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

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; R09

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."

A history guy

Ayers, 57, brings to the task a Southerner's perspective and impressive Civil War credentials. He has examined the conflict in several books and a groundbreaking online project called "The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War."

Born and raised in the South's mountain culture, he was the son of textile workers who settled in Kingsport, Tenn. Like the rest of the South, his town was deeply racist and segregated by law.

Rock and roll music, and magazines such as Rolling Stone, opened a window on the ferment of the broader culture. He toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist like Tom Wolfe, but instead, after a degree in American studies at the University of Tennessee, headed to postgraduate studies at Yale.

Ayers, who began teaching at the University of Virginia in 1980, has written or edited 10 books, including "The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction," which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. But he's hardly the supercilious scholar of stereotype. Chatty, affable and self-deprecating, with a head full of gray curls, for the last couple of years he's been one of the American History Guys on public radio's "BackStory," a sort of "Car Talk" for history buffs.

"He's an amazing guy, the amount of energy he has to do what he does," said James M. McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era." "And he's always chipper and cheerful. I'd be exhausted."

One thing Ayers never tires of discussing is slavery and its role in U.S. history. "I say that slavery is more central to the nation than we recognize, not less," he says. "But the thing is that, very often, people will say, 'Okay, that answers it. It was disputes over slavery.' But how did disputes over slavery turn into a war that ended slavery? Nobody thought that was possible at the start. Slavery is at the core of everything, from start to finish, but I think, ironically, just the assertion of it prevents us from understanding all its dimensions."

Ayers delights in challenging every simple theory of the war. To those who blame slavery alone, he responds that only 2 percent of Northern whites were abolitionists. Had the war ended at First Manassas, slavery would likely have remained intact, because ending it was not yet the Union's goal. As to the theory of modernism -- that an industrial economy built on wage labor was destined to collide with an agrarian feudalist economy based on slave labor -- he points out that the South had railroads, telegraphs and cotton, which was like the petroleum of the 19th century. If the South had achieved independence, it would have joined the ranks of the top four economies in the world. To those who argue states' rights, Ayers acknowledges that even Thomas Jefferson believed states might have the right to leave the union. But what's the one right that most divided North and South? The right to own slaves. Just look at the secession proclamations. In recent years, Ayers has been respectfully critical of the reigning view of the war, as presented by Ken Burns's PBS documentary series "The Civil War," McPherson and others. He expresses discomfort with an Olympian good-vs.-evil narrative of the war that can sometimes seem self-congratulatory and triumphant.

"It may be . . . that we like the current story too much to challenge it very deeply and that we foreclose questions by repeating familiar formulas," Ayers wrote in an essay. "The risk of our apparent consensus is that we paper over the complicated moral issues raised by a war that left hundreds of thousands of people dead. The risk is that we no longer worry about the Civil War."

Instead, he prefers to explain the war's cause by "deep contingency," or the notion that every element of social life is contingent, unpredictable, and intertwined with others in ways that can work together mysteriously, even improbably, to cause surprising and earthshaking events. "The shortest way to understand it," he says, "is that it's a perfect storm."

It is a compelling answer in the post-modern era of nonhierarchical thinking, chaos theory, Wikipedia, the Internet and collective intelligence -- or collective folly. His answer, critics say, is an evasion itself.

"I was never able to grasp what he was driving at there," McPherson says. What else is history but the imposition of pattern, order -- in short, a story -- on a universe of seemingly random and interconnected events? McPherson asks.

Ayers has heard this criticism. But if no one has ever been able to bind the nation's wounds from the Civil War, Ayers says, it's perhaps because the Civil War presents a paradox: Although the conflict did not begin as a war to end slavery, that is what it became. And that itself was a new beginning.

"The Civil War is at the heart of what this nation is about," he says. "Freedom, and respect, and possibility for all Americans."

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