Tom Eblen

Civil War historian turns 100. His first lessons were from battlefield veterans.

University of Kentucky throws surprise party for 100-year-old historian

The University of Kentucky had a surprise birthday party Sunday for Charles P. Roland, a noted historian of the Civil War and the American military.
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The University of Kentucky had a surprise birthday party Sunday for Charles P. Roland, a noted historian of the Civil War and the American military.

Historian Charles P. Roland is one of the most recognized authorities on the Civil War, and he may be the last who grew up hearing firsthand accounts from battlefield veterans.

He also is an expert on American military history, and his lessons to students at West Point, Tulane and the University of Kentucky included his own experiences as an infantry captain during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.

Roland’s family, friends, former students and colleagues at the University of Kentucky threw a surprise party on Sunday to celebrate his 100th birthday. Festivities included a military honor guard and singing of “Happy Birthday” and the U.S. Army Song by the UK History Department’s faculty.

“He is a shrewd analyst of people and events,” said George Herring, a retired UK history professor who taught with Roland for many years. “He is a born storyteller, with an eye for colorful and telling detail, and he wrote in a manner that was accessible to general readers as well as historians.”

Roland was born in West Tennessee not far from the Shiloh battleground, and some of his earliest memories are of attending family picnics there and reading the stone monuments honoring troops from various states. Kentucky didn’t have a monument at Shiloh until 1974. The Kentucky Historical Society asked Roland to write the words for it.

“Growing up as he did in the shadow of the Shiloh battlefield, he lived in the world he wrote about,” said James Klotter, Kentucky’s state historian, who studied under Roland. “Fighting as an infantry captain in WWII resulted in an understanding of war and its cost.”

The son and grandson of teachers, Roland graduated from Vanderbilt University. Among his memories are studying under the famous poet John Crowe Ransom and playing tennis with classmate Fannye Rose Shore, who became the singer and actress Dinah Shore.

After World War II, Roland finished his graduate studies at Louisiana State University. He was a lecturer and guest professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Roland came to Lexington from Tulane University in 1970 because of his friendship with Otis Singletary, a graduate school classmate who became UK’s eighth president the year before.

Roland wrote a biography of Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston and was the author of several other books, including “An American Iliad: The Story of the Civil War,” “The Improbable Era: The South since World War II ,” and “The Confederacy.”

In an interview last month, Roland recalled as a boy hearing firsthand accounts of the Civil War from those who fought in it.

“There were quite a number of veterans of the Civil War living in that area,” he said. “They had a big barbecue every year.”

Roland said he enjoyed both writing and teaching, but especially teaching. “I liked mixing and talking with the students,” he said.

Of all his books, he most likes “The Confederacy,” written in 1962. His favorite copy of it is a paperback he bought used from UK’s University Bookstore many years ago.

“That student (who had it before) had underlined almost every sentence in that book,” he said. “I felt gratified by that.”

Roland studied at LSU under the famous historians Bell I. Wiley and Francis Butler Simpkins. Among Roland’s former students was Robert Barrow, who became a four-star general and commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.

He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1960, was a member of the Civil War Centennial Commission and president of the Southern Historical Association and Louisiana Historical Association.

Although many higher education leaders now de-emphasize the humanities in favor of the sciences, Roland said he thinks studying history is important.

“If a society doesn’t have any interest in history, it would be like a person without any memory,” he said. “I think it’s very important for the society to have a collective memory.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen