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The Long Reach of Civil War History on Contemporary Issues

The Long Reach of Civil War History on Contemporary Issues

University of Richmond president says country can't talk honestly about current topics without addressing Civil War history

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Durham, NC - University of Richmond President Ed Ayers says the enemy of Civil War history is everything people think they know about the conflict.  But as the country continues to mark the war's 150th anniversary the historian says that has to change, not just so that we know our history but so we can talk about important contemporary issues such as race, gender and even who we are as Americans.

"The Civil War is our greatest point of leverage to talk about these issues," Ayers said.  "I became a historian of 19th Century America not to run away from contemporary issues."

Ayers presented the annual lecture of Duke's Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender in the Social Sciences Friday afternoon in the Gothic Reading Room.  As president of a major university in the old capital of the former Confederacy, Ayers has been in a key position to help shape the themes of the anniversary of the Civil War, which began in 1861. He is author of numerous books on the Civil War, including "In The Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863," which won the Bancroft Prize for history.

And his involvement with a highly praised digital history collection underscores how humanities scholars can use technology to mine old data in new ways and make them accessible to the public.

Two of the outstanding questions that Ayers said the data are providing new evidence for are the origins of the conflict and how a fight over the union was transformed into a larger conflict for freedom and emancipation.

Using electoral data and digitized records of secession debates, Ayers challenged common ideas about the 1860 presidential election and its aftermath.  Nobody was voting for war in 1860, he said, and schisms were found throughout both the North and South.

"Nobody knew what it was they were voting for," Ayers said.  "Lincoln and the Republicans disavowed that they were going after slavery, but throughout the South newspapers insisted they were intent on destroying slavery.  The two sides talked through each other.  Every political party had its own newspaper and its own interpretation."

Key to the South was a segment of voters who supported the Constitutional Whig party in the election.  These were people -- very strong in North Carolina -- who opposed secession but supported slavery, Ayers said.  When radicals in South Carolina voted for secession immediately after the election, one reason was to try to make this compromise position untenable.

"There's still this idea that the secession wasn't about preserving slavery," Ayers said.  "It's not true.  They spoke the language of state's rights, but it shouldn't be surprising that the talk of rights and slavery were tied closely together."

The records of the important Virginia secession debates -- held many months after South Carolina's vote -- underscore the centrality of slavery in the debate.  The topic was raised more than 1,400 times in speeches, literally once every other page. 

Ayers noted that the Virginia debates, as well as similar ones that followed in North Carolina, lacked the fire of those in South Carolina and the deep South.  "They knew where the war would actually be fought," he said.  "Virginia and North Carolina lost more men in the war than any other state.  They went into this crying, and they lost the most."

But what war would it be?  Ayers said it was important that the Civil War anniversary not overshadow a second just as significant anniversary -- the emancipation of 3.5 million African-Americans, an event that occurred under circumstances unique in world history.

Had the war ended in 1862 -- had Union Gen. George McClellan succeeded as he should have in taking Richmond -- the war would have concluded without emancipation, Ayers said.  But a combination of political, military and social factors as well as the bravery of the slaves themselves, led to a conclusion that nobody at the start of the war predicted.

The Richmond digital history includes another timeline showing the movement of Union soldiers and accompanying efforts of slaves to race to Union lines to win their freedom.  This starts in May 1861, even before the first infantry battle, when a handful of slaves flee to Union soldiers in Hampton Roads, Va., and without explicit orders from his superiors, Gen. Benjamin Butler accepts them. 

"What the map shows is the determination of the slaves to find freedom," he said.  "It's easy to romanticize this, and in fact in many of the cases it wasn't a good outcome.  But it shows the incredible bravery of the slaves and how they helped transformed the nature of the war."

Lincoln also came to believe that to defeat the Confederacy, slavery had to be crushed.  Ayers noted that while much Civil War scholarship on emancipation focuses on the personality and character of Lincoln, he believes more attention should be placed on the military and political contexts that forced his actions. It was through the system of slavery that the South was able to draw upon nearly all adult white males and feed a vast army. 

Ayers said his hope is for the Civil War anniversary to be marked not by a celebration but with a feeling of empathy to understand uncomfortable truths and to challenge long-standing myths surrounding the conflict.

"Traditional Civil War history has smoothed out the sharp edges," he said.  "We need to grapple with sharp edges, to talk honestly about issues of race and feminism and social conflict 150 years ago.  If we can do that, there's hope we can talk honestly about these same issues now."

Ayers was introduced by Duke faculty members Kerry Haynie and Paula McClain, co-directors of REGSS, an interdisciplinary center housed within the Social Science Research Institute.

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