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Lessons in History

If “politics is civil war carried on by other means,” as the British political philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre wrote, then the Capitol Hill Civil War Round Table has found an appropriate home.

The group, which meets monthly in the Longworth House Office Building, aims to “stimulate interest in all aspects of the Civil War,” according to its charter.

“We like to focus on local events and activities, but we do have lectures on all aspects of the Civil War,” said the group’s president, Rande Young. The round table hosts a monthly lecture series from September to June of each year. The list of speakers typically includes authors of recently published works on the Civil War, as well as descendants of military veterans.

Carroll Gibbs, author of “Black, Copper & Bright: The District of Columbia’s Black Civil War Regiment,” is scheduled to speak to the organization at 6 p.m. tonight in Room 1302 of the Longworth Building. Future events may focus on General George G. Meade, the Confederate Navy, as well as Nelson Lankford, author of the recently published “Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital.”

“We try to cover a broad umbrella of things, but we like to pick speakers who can talk about local sights,” Young noted.

Civil War aficionado Todd Berkoff, who is a legislative correspondent in Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office, spoke to the group last April about his research on the West Point class of 1861, the last class to graduate before the war ignited.

“The Washington, D.C., area is full of Civil War history,” said Berkoff, who serves as a volunteer historian at Manassas National Battlefield Park. “Many people just walk by these buildings during the day on their commute to work and really don’t know what this city was like 140 years ago. If you can educate the public or if you have a little spark of interest in history, people should come out to these meetings and just see what’s out there.”

Norman Singleton, legislative director for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), echoed those sentiments when explaining his interest in the organization.

“They really do a good job of bringing in authors and experts on the war,” Singleton said. “It’s amazing how many little ins and outs there are, questions on how if [Gen. William Tecumseh] Sherman or [Gen. Robert E.] Lee had done something differently” the war’s outcome may have changed.

In addition to its lecture series, the group organizes day trips to nearby Civil War sites, as well as an annual weekend-long trip.

“We also try to support activities like those at the Congressional Cemetery and the Arlington [National] Cemetery,” Young said. Those events include tours of various graves — Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, as well as numerous Union and Confederate soldiers, are buried at Congressional Cemetery — and outings with similar groups, such as the District of Columbia Civil War Round Table, and those based in Montgomery County, Bull Run and Manassas. Many members go a step further and take part in Civil War re-enactments, most recently for the Warner Brothers film “Gods and Generals,” scheduled for release in late February.

The Capitol Hill group also supports efforts to preserve battlefields, many of which are located in the mid-Atlantic region.

“Northern Virginia is congested with roads and housing developments and supermarkets and stores, everywhere really, and the development is encroaching on these battlefields,” Berkoff said. Members donate funds to local preservation groups which then attempt to buy the historic sites, such as Chancellorsville Battlefield, part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia.

Founded 14 years ago by members of the Congressional Staff Club, the group now boasts more than 75 members, although just a handful work for Congressional offices.

“We’re really trying to get the word out,” said Berkoff, who posts fliers to encourage House and Senate staff members to attend. “It’s a good group, they get good speakers, and it’s close by.”

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