“What story does the Civil War tell?” Edward Ayers asked during his Saturday night keynote address at the American Battlefield Trust’s 2019 Teacher Institute. We probably all think we know the answer, but Ayers spent 40 minutes challenging assumptions, reframing perceptions, and inviting reconsideration.
“I’m going to give us something hard to think about,” he said.
Ayers is the Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities at the University of Richmond, where he is also president emeritus. In 2013, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama.
Ayers began by explaining that 4 out of 10 Americans still believe that a struggle over states rights, rather than slavery, drove the Civil War. Republicans divide almost evenly on this issue. There’s no real measurable difference in the way Northerners and Southerners feel about the issue.
This is the largest gap between public opinion and professional understanding in the entire field of history, he said.
But rather than dismiss that gap, he went on to provide examples of why people might actually have reasons to believe the misconception despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary. In essence, he said, he could understand why they misunderstand. From that point of empathy, he said, he can begin to figure out a way to help close that gap.
“How can we think about the Civil War in ways that move us forward?” he asked.
He reminded his audience that “people use history for purposes beyond historical understanding.” For that reason, history often gets muddied and misappropriated.
For instance, statues masked slavery and defeat. “Monuments were meant to obscure the complexities of the past and sentimentalize the Civil War,” he said. Later, more modern wars came along. Suddenly, in that context, the Civil War becomes “a quieter war…a more human war.”
As another example, Charlottesville “became an event instead of a place I lived.”
Complicating matters are the “caustic one-liners that strive for one-upmanship,” like “a mic drop that ends the discussion.” But it doesn’t change anyone’s mind, he said. It does the opposite. “It doesn’t advance the conversation at all.”
Yet, he offered optimism, too. “I’ve seen people change their minds,” he said. He’s seen “thoughtful, searching opinions” and earnest questions.
State testing standards also perpetuate the problem. Standards boil history down to “bland statements” that are “outdated, or partial, or misleading.” He criticized generalities like “The North was industrial.” “That would’ve been a surprise to most northerners at the time,” he said, pointing out that most Northerners were actually farmers—a fact totally obscured by the usual narrative.
Similarly misleading is the common companion statement “The South was agricultural.” That paints a misleading picture, he said, because “the South was one of the most advanced economies of the world.” It was responsible for 80% of the nation’s exports. They had total control over the single-most important commodity in the world. “The North was completely irrelevant in the world economy,” he said. “To call the system ‘agricultural’ doesn’t do it justice.”
It also ignores a major component of that economy: one million slaves were sold and shipped in the South during the half-century leading up to the Civil War.
While slavery gets underemphasized in the South’s story, Abolitionism gets overemphasized in the North’s story. “Only 2% of Northerners self-identified as Abolitionists,” he pointed out.
However, making history formulaic allows it to be reduced to choice A or B or C or D. That way, it can easily measured. “We know history doesn’t happen like that,” he said.
Ayers spent some time showing off the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, which uses data visualization and archiving to make information more accessible and relatable.
“We are trying to use data and information to dislodge ideas,” he said.
He pulls up a few pages to use as examples:
- electing the House of Representatives from 1840 through the present
- the foreign-born population by county from 1850-present
- the forced migration of enslaved people across American due to the slave trade, from 1810-1860
He then connects to a UR site that archives the Virginia secession debates.
Virginians weren’t going to make any rash decisions about secession, Ayers said: they sent delegates from every county in the state to have a rational discussion, and time and time again, they voted against secession. There are transcripts for hundreds of hours’ worth of speeches during the debates. “If you read them, you’ll clearly see that Virginia thought it was going to save the Union, not leave it,” Ayers said. “They were going to secede only if forced.” If you really look, he added, then you can start to ask, why were some men crying when they voted for secession? Why did some refuse to vote? How could they vote against secession one day and be loyal Confederates the next?
“Students need to confront these complexities,” he said.
So, the question then becomes, “How do I teach the complexity? How can I show a complex chain of events that might have led to more than one outcome? How can I show change over time and make sense of it?”
Ayers says that, fortunately, teachers already know how to do this: stories.
“Right now, we clean up our history and ignore the struggle at the center that makes it real,” he said. “We need to restore that sense of awe and surprise.” History often lacks the drama inherent in the events as they actually unfolded. But, he reminded people, “The sequence wasn’t a sequence until it happened.”
“If you’re going to understand history, you have to forget how it turned out,” he said. Doing so restores you to the moment and puts you into the midst of the complexity.
In Ayers’ view, there are three stories of the war:
1) The story of the would-be Confederacy.
This initiated much of the action, he said. This drives events.
The south did not foresee the war, Ayers said, nor did they foresee that so many of their men would die. They did not foresee emancipation, or that it would happen with no compensation. They did not know secession would destroy slavery.
It’s important to note, he emphasized, that Emancipation would not have happened had the South not tried to secede. The Constitution forbid the government from doing anything about abolishing slavery; the prewar debates were about the extension of slavery, not its abolition. Only because the South seceded did Lincoln have an avenue for attacking slavery as a war powers measure, which later paved he way for the 13th amendment.
2) The United States of America fights to defend its very existence.
“We forget this,” Ayers said. “It wasn’t just ‘the North.’ It was the entire county fighting for its own survival.”
Eventually, Lincoln transforms it into a war to abolish slavery. “The conversion of American public opinion to that purpose is the greatest political achievement in American history,” Ayers said.
It wasn’t a perfect conversion, though. The percentage of voters who opposed Lincoln in 1864 was almost as high as it had been in 1861.
3) Enslaved people did everything they could to escape and destroy slavery.
“Within three weeks of the start of the war, enslaved people began working toward slavery’s destruction,” Ayers said. Slavery had been around in American for a couple hundred years by that point, “yet look how quickly slavery began to dissolve when enslaved people were given the chance to do something about it.”
“Kids can handle these powerful stories,” Ayers contended. “They can handle the truth. They can understand that people had difficult decisions to make.” And those people didn’t just means the politicians and the generals. “The enslaved and the enlisted are characters, too,” he said.
The moral of the story can emerge as it goes on. Remember, Ayers said, “The meaning of the Civil War would have been different had it ended earlier.” Being in the moment as the story enfolds lets people confront the complexity.
“Telling all these struggles against great odds does not diminish any of them,” Ayers said. “The Civil War is not a zero-sum game.”
Aside from stories and evidence, Ayers suggested one final element for moving the conversation forward. “How do we persuade one another?” he asked. “We do it through stories, evidence, and good will.”
Controversies about monuments and flags are, overall, a positive thing, he said. “We shouldn’t feel a sense of failure that we’re having these discussions,” he explained. “It’s not bad that people who’ve been excluded from these conversations are no getting to participate. It’s the sign of a robust democracy. These questions are necessary.”
The important thing is to keep looking ahead, he concluded: “How can we conduct this discussion going forward?”