Remembering 150 Years of Conflict

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, the Kansas City Public Library is now engaged in a great Civil War Sesquicentennial observance, a project that allows contemporary audiences to relive great moments from that conflict on the 150th anniversaries of the actual events.

The series — which since April, 2011 (the sesquicentennial of the firing on Fort Sumter), has drawn thousands of history buffs to two dozen presentations – is made possible by the Library’s partnership with the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Historians from the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) are frequent guests at the Library, covering topics as varied as Alexander the Great, the Spanish Civil War, the fall of Vietnam, and the military implications of climate change.

But the Civil War Sesquicentennial has proven a particularly effective effort, a win-win situation according to Library public affairs director Henry Fortunato, who calls it “phenomenally successful both in content and presentation, but also in attendance. We rarely get fewer than 150 coming to these events, and the number has gone as high as 400.”

Many Kansas Citians may be unaware that one of the largest history departments of any educational institution in the Midwest is housed at the CGSC just a few miles northwest of Downtown. The CGSC is the nation’s elite educational institution training military officers, both of the American armed services and of our foreign allies.

There a faculty of 40 world-class historians work to impart to their officer students not only the lessons of the past, but to develop creative thinking skills.

“What we do here is more about the relationship between the military and society than just drums and bugles,” says James H. Willibanks, director of CGSC’s Department of Military History. “For instance, you cannot talk about Vietnam simply as a military operation – you have to examine the social impact of military policy.”

What makes the Sesquicentennial series so effective is its “real time” element.

“Five or six times every year we have programs on the 150th anniversary of key events in the Civil War,” Fortunato explains. “It’s a chronological view of the war, from the siege of Fort Sumter through many battles, as well as important events like the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. For Library audiences it’s almost like experiencing the progress of the war in real time.”

In just the last year CGSC experts have spoken at the Library on the Kansas-Missouri border war and the sack of Lawrence, figures like Ulysses S. Grant and “Fighting” Joe Hooker, and the Civil War at sea. Particularly popular was a round table discussion by Command and General Staff historians over the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg.

In one upcoming event CGSC’s Louis A. DiMarco will discuss the role of Cavalry in the Civil War on May 15. That’s the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Yellow Tavernnear Richmond, Virginia, in which Gen. Philip Sheridan’s federal cavalry defeated the famed mounted Confederates of J.E.B. Stuart. More than just a Union victory, the battle convinced military planners that cavalry – which up to that time had been used mostly for reconnaissance and to screen the movements of infantry – could have a vital role as an offensive weapon.

On July 22, the anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta, CGSC’s Christopher Gabel will discuss Railroads and the Civil War. That battle centered on Union efforts to seize railroads leading into the city; during the war railroads were the most efficient way to move troops and material intended both for armies and the civilian population.

Both of these presentations take place at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.

CGSC historian Ethan S. Rafuse hopes the partnership will continue for years to come: “I suspect we’re going to keep doing things together even after the Sesquicentennial is over. It’s good for us, good for the Library, good for the area. Historians should engage with audiences. If anything, I’d like to see more young people coming to these events.”

Indeed, Willibanks says the partnership has had no downside. “From an organizational standpoint it allows us to demonstrate the quality of our employees. The taxpayers pay for these guys, and here’s a chance to see what you’re getting. As an outreach effort, it really gets our brand in front of the public.

“But it’s also a valuable professional development opportunity for our historians. Any time they get in front of an audience, it helps improve their game.”

About The Author: Robert Butler

For more than 40 years Robert W. Butler has covered movies for The Kansas City Star.  He also reviews current films at butlerscinemascene.com, atseniorcorrespondent.com and on KCUR-FM’s “Up to Date.”

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