Civil War Reconsidered

January 31, 2007
Harper's Weekly cover

The Duke Alumni Association and Duke's history department presented a special on-campus educational conference, "Still Fighting the Civil War?" in February. Covering what is arguably the most important event in United States history, conference speakers offered new perspectives on the war and explored its continued impact on modern culture and politics, particularly in the South.

The title of the conference was inspired by the book Still Fighting the Civil War, by David Goldfield, Robert Lee Bailey Professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. One of the conference's featured speakers, Goldfield discussed "how the war has hindered the South's development, [how] the focus on the past is in some ways a crippling focus," as conference convener Margaret Humphreys, a Duke professor of history, put it.

The conference opened on Friday, February 16, with a presentation by Jack Temple Kirby, W.E. Smith Professor Emeritus of history at Miami University of Ohio. Kirby, a nationally recognized scholar on the study of the South and environmental history, spoke about the war's impact on the South in the hundred years after 1865.

On Saturday, Humphreys, a physician who is also an associate clinical professor of medicine and Josiah Charles Trent Associate Professor of medical humanities at Duke Medical Center, discussed the health of black soldiers during the war, including blacks who fought for the Confederacy.

The other scholars who spoke included Joseph Glatthaar, Stephenson Distinguished Professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on Robert E. Lee's first month as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia; Thavolia Glymph, assistant professor of African and African-American Studies and history at Duke, on black women during the war; and author Allan Gurganus on his use of a letter by Walt Whitman as a source and inspiration for one of his short stories.

"The war—the meanings of it, the glory of it, the disaster of it—is all still very real to many people," said Humphreys.

The conference, which was open to the public, attracted a lively mix of participants, including Duke alumni, staff members, and students; members of the Durham community, including residents, high-school students, and history teachers; and Civil War buffs from as far away as New Jersey and Florida.