February 02, 2011 News & Features » Cover Story


The Meaning 

Finding truth in the 150-year anniversary of the Civil War. An interview with historian Ed Ayers.


In this city, the Civil War is just there. It's part of the fabric. Earthworks erode in suburban backyards. Historic markers stud barren stretches of roadside. Cannons rest on a hundred hills, mouths stopped with concrete.

To some people, the story of the Civil War and emancipation feels like well-trodden ground. Blue, gray, Union, Confederate, slavery and Abraham Lincoln — haven't we heard it all before? Isn't it over already?

Yet to others, the war remains fertile ground. Virginia, and especially Richmond, is trying hard to brand itself as the primo destination for sesquicentennial tourism. The calendar's packed with re-enactments, lectures, tours and museum openings. Look for the “Civil War 150” logo on bottles of Virginia wine.

Richmond, in many respects, is hallowed ground. Witness one C.C. Lesters, who drove from Georgia to Richmond two weeks ago to stand coatless outside Capitol Square, holding a Confederate flag on a long pole. He wanted the politicians in the mirrored hive of the General Assembly Building to look down and see the flag. He wanted them to quit talking about emancipation and vilifying the South, he said, and get back to what he says the sesquicentennial is really about: the Confederate cause.

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Two unidentified young women are pictured in front of a painted backdrop showing a plantation, circa 1860-1870. From the Liljenquist family collection at the Library of Congress.

Lesters' protest underscores the distorted history that persists, some say. The Civil War is ground that must be plowed up again to reveal crucial truths, like lead MiniAc balls, white with age, that yet lie buried in Virginia fields. Slavery may not have been the central cause, but its abolition defined the war — and America's future. African-Americans also weren't passive bystanders simply awarded freedom. They created their own emancipation, imposing their will on a reluctant North. The lessons of the war — racism, federal versus state powers, the Constitution — are just as relevant 150 years later, as they ever were.

Such history can be painful, but it must be told. Fortunately, Richmond has a qualified teacher in Ed Ayers.

This interview with Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and renowned Southern historian, begins Style Weekly's year-long series on the legacy of the Civil War and emancipation.

Ayers has written and edited 10 books and one, “The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Another work, “In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America,” won the Bancroft Prize for distinguished American history. Before becoming president at UR in 2007, Ayers taught at the University of Virginia for 27 years and was dean of arts and sciences there. He leads a coalition of Richmond groups in an effort called the Future of Richmond's Past, which seeks to broaden the discussion of Civil War and emancipation history. — Melissa Scott Sinclair

Style: What's coming up with the sesquicentennial?

Ed Ayers: The most important thing that has happened is that we changed the very definition of the event from the sesquicentennial of the Civil War to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and emancipation. That is the note we are striking. We are a consortium of 15 institutions, both African-American and white. Once we recognize that we're not just talking about the 150th anniversary of the war but that of the end of slavery of 4 million people. It takes on a different meaning.

Emancipation established the base line for citizenship. Before, we were far from freedom and the 14th Amendment. You do not have citizenship defined as the birthright of everybody born in this country. So, if you've only lived in this country for five or six years, this is your sesquicentennial as well.


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The University of Richmond's president, historian Ed Ayers, in Shockoe Bottom, which is taking center stage in the city's 150-year anniversary of the Civil War. Photo by Scott Elmquist

It is very different from the centennial. When it began in Virginia it was with a tone of states' rights right after massive resistance. By the time the centennial was over you had freedom rides, sit-ins, the march on Washington, Selma, Birmingham, the Voting Rights Act. So in the five years from the five years of the centennial, the moral geography of this country was forever altered.

Historians of the American Civil War have been going back and looking at that event and wondering, “If the most important consequence of that event was freedom, how did that happen?” I think starting in the '80s, the people began to notice more and more and the evidence was that that African-Americans made themselves free. That if you think emancipation as only what Abe Lincoln did for African-Americans, you are missing the full meaning of the story.

One big shift occurred during the start of the Civil War. Black men started going to [Union General] Benjamin Butler at Fort Monroe just weeks after Virginia seceded and declared themselves to be on the Union's side and wanted to help the cause. And that was when Butler came up with the idea of contraband. Before that whenever black people fled to the Union they were supposed to be returned to their masters, but Butler says no, your master says you are property so I define you as property and you are contraband of war. So starting then, emancipation actually begins.

The whole center of the entire event has shifted away from what white people have done to each other, then what white people did for black people, and now it is what black people did for this country.

Remember the movie “Glory” from 1988? It was about black men finally being able in 1863 to fight for the Union cause, and ultimately over 200,000 did — even though they were prevented during the first two years of the war. So there's been a revolution in the professional understanding of the war since the centennial and now with the sesquicentennial.

Can you elaborate about the revolution in professional understanding?

We've broadened the story to include the half that was female, the home front, economic history, literary history, and in many ways we've shown that this war touched everything in this country. It goes far beyond the battlefields now. Many people just haven't had a chance to see it. They haven't had a chance to see the way the war as it appeared in 1960, as a kind of armchair this general did this or that. Instead a lot of people see it as how black people secured their freedom. We've broadened our vision to include the entire population.

What about the controversy around the textbook “Our Virginia: Past and Present”? Is it revisionism or a mistake? (Note: This is the book published by Five Ponds Press for fourth-graders in Virginia, which erroneously claims that two battalions of blacks fought under Stonewall Jackson. The book has been pulled from schools and the Virginia Department of Education says it is reviewing its fact checking).

It's not true. As the person says in the [news] story, [author Joy Masoff] got it online. The problem is that anybody can put anything they want to online. The trick then becomes how to prove what has happened with evidence and what has not. So for some reason this has been a major point that those who would like to resist this revolution in understanding: If black men had fought for the Confederacy, then the war could not have been about slavery. It's the reason people want to show that. But in fact we know that 200,000 black men fought for the Union. While there may have been some who picked up a gun in defense of the Confederacy or alongside their owner, there's been nothing like this.

Some people claim that the war was not about slavery, but that it was about Union. They say secession was about slavery. What's your view?


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The civil rights march on Washington in August 1963. Photo by Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

The way it operates is an unbalanced equation. The South did secede to protect a society based on slavery. It does not mean the North went to war to end slavery. They did not because they could not imagine that you could end the most powerful system of slavery in the world with war. They discovered that there was no way to defeat the Confederacy without destroying slavery, so they did so. And once they started destroying slavery, a kind of latent equalitarianism surfaced in the North and they celebrated themselves for ending slavery.

The trick … is people have been locked in this binary argument so long. If the North was fighting against slavery, then the North must have been bunch of abolitionists. We know they weren't, so the North must not have been fighting to end slavery. That's why we need to have set the story in motion to see how it unfolded to see how it was.

Why the North fought against slavery was because black people forced it to be a war against slavery. They started flooding to these Union camps. They started demanding to be an ally in their own freedom. And it's that Northern men started running in shortages for enlistments. So the North needed black men to fight. The number of black troops who fought is larger than all the troops that fought at Gettysburg. This is a significant number of people who were fighting.

You also see that you didn't have to be a black soldier to damage the Confederacy and thereby help the Union. Everywhere they could, women escaped to the Union from slavery as fast as they could. When their men were gone, many just refused to work. Without force, they said, “Now our time is our own. We'll feed our children. We'll take care of ourselves. We'll get a crop in the ground.”

Go ahead to the present. You have people fighting Hispanic immigration and as part of that they want to repeal the 14th Amendment. You have the anti-immigration laws in Arizona and Prince William County. What's the context here?

It shows that issues touched by the Civil War haven't left us. That's why it's important to understand where the 14th Amendment came from in the first place. Every time we think this story is behind us, we find that it is not. Slavery is the great sin of this country's history, followed by nearly 100 years of segregation. We can't think we can just put it behind us. The Civil War is woven into all the hard questions about American society. It involves the powers of the state versus the federal government just this week about health care. There are two things here. One strand is how federalism works. The other is about the place of race and injustice in our society. These two things are always weaving together. The sesquicentennial gives us a way to see that this is all part of the same story.

The freedom of all Americans depends really on the freedom of each of us. You realize that the African-Americans could not foresee the ways of integration coming in the 20th century — that their struggles would be the foundation for all of these new Americans. No, they are being challenged. History never stops. It's always churning.

The Civil War did not decide there would be secession. It did decide there would be one nation and it did destroy the institution of slavery. I sometimes hear people say, “Did it make that much difference?” Under slavery they could sell your children.

Another thing I want to emphasize: If we concentrate on the Civil War and emancipation, we realize that is a story of accomplishment and success of black Americans who were coming to freedom with absolutely nothing besides the clothes on their backs. And they build churches and schools and families and business districts like Jackson Ward. They are able to buy land, they educate their children. That's an amazing story of accomplishment. That's not something white people gave black people. It's something black people made on their own — even in the face of white opposition. So the trick is you need to weave it together. When we think we need the tell story again, well, we need to look at it with fresh eyes. People have already made up their minds. The trick is to make it surprising by changing the name to Civil War and emancipation. It's not political correctness. That's not equal billing. It's what really happened.


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An unidentified African-American Union soldier stands in front of a painted backdrop showing weapons and an American flag at Benton Barracks in St. Louis. Photo by Enoch Long, part of the Liljenquist family collection at the Library of Congress.

If you visit some other Southern cities such as Charleston, S.C., you see them marketing the Confederacy to tourists with the flags and uniforms. You don't see that here. Somehow it's OK there but not here. Why?

Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy. We've had one struggle after the other about this and it's not productive. You've had the struggle over the flood wall; the Lincoln statue. One of the best days I have had in Richmond was at the unveiling of the Civil Rights Memorial at the Capitol. African-Americans in Farmville began a moral revolution in this country.

Half the battles of the Civil War took place 30 miles from here. Charleston had one battle on one day in the Civil War when it fires on Fort Sumter. Richmond, on the other hand, was the center of suffering for so long.

What about slavery museums? The one proposed by former Gov. Doug Wilder in Fredericksburg has fallen apart.

You had the one Doug Wilder planned. One opened in Philadelphia although it got a tough review in The New York Times. There will be a museum on the mall in Washington. It is shocking that there isn't a museum of slavery in the United States.

How can the sesquicentennial be relevant for Hispanics?

It's only if you know where to look. We've become so used to the Civil War happening all around us that we're domesticated by it. We forget that it was the biggest struggle over the future of slavery in world history. If the South had won, you would have had the fourth-richest economy in the world based on perpetual bondage. And you would have had the division of the United States. What would that have meant in World War II? The whole history of the world would have been different.

It's a matter of global history. The other reason it matters is the establishment of a legal structure for freedom. It establishes the power of the federal state to be an aid in citizenship laws and health care. What this means is the South by itself would never have had the civil rights movement without the power of the federal government. Minorities are beneficiaries of the power of federal government. It is one reason why people who don't want minorities to have power want to keep power close to home where they can control it.

It establishes the context of citizenship, world importance and it is still the framework through which we argue the power of the federal government, which has shown itself to be the ally of new Americans.

In all these ways, it's going to be better for the U.S. The Civil War is yours. It's not just an inheritance. S



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