In Richmond, a Civil War expert seeks to emancipate history's narrative

Civil War historian and University of Richmond President Edward Ayers at the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, in Richmond.
Civil War historian and University of Richmond President Edward Ayers at the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, in Richmond. (Jay Paul/For The Washington Post)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010

W hen the young Edward Ayers left his Tennessee home for Yale to study history, his mama asked him why. "You already know what happened," she said.

But history, Ayers already knew, is best understood through the lens of time. History is always changing.

Now that he's president of the University of Richmond, he's become an agent of that change. As a leader of Richmond's sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, he hopes to reshape America's understanding of the bloodiest conflict in its history.

Ayers wants Americans to see beyond the battlefield maneuvers and battle flags, the pat narratives of brothers reluctantly taking up arms against brothers and the kitsch of Stonewall Jackson bobbleheads, and reimagine the conflict from the perspective of its most important consequence: the emancipation of 4 million slaves.

"I am trying to get us to rethink what the war is about, and what we've being doing in Richmond is instead of talking of one sesquicentennial, one anniversary, it's really two: One's the Civil War, and the other's Emancipation," Ayers says, with the faintest drawl. "The main thing that happened, the consequence of the war, was freedom for 4 million people who had been held in bondage for over two centuries in this country."

His broader approach has earned him praise in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederate States of America, but also denunciations from some whose ancestors fought on its behalf. To those who accuse him of politically correct revisionism, Ayers points out that Americans have always interpreted the Civil War to reflect their times.

In the late 19th century, W.E.B. Dubois argued that the war, and its enormous death toll, had been a necessary sacrifice to end slavery. That view changed after World War I's horrors encouraged revisionists who questioned whether the Civil War had been unavoidable or worth the price. The literary critic Edmund Wilson went so far as to compare Lincoln to Lenin in using violence to reshape the world according to his politics.

Then came World War II, which seemed to teach again that some causes are worth dying for. By the time of the Civil War centennial in 1960, the war's legacy had been reshaped by the struggle for civil rights, with Southerners emphasizing the centrality of states' rights and Northerners the need for federal intervention to right an enduring wrong.

Even this year, when Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) issued a proclamation honoring Confederate History Month that omitted any reference to slavery, the widespread outrage demonstrated once again that the past is not yet past. After apologizing, McDonnell pledged that from now on the state would commemorate the Civil War in all its complexity, not just the Confederacy.

That is almost exactly the approach Ayers has championed for Richmond. As a member of the leadership team of "The Future of Richmond's Past," he has helped bring together blacks and whites, historians and lay people, to plan events for the next five years. Among the first was last April's "Civil War and Emancipation Day" which drew 4,000 people to explore the history of slavery and the Civil War, from the grounds of the city's former slave market to various museums in the city.

But Ayers, who often talks of going against the grain, of resisting the smugness that comes of judging dead people, can also frustrate those who insist that the Civil War was fought over slavery alone. He sees slavery as the primary cause, but he also wants to move beyond the notion that the explanation for the most important conflict in American history, one that claimed 620,000 lives and rededicated the republic to its founding principles, could fit on a bumper sticker.

"People will spend more time and energy explaining a car wreck than they will that: 'It was just states' rights.' Or, 'It was just slavery.' Any answer we give 'just' to explain the actions of 40 million people is wrong," he says. "We have to have the courage to say: No, it's complex, and it's changing."

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