan Street, Confederate cavalryman Robert Walsh, meant to oversee a peaceful surrender, galloped away after firing a pistol at 10,000 Federal troops. Where Lake Wheeler Road meets Saunders Street, Union general John “Black Jack” Logan stopped an angry band of Federal troops intent on bringing retribution for President Lincoln’s recent assassination. Logan was inducted into the Raleigh Hall of Fame for saving the city.
When it comes to the debate regarding Confederate memorials around town, the official position of the Round Table is to have no position, although the group disapproves of unlawful damage to property. Individual members themselves have strong and varying opinions.
Ultimately, members are not military buffs, politicians or philosophers, but they are historians. Searching the interactions of complex human beings promises to provide rich material for decades to come.
To learn more about the group visit raleighcwrt.org