Scottsdale, Arizona

Round Table Review
by Matthew Borowick

From the August 2009 issue of Civil War News


Civil War Round Tables are found in just about every corner of the globe. The interest in this period in American history transcends geography and, of course, time. Previous Round Table Review columns have featured groups as far away as Australia!

Closer to home, many round tables exist in locales that saw significant fighting. Others are not near any sites related to the war. But do round tables need to be located near places that saw significant activity? Absolutely not!

In fact, this month’s column features a round table that is thriving, despite being located in a state that did not play a major role in the Civil War. This month, straight from Arizona, Round Table Review features an extremely successful group and its dynamic leader, discussing round tables located far from Civil War sites.

Wes Schmidt has been president of the Scottsdale Civil War Round Table for 13 of the group’s 21 years. “Being president is pretty easy. Most people will not volunteer, but they will pay dues if programs are good,” noted Wes. “I have a solid core of nine people that handle everything with excellence.”

That group of 10 runs a pretty good round table, as evidenced by its 200 members, many of whom attend the group’s nine annual meetings. Hot Arizona summers mean a vacation from discussing the Civil War.

I asked Wes how a round table started and thrives far from the battlefields that the group studies. He believes wherever like-minded Civil War historians gather, there is room to start a round table.

“One engaging personality who provides some leadership can easily get a group going,” Wes said. “I remember in 1990 sitting at a table with eight guys, showing my Vicksburg slides, explaining the campaign.”

He recalled a historian “who used butcher-paper sheets which he clothes-pinned to an easel. He drew a bunch of Xs and Os, demonstrating the movements of the cavalry action at Gettysburg. Everybody loved that stuff.”

For Scottsdale, humble beginnings paved the way and a more formal organization later came to life. Transplanted Easterners and several historians provided fertile ground for membership.

“No one ever thinks of giving up their favorite hobby just because they live in Arizona,” concluded Wes. As meetings became regular occurrences, growing in number and complexity, schedules were developed, meeting places were reserved, monthly reminders were distributed and the group “passed the hat” to fund future speakers and programs.

Today, the round table meets at the local main public library on the third Tuesday of certain months. The library’s public notice of upcoming meetings helps attract members.

The group works to create a member-friendly atmosphere. Round table officers serve as greeters, directing visitors to the meeting and answering questions.

The annual $35 dues are supplemented by sales of Civil War memorabilia, books and magazines. Wes proudly noted that in the past three months more than $800 was raised through these sales.

This financial success helps the round table afford well-known speakers who attract even larger audiences. Flying in luminaries such as Ed Bearss. who has spoken to the round table each January for the past 10 years, can get expensive, even for a financially savvy group like his. To offset such worthwhile expenses, local experts are invited to present.

Regardless of the speaker, the meetings are engaging for a number of reasons. Scottsdale CWRT members “are entertained before the formal meeting begins. Early arrivals are treated to a Civil War-related video, which starts 30 minutes before the meeting begins.

Wes said that the videos are thoroughly enjoyed. “An audible groan arises” when the video is shut off until the next meeting, when it picks up where it left off.

Videos are not the only thing keeping Scottsdale CWRT members engaged. The programs are highly regarded and well-attended. Wes credits the hard work of the well-connected program chairman, Mack Stanley.

He strives to offer a wide array of unusual topics. “We find that a general overview of something is not as fascinating as an in-depth study with individual stories,” said Wes. He points to the fall schedule as an example.

The September speaker, Professor Thomas Cutrer of Arizona State University West, will present “A Stepping Stone to a Still Greater Eminence: The Mexican War Experience of George B. McClellan.”

“How could any one of our 200 members have a clue about that? You want to come and learn,” said Wes.

Clearly, the folks in Scottsdale have a lot to offer the round table community. Wes listed several of the CWRT’s keys to success, including a fantastic meeting location, several dedicated officers and a terrific newsletter editor, a regularly updated and well maintained Web site, and, of course, the pre-meeting videos.

Fundraising has helped significantly, as many members donate books for sale while others buy them. Donations are always welcome, especially after some legal legwork a lawyer member provided.

“We are fortunate since one of our members got us not-for-profit status,” Wes acknowledged. “This really helps with donations so that they are now tax-deductible.”

Location has in no way tempered the enthusiasm and success of Wes Schmidt and the 200 members of the Scottsdale CWRT. They clearly are doing a whole lot of things right, in spite of their distance from the war’s most notable sites. Keep up the great work, Wes, and start that video!

Matthew Borowick is a member of the R. E. Lee Civil War Round Table and is Executive Director of its Civil War Library and Research Center. He has spoken to numerous round tables about the court-martial of Fitz John Porter and about the economics of the Civil War.