Mike Cavanaugh of Bethlehem is a quiet guy. But he does have his passions and, outside of his family and friends, chief among them is handling the programming duties for the Civil War Round Table of Eastern Pennsylvania.
It is Mike’s task to organize interesting and stimulating events for “buffs” of the conflict between the blue and the gray.
And this being the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States, Cavanaugh has been busy. Most recently the group has had, among others, re-enactor John Carrier speaking as John Hay, Lincoln’s former secretary, and Michael A. Riley as Union General John Reynolds. On April 3, Melissa Yiaski-Rabinsky will appear in a first person impression entitled “Meet Mary Todd Lincoln.”
The CWRT has also gotten into other aspects of military history. In February its members heard the story of African Americans in the World War II-era Navy who later became officers. “We try to have a varied program- one that is both interesting and enjoyable,” says Cavanaugh. Despite these efforts, and the 150th anniversary of the war, membership in the CWRT locally and nationally has fallen from 30 years ago. Once learning about the Civil War was part of every school child’s education. It is no longer so.
I first got to know of the CWRT in the 1980s thanks to my friend, the late Richard “Dick” Matthews. He was an active member of the group, having served as its president. Matthews was also the author of “Lehigh County Pennsylvania in the Civil War: An Account,” the essential local history of the war. I have been a CWRT member since 2006 and have enjoyed both the events and the friendship among the members ever since.
While it concentrates on Civil War history, the CWRT has managed to acquire quite a bit of its own. In 1960 America was looking toward the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. As interest rose among academics, like-minded members of the Lehigh County Historical Society decided to form a group focused around that conflict.
Lehigh County has a unique niche in Civil War history. Although the war was controversial and unpopular here, especially in the rural parts of the county, the region has long cherished the memory of the Allen Infantry, who, as a part of what came to be called the First Defenders, were the first troops to answer Lincoln’s call to defend Washington in 1861.
Outside of Gettysburg, Allentown’s Union West End Cemetery is said to have the largest number of graves of Civil War veterans in Pennsylvania, most of whom died after the war. Medal of Honor recipient Ignatz Gresser and Ed Wilt, a local Union sailor who played an important role in the naval battle that sank the Rebel commerce raider Alabama off the coast of France in 1864, are among them.
Two former Confederate officers, General John Pemberton, former commander of Vicksburg, and Colonel Stephen Repass, lived in Allentown in the 19th century. Repass, who fought bravely at Gettysburg, later became pastor of Allentown’s St John’s Lutheran Church and was much loved in the community. He died in 1906 and is buried in Fairview Cemetery.
Talking about the Civil War began almost before the guns had cooled at Appomattox. Southern officers, perhaps because they had lost, were among the vehement in trying to explain themselves. So much ink was being spilled by former Confederate commanders as to who was responsible for losing at Gettysburg that the courtly General George Pickett, whose famous charge was the focal point of the three day battle, begged for a little clarity through the “smoke” of verbal cannon fire. “I do believe that the gentlemen on the other side of the field,” he is said to have remarked, “might have had at least something to do with it.”
By the early 20th century library shelves were groaning under the weight of tomes on tactics. Titanic historian Walter Lord, recalling one such volume written by ship passenger Colonel Archibald Gracie, defending his father’s role at the battle of Chickamauga, called it, “a study in labored minutiae.”
What might be called the Round Table movement began in Chicago in 1940. On December 3rd of that year Ralph Newman, a Lincoln expert in that city, along with a group of his friends, among them noted Civil War historian Allen Nevins, created the first Round Table. Although it started small, by the end of the 1960s the local Round Table had grown to a membership of several hundred. One reason was the enthusiastic efforts of the late founding member George Seligman of Tamaqua.
Longtime Round Table member Ed Root recalled Seligman’s efforts. “He was a real go getter. It was George’s idea to turn this into a dinner meeting. He’d get on the phone and contact a wide circle of friends. He seemed to know everybody.” Every year the CWRT holds a memorial dinner in his honor.
But the CWRT is far more than a discussion of battles. The culture and life of the Civil War era have also been part of many of the meetings. “We are not a bunch of military freaks,” says Root who has written on the war and even helped, under the supervision of the National Park Service, clear brush at Gettysburg. “Some are interested in the battles, and have no concern for what life was like in those days. Others want to find out everything they can about the way people lived but could care less about the fighting side of the war. There is no single thread.”
Today the average meeting turnout runs about 65. Many who do not want a dinner that costs $25 come later for the speaker at $5. Although the membership is largely male there are a number of women who attend regularly. When you're done you just may give a hearty Union huzzah or Rebel Yell. For more information contact them at cwrteasternpa.org.