The Record - January 1998

From the Regions

Rosanne Butler, Editor

Symposium: "Chicago and the Midwest in the Civil War Era" - A Partnership

By Peter W. Bunce

The idea of conducting some type of program focusing on the Civil War was deep-rooted in two staff members of the National Archives and Records Administration - Great Lakes Region, Glenn Longacre and Scott Forsythe. Each was profoundly interested in the Civil War. Longacre was in the process of editing the Civil War correspondence of Colonel Emerson Opdycke, 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and Forsythe has been researching and transcribing the journals of a soldier who had served in the First Colorado Cavalry. However, a day-long bus tour of Civil War sites in the historical heart of Chicago, sponsored by the Chicago Art Institute, proved to be the clincher.

Daniel Benton, alias William Newby

Daniel Benton, alias William Newby.
(NARA, RG 15, Pension #WC 2729)

Sites visited were not battlefields, of course, but they reflected the political, social, economic, and military aspects of the Civil War era in the city. Longacre and Forsythe determined that there was much to be learned about the impact and memory of the Civil War in Chicago and the Midwest and noted from the popularity of this tour and other contacts that there was considerable public interest in the subject matter. During this time, NARA's Southeast, Great Lakes, Central Plains, and Southwest Regions had put together and concluded a partnership with the University of Memphis in co-sponsoring the Mississippi River Symposium in March 1996.

Longacre and Forsythe communicated with potential partners about their idea of a symposium concentrating on the political, social, and economic impact of the Civil War on the Midwest, rather than on battles won and lost. Among the first contacted was John Chalmers of the Chicago Public Library's Special Collections and Preservation Division. The Library was considered for a couple of reasons. NARA - Great Lakes Region had previous outreach interaction with the institution, and the Chicago Public Library has among its holdings records of the Grand Army of the Republic (a major Union veterans' organization). At the same time, Forsythe, who was enrolled in Loyola University's public history graduate program, spoke to one of his professors, Ted Karamanski, author of Rally 'Round the Flag: Chicago and the Civil War. The two men immediately supported the idea. After finding the appropriate contact at the Chicago Historical Society, Russell Lewis, that institution signed on to the symposium with eagerness and played a major role in sponsoring the event. Through the assistance of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago, NARA - Great Lakes Region got in touch with Larry Gibbs, then president of the Chicago Civil War Round Table. This group is the first and oldest Civil War Round Table in the world, and it quickly backed the project. Efforts by Karamanski led to the Illinois State Historical Society becoming a partner.

With the players now in place, a planning committee was established comprised of representatives from NARA - Great Lakes Region (Longacre and Forsythe), Chicago Historical Society (Lewis), Public History Program at Loyola University (Karamanski), Chicago Public Library's Special Collections and Preservation Division (Chalmers), and the Chicago Civil War Round Table (Gibbs and Robert Girardi, respectively past and current presidents of the group). There was unanimous agreement as to the focus of the symposium; thus, Chicago and the Midwest in the Civil War Era was born.The Chicago Historical Society, with its good name recognition, facility size, excellent location, and prominence on the local scene, was the ideal choice to host the event. The committee set September 26-27, 1997, as the dates for the symposium.

A call for papers went out in May 1996, asking for "panels, papers, or other presentations on aspects of Chicago and its surrounding region in the Civil War." It would be broadly interdisciplinary, combining historical perspective and contemporary interest. The call further noted that "suggested topics include (but are not limited to): the Sectional Crisis; the Underground Railroad; military related topics; Chicago's ethnic contributions to the war effort; Lincoln and Douglas; women and minorities; economic, industrial, and political implications of the war; labor; the Copperhead Movement; postwar legacy; and the Civil War in popular culture." An April 1, 1997, deadline for submissions was set.

The planning committee had to tackle the all-important issue of resources and dollars to support the symposium. A major "given," and a big one at that, was in-kind services provided by the organizations represented on the committee. This included staff time for preparation and planning, facility use, administrative and clerical assistance, and supplies. NARA - Great Lakes Region's role was included in its annual work plan. Karamanski and Lewis, on behalf of the planning committee, applied for a $2000 grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, the application to be submitted by the Chicago Historical Society. Bunce and representatives of the Chicago Historical Society and the Chicago Civil War Round Table wrote letters endorsing the proposal. A contribution of $1100 came from the Illinois State Historical Society for the opening reception, and $1075 from NARA's representational funds and $500 from NARA - Great Lakes Region's gift fund were received for various activities, including the closing reception. The committee decided to set registration fees as low as possible: $25 (general), $15 (students), and $35 (late and onsite).

The search for a keynote speaker took many months. Several potential speakers already were committed to other engagements, sometimes made more than a year in advance. As luck would have it, Dr. Stuart McConnell of Pitzer College, Claremont, California, submitted a proposal to give a paper on the fascinating Civil War pension fraud case, U.S. v. Daniel Benton alias William Newby. McConnell had conducted research at NARA facilities in both Washington, DC and Chicago. Upon reviewing his proposal, the planning committee realized that this subject easily could be expanded into a keynote address. McConnell was contacted and graciously accepted.

By April it was evident that the level of response to the call for papers was far greater than anticipated, overwhelming, in fact. The committee had thought that perhaps 12 to 20 proposals would be forthcoming, when, in fact, it received 47! Concurrent sessions would now be the format, as opposed to single sessions. The proposals were coming from all across the country, from New Jersey to California, and from Wisconsin to Texas. They came from history and law professors, independent scholars, graduate students, archivists, other Civil War buffs, and even a federal judge. In June, the planning committee learned that the Illinois Humanities Council had awarded the Chicago Historical Society the grant! As part of the agreement, the committee publicly acknowledged the support of the Illinois Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Illinois General Assembly. Their support played a significant part in the success of the symposium.

One could not have asked for a more perfect two days than September 26 and 27, 1997 - wonderful Chicago autumn weather. About 225 registrants and participants converged on the Chicago Historical Society in the late morning of the 26th, among them William Newby's great-grandson, William Kennan, and a Canadian descendant of fugitive slaves (who had located the symposium announcement on the Internet). A reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times interviewed Kennan, McConnell, Forsythe, and others about the Newby case for an article in the next day's edition.

The afternoon was filled with two time blocks of three concurrent sessions, featuring such topics as "Abraham Lincoln and Midwest Remembrance," "Copperheads and Disloyalty," "The Hoosier State and the Civil War," and "The Midwest in the Antebellum Period."

After a dinner break, participants returned to hear Dr. McConnell deliver his keynote address, "The William Newby Case and the Legacy of the Civil War," the story of an extraordinary Civil War pension fraud controversy. The case concerned a man, claiming to be a soldier named William Newby of the 40th Illinois Infantry Regiment, who allegedly had died at the Battle of Shiloh, but who returned home almost 30 years after his reported death.

Saturday saw a full complement of concurrent sessions, covering such themes as "Prisoners of War and the Midwest Experience," "African-Americans and the Civil War," "The Midwest's Military Contribution to the Civil War," and "Urban Chicago and the Civil War." In addition, two workshops were offered: one on tracing ancestors who fought in the Civil War, and the other on the Civil War reenactors' experience.

At the symposium was an exhibit featuring documents on loan from three of the co-sponsoring institutions. Included among the items displayed were NARA - Great Lakes Region's pension deposition of William Newby; the Chicago Historical Society's diary of a Confederate prisoner of war at Camp Douglas; and the Chicago Public Library's letters and images of Colonel Ephraim Elmer Ellis, a Chicago resident, friend of Lincoln, and the first Union officer killed in the war. The Chicago Historical Society and the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop featured books pertaining to the symposium's theme.

Chicago and the Midwest in the Civil War Era closed with a reception featuring a visit by Mr. Lincoln, portrayed effectively by a popular local actor.

While partnerships are nothing new, in these days of diminishing resources they take on increased significance as a means of sharing ideas, personnel, and dollars. These seven organizations, representing federal, state-supported, municipal, and private institutions, pooled available and necessary resources to achieve a common goal. Each benefited from the experiences of others in gathering talent and expertise for the symposium.

The symposium's success led to heightened awareness by the public of the participating organizations, and it was decided to hold some type of annual recognition of the Civil War in Chicago, although on a lesser scale than the symposium. NARA - Great Lakes Region has pledged its continuing support to this program. In addition, smaller or "mini-partnerships" have emerged from the larger one for NARA - Great Lakes Region. The Chicago Public Library's Special Collections and Preservation Division has offered exhibit space at its prominent downtown location for NARA - Great Lakes Region to display its records. The Chicago Historical Society has inquired about possible NARA - Great Lakes Region records to use in a potential exhibit by the Society on Chicago and the West.

The participating organizations all gained a better sense of appreciation for each other and strengthened bonds of cooperation, thus establishing a solid basis for future ventures.

Peter W. Bunce currently is the Director of Public Programs and Agency Outreach at NARA - Great Lakes Region. Glenn V. Longacre and Scott M. Forsythe, archivists at NARA - Great Lakes Region, contributed to this article.