A Brief History of the Louisville Civil War Round Table
January 19, 1961 — January 19, 2001
The Louisville Courier-Journal published in its January 20, 1961 edition the following news item: "The Civil War Round Table of Louisville, a group of Civil War students, was formed last night at Big Spring Golf Club. Elected to the board of Directors were Frank G. Rankin, H. Collins Reid, Kennedy Helm, Richard Hill, Thomas Speckman, Ernest Walker and Seaton Huff. Dr. Hambleton Tapp, chairman of the Civil War Centennial Commission of Kentucky, spoke on the Battle of Perryville".
We know that the Louisville Civil War Round Table was the creation of Frank G. Rankin and some of his friends and acquaintances who were serious students of the Civil War. They had been making the trek on U. S. 60 to Lexington five times a year to meet with the Kentucky Civil War Round Table. According to Frank Rankin, "Those occasion were presided over by the great Kentucky historian and raconteur Judge William F. Townsend who was already a legend". Inspired by these meetings and probably by the coming of the Civil War Centennial celebration, the group decided to found their own organization, in the words of Frank Rankin, "to share the War and its attending good fellowship in our hometown". "Finally, on January 19, 1961, General Robert E. Lee’s 154th birthday, about 75 men met at Big Spring Country Club to hear Joe Creason and D. P. Jones talk about General Lee, and thus the Louisville Civil War Round Table was born". This is a little different than the Courier-Journal version of the first meeting but both agree that the first meeting was on January 19, 1961.
There were seventy charter members of the Round Table most of whom are deceased. Only one of the original seventy remains an active member today, and this is Thomas Speckman. Lowell Griffin just missed being a charter member as he began attending at the second meeting. This probably qualifies him for being an unofficial charter member. From this beginning the membership grew dramatically and the Round Table was able to attract some of the very best Civil War historians to speak at the meetings. Great historians and scholars such as Glenn Tucker, T. Harry Williams, Bell I. Wiley, James I. Robertson, William C. Davis, James McPherson and a host of other great speakers have spoken to our members over the years.
Without a doubt, the Round Table owes its success to one great individual and leader, Frank G, Rankin, the person we honor at each January meeting with the Frank Rankin Memorial Lecture series now in its seventh year. Many other individuals have worked hard and contributed much to this organization, but all who knew him and worked with him agree that Frank Rankin was a great leader and driving force that inspired others until he passed away January 20, 1994. He was a person who "knew everyone" from famous scholars to the governors of Kentucky whom he could call on to speak to the Round Table. He was born in 1906 and grew up hearing first hand Civil War veterans tell their stories of the war. He knew Basil Duke well and met and shook hands with John S. Mosby and walked the battlefields of Virginia with Douglas Southall Freeman. He was a collector of Civil War books and memorabilia long before it became popular and amassed a rare and voluminous library of books and artifacts. He was an ardent southern partisan who loved Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and all things southern. Lowell Reidenbaugh writes, "when Frank passed away on January 20, I concluded that Frank chose not to favor Robert E. Lee, whose birthday fell on January 19, or Stonewall Jackson’s natal day, the 21st, and selected the day between to yield up his spirit so as not to show favoritism to either of his idols." Certainly one of Frank’s weaknesses was in dealing fairly with his northern brethren. But beyond this, Frank Rankin is remembered for his ability to lead and inspire others to work and give of themselves to further the mission of the Round Table in providing opportunities for people to learn about the Civil War. Mike Mills wrote a touching tribute to Frank in which he said the members of the Round Table "… all live under the shadow of Frank Rankin. Frank was not perfect or a saint. But he was a man who loved this land, this Kentucky soil and each of us.’’
In May of 1961 the Round Table became involved in one of its greatest achievements. Inspired by a visit to the battlefield at Perryville, Frank Rankin and two of his friends decided to start "a Boy and Girl Scout Trek be held each year over the battlefield to learn its history." Due to the Berlin Crisis the other two friends were called to active duty with the 100th division leaving Frank to head up the effort. He persuaded Thomas Speckman to become Trek Chairman and the event became a spectacular success. "On October 7, 1961 about 3,000 scouts walked the 15 mile trail and heard Round Table members lecture at check points in order to receive their medals," Frank writes. For years this tradition continued with other trails being added to the experience. Thousands of scouts learned from our members the story of the battle and no doubt carried this with them the rest of their lives. The Round Table’s involvement ended in the 1980’s when legal concerns and the cost of insurance forced us to regrettably end this tradition of passing on history to a younger generation.
Another great tradition of the Round Table that began early on was the taking of field trips to battlefields for first hand learning. Some of the first trips were day treks to Kentucky sites that featured noted Kentucky historians as guides. In the mid 1980’s the trips became larger and encompassed more detail and the tradition began of alternating each year between Western and Eastern theaters. Kenny Hafendorfer took over leadership of the field trips and has annually put together some of the best Civil War field trips that are available. The trips feature outstanding guides and very reasonable rates that make them affordable to our membership. Much work goes into the planning and leading of these trips each year. We have been to most of the major battlefields of the War and anyone who has been on a trip has had an experience they will never forget.
Over the years the Round Table has sponsored publications about the War and had members author outstanding books. These include: Battle of Munfordville, Kentucky September, 14-17, 1862 by Hal Engerud, City of Conflict by Robert McDowell, The Zollie Tree by Raymond Myers, Diary of J.E. Whitehouse by Fletcher Elmore, Perryville,They Died by Twos and Tens, Distant Thunder, and The Battle of Mill Springs by Kenny Hafendorfer, Coburn’s Brigade by Larry Ligget, and A History of the Sixth Kentucky Volunteer Infantry U.S. by Joe Reinhart. We are sure there will be many more added to this list in the next few years.
Recently the Round Table began an annual preservation grant to a Kentucky Civil War site. The first annual grant was given to the Camp Wildcat Foundation to be used for purchasing battlefield land at the Wildcat Mountain battlefield site. The grant is a reflection of our concern and commitment to preserving Civil War sites, as they are more and more in danger of being lost to development.
This very brief history cannot begin to mention all the great events we have experienced, nor the achievements, hard work and sacrifices made by so many of our members. We have 40 years of great memories and we look forward to many more. May we strive to ever increase our understanding of this nation’s greatest conflict so that we will not repeat the mistakes of the past but be inspired to become better citizens and leaders of our great country.
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