Symposium Preview with Rob Orrison

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Rob Orrison

by ECW Correspondent Jordan Vollmer

More than 100 people are already registered to attend the Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge slated for this summer. Rob Orrison, co-organizer of this year’s event, gives the credit to this year’s theme.

“Turning Points of the American Civil War” ties into the book Turning Points of the American Civil War published late last year by Emerging Civil War as part of its “Engaging the Civil War” Series with Southern Illinois University Press. The book contains essays from ten different ECW historians.

“Civil war history people love to debate,” said Orrison. “One of the biggest arguments that Civil War buffs seem to have is deciding which certain point the war became a guaranteed advantage for the North.” 

Orrison believes that this is the reason so many people are already signed up to attend the symposium on Aug. 3-5. The three-day weekend includes a speaker series with eight different authors and a different keynote speaker. (See here for the full schedule of speakers.)

Orrison wrote one of the essays in Turning Points of the American Civil War, titled “Confidence Renewed: Surviving Bull Run and the Birth of the Army of the Potomac.” The essay is about the defeat of the northern army at the battle of First Bull Run in July 1861. After the battle, the army had to totally reorganize itself under its newly appointed commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan.

“The army went from weak and defeated to a powerful military machine,” said Orrison. When the army became a professional organization, that was their turning point, he explained.

Orrison wrote this essay about a year and a half ago. Chris Mackowski, editor and co-founder of ECW, picked Orrison to write about the topic. “I think he wanted me to write about it because I live in Manassas, Virginia, which is in the area, and I know a lot about the battle of Bull Run,” said Orrison.

Orrison has worked in the history field for more than 20 years. He currently serves as the historic site operations supervisor for all Prince William County-owned historic sites.

Orrison’s piece is not featured in this year’s symposium mainly because he felt he already had his work cut out for him, being one of the select few who are running the event.

However, he admits that the work has been fairly easy so far with picking out the topics and getting guest speakers. “The easiest thing is getting speakers,” he said. “Civil War historians love to present and they love to get in front of a crowd and answer questions and share their theories.”

This year’s keynote speaker is Scott Hartwig. Hartwig is the former Gettysburg National Battlefield Supervisory Historian. “Scott is great,” said Orrison. “He’s worked in national parks around here for a long time. . . . It makes a difference when the person who is delivering the message is engaged and they know what they are doing.”

Orrison said the hardest part of organizing the symposium will come the week before the event. “I know something will break or happen and I’ll have to fix it,” Orrison joked.

More seriously, according to Orrison, the key to this position is staying organized. “I will say that the hardest challenge so far has just been getting everyone on the same page,” he admitted. He said it’s sometimes difficult to communicate mainly through email. This is due to the fact that ECW is so spread out, with different authors living all across the U.S. “It’s hard to explain what’s going on to other people who aren’t on the same page if you aren’t organized—you always have to know what’s happening,” he said.

Orrison has been a part of ECW for the past four years now, and has seen the symposium grow a lot since it began.

“It’s easy to see the growth in the symposium, and think that’s because it’s really aimed at the general public and people who are interested in this topic and don’t want to read a 600-page book,” Orrison said. “The point of the symposium is to essentially to get people hooked on the topic.”

As an organizer, Orrison has been able to see the event in a different light and hopes that attendees will feel appreciation for all it has to offer.

“The point of the symposium,” he said, “is for people to go in there with an open mind and learn new things so that they can continue to learn more on their own.”