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Symposium reflects upon anniversary of the Civil War

Historians, scholars and other members of the Duke community marked the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in a symposium this weekend.

“Another March Madness: The American Civil War at 150,” explored new perspectives on topics such as Reconstruction’s role in prolonging the war and the war’s effect on modern medicine. About 120 community members gathered in the Gothic Reading Room to hear lectures by historians from Duke, North Carolina State University, Ohio State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“A lot of people are interested in the war, and we hope to build on that interest, but we also want people to see the wide variety of ways historians can approach the topics in the Civil War,” said Margaret Humphreys, co-organizer of the event and Josiah Charles Trent professor of the history of medicine.

Humphreys and Shauna Devine, co-organizer of the symposium and assistant professor of history, held the event to take advantage of the rich local network of military historians and to highlight Perkins Library’s Civil War exhibit, “I Recall the Experience Sweet and Sad: Memories of the Civil War.” The exhibit, open until March 30, draws on the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s extensive Civil War collection and features the memoirs of different groups affected by the war, such as women, families and blacks.

Meghan Lyon, co-curator of the exhibit and an associate with Duke Libraries, said the library’s collection dates back to the 19th century efforts of the Trinity College Historical Society and includes notable Walt Whitman and Civil War medicine artifacts.

“We wanted to focus on the people whose collections we have here and particularly on their memories of the war,” Lyon said.

Devine spoke about how the war transformed the practice of medicine in the U.S. The war gave American medical students unprecedented access to large numbers of bodies that they could use to practice surgery skills.

After the war and Reconstruction, the country still views the South as a different voting block and a unique political body, Humphreys noted in an interview.

“If you look at the current [presidential] election and the last election people still see ‘the South’ as a separate political entity in the United States,” she said. “The issue of race, which is so tied to the Civil War, is such a persistent issue that understanding the war and what it did to the country is still very important.”

Regina Thomas, a symposium attendee and an attorney from Chapel Hill, said she appreciated the event’s emphasis on the local impact of the war. Thomas was surprised to learn how the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to blacks, expanded the idea of rights beyond former slaves.

“Certainly in later years we’ve expanded that idea to other groups, but I hadn’t realized how it would impact existing laws in the South at the time,” she said.

Michael Hill, research supervisor at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, said he enjoyed the event’s focus on the non-military aspects of the war.

“Approaches that look at the Civil War from nonmilitary perspectives are what are particularly welcome and are what interest and engage people,” Hill said. “The military stuff has just been done to death.”


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