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Historians' Society Plans Big Changes

Deborah Fitts

- (November 2007) An organization of Civil War scholars that has long been operating in semi-obscurity is taking steps to broaden its exposure, expand membership and make a name for itself on the national stage.

"This is something we've talked about for a long time, and finally we decided, Let's do it," said George Rable, president of the Society of Civil War Historians. "We're moving toward becoming more of a national organization." The Society, formed in 1986, has maintained a low profile. Activities were confined to a meeting of two to three dozen Society members during the annual conference of the Southern Historical Association, plus nominal dues and a modest newsletter.

"We weren't a particularly big or active organization," Rable acknowledged.

But lately the annual gatherings have drawn as many as 75 to 80 attendees, prompting thoughts of expansion.

"Now we'll fill a room," Rable said. "We felt we could have national meetings, and meet in different places" than the locales that the Southern Historical Association chooses. "Plus it's a congenial group and it's a group we'd want to expand."

Rable said that "one of the exciting things" about the Society is "the growing number of young historians who want to join," including graduate students and young teachers. "We're building a real base of interest and support."

Rable credited historian Gary Gallagher, who "for years has encouraged graduate students to attend, and meet some top Civil War historians." Gallagher, of the University of Virginia, is on the group's eight-member advisory board.

The Society is launching initiatives on a variety of fronts. Next year it will host its first biennial conference, scheduled for June 15-17 at the Union League in Philadelphia. Besides the newsletter, members for the first time are receiving the scholarly journal Civil War History, published quarterly by Kent State University Press.

There's a new dues structure, a Web site, and bylaws. And eventually the group hopes to establish a "first book" prize on a Civil War theme, to encourage "emerging historians."

The Society, boasting several hundred members, is the only organization of professional Civil War historians. It attracts academics, writers, researchers, teachers, museum professionals, archivists and the like. There are no criteria for membership, Rable noted, "but obviously the orientation is toward people who do some kind of history in a serious way."

The Society studies all aspects of the Civil War era, including social, military, political and other history. "We try to cover the waterfront," Rable explained. He himself holds the chair in Southern history at the University of Alabama and has written several books on the Civil War. He is working on a religious history of the war.

The group will continue to hold its annual dinner and present a speaker's program at the yearly Southern Historical Association meetings, with this year's scheduled for Nov. 1 in Richmond. The Society's home base is the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University.

Rable pointed to Gallagher, historian Bill Blair at Pennsylvania State University (also on the advisory board), and historian Joseph Glathaar as instrumental in kicking the Society into its new, higher gear.

"It occurred on my watch but I don't want to take much credit," Rable said. He also hailed advisory board member Steve Engle, of Florida Atlantic University, for his work as secretary-treasurer.

Rable has been president since 2004 when he succeeded Gallagher. "In the past the president served as long as he felt like. Now, with bylaws, we'll have terms," he said. His will end next year.

Despite the changes, Rable suggested that the Society of Civil War Historians will not lose its charm.

"Some members were concerned that once we went to holding a national conference, that we'd stop meeting at the Southern Historical Association conference. But that will continue. This was a low-key organization and it still is in some ways."

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