Civil War 150: Edward L. Ayers on anniversary and end of slavery

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)
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Edward L. Ayers
President, University of Richmond and Civil War Historian
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 11:00 AM

Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and historian of the American South, was online Tuesday, Nov. 9, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the Civil War, its 150th anniversary and its complex and changing legacy.

Civil War 150

"Since Ed Ayers took on the presidency of the University of Richmond, he has campaigned to re-message the Civil War so it's not just about war but also about the end of slavery. For him, this is the '150th anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation,' a concept he is trying to spread to teachers and the city of Richmond," writes Washington Post staff writer Freddie Kunkle.

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Colorado: Dr. Ayers,

If you don't mind an obvious question...when I've talked to some folks in the South, they tell me the Civil War was not about slavery. So, what was the motivation for fighting of the average soldier from the South? Is there any indication that it was not about slavery?

Edward L. Ayers: This is a key question. There can be no doubt that slavery was at the heart of the struggles between North and South. All the major conflicts, including over states rights, turned around the meaning of slavery for white Americans. The challenge is that it was an unbalanced equation: the Confederacy did secede in order to protect slavery but that does not mean the United States went to war in order to abolish slavery. That lack of a parallel cause and effect has led to a lot of confusion for the last 150 years.

To answer your question: the average soldier from the South fought because there seemed no other choice. If you were a member of a community and a state that belonged to the Confederacy, it was your duty to fight for them. And if you did not, you would be drafted. This was not a free choice in which people could do whatever they wanted. Again, our simple answers--such as they fought for "home" or their "way of life"--get in the way of understanding the struggles and realities of the time.

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Poquoson, Va.: Just after Fort Sumter, slavery began to crumble thanks to enslaved Americans' bravery and resourcefulness in escaping and seeking sanctuary at the Union's bastion in Confederate Virginia -- Fort Monroe, where the James River meets the lower Chesapeake Bay. The Army abandons Fort Monroe next year, and Virginia's leaders plan to overdevelop all but the heart of that national historic landmark -- the very land where the first captive Africans landed in 1619 en route to Jamestown. Comment? Thanks.

Edward L. Ayers: People have asked about why commemorate emancipation now, at the beginning of the conflict. As this good question points out, emancipation began almost as soon as the war did--even before the first major battle. African Americans began freeing themselves at the first opportunity, which was indeed at Fort Monroe, where they went to offer their aid to Benjamin Butler and the Union Army. We will need to broaden our understanding of the war to include the determination of black people to become free from the first moments of the conflict.

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Edward L. Ayers: Good morning, everyone. I appreciate the good questions that you've already submitted and I will do my best to address them as directly and honestly as I can in the brief time (and space!) we have.

I can see that the questions thus far fall into two general categories: the role of slavery and the role of memory. I will address one question from each category to get us started.

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Burlington, Vt.: Would the South have possibly been better off if McClellan had been victorious in any of his campaigns prior to July 1862? More specifically, would Southern institutions have had a greater chance of surviving intact before the focus of the war shifted towards emancipation?

Edward L. Ayers: This question helps us understand a key issue: even though slavery began to unravel within the South from the very beginning of the conflict and even though considerable numbers of white and black Northerners hated slavery, the war did not become a war to end slavery until over a year into the war. Therefore, slavery would undoubtedly had been better off had McClellan won early on, but the cause of Southern independence would not. The two issues, of course, are deeply entangled but are not the same thing.

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Legationer DC: Dr. Ayers, What kind of nation would this have been, and would there have been other kindling between the regions or interests, had there never been slavery?

Edward L. Ayers: In retrospect, of course, we all wish there had never been slavery in what became our nation. Enslaved labor was the driving force behind not only the settlement and economic growth of the South but of the entire United States--and more so over time. By 1860, 60 percent of all American exports were produced by enslaved people. In the short run, in other words, slavery seemed the only way to develop a country with such land and such a deficit of labor; in the long run, slavery proved an economic curse as well as a great moral failing.

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Iowa: Can we truly say this nation is better for not letting the South go its own way? 150 years and we are still fighting many of the same battles against the same culture.

I can't help but wonder if it wouldn't have been better in the long run if the South had come to grips with ending slavery on their own.

Edward L. Ayers: Unfortunately, there is no sign that the South was heading toward ending slavery. It was growing stronger in the 1850s, adapting to new technology and transportation. Slave prices had never been higher than in 1860. Had the Civil War not ended slavery, especially if the Confederacy had won its independence and expanded its territory into Cuba and Latin America, slavery would have endured, it seems, for several more generations. If slavery had not been destroyed when it was, it would have been even harder to destroy later.

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New Castle, NH: In our understanding of the Civil War, how do you think the importance of emancipation should be compared to Lincoln's primary goal of keeping the union together?

Edward L. Ayers: A key question that people, including Lincoln, struggled with at the time. The war began to preserve the Union and then Lincoln and his allies came to see that that goal could not be accomplished without destroying slavery and the Confederate army slavery fed and clothed. Lincoln never wavered from his determination to save the Union and most of the men fighting would have put the Union at the center of their purpose throughout the war. We have perhaps come to take that for granted, since the United States became so strong afterward, but the fate of the nation was very much in doubt at the time. If the South had left, would other regions have been far behind?

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Arlington, VA: I like your answer to the first question on whether the war was about slavery, and I think the asymmetry is important to point out. I also agree that vague notions of Southerners fighting for their "home" is probably unhelpful. But I was hoping you would be more direct. Do you think the average Southerner risked his life because he wanted to defend slavery or not? I have the same impression as the first commenter - that they really didn't. This isn't to say that the Confederate leadership wasn't interested in defending slavery. They were. But I think there was an asymmetry not just between the Northern and Southern leadership, but also between the Southern leadership and the Southern people. Is this reasonable?

Another thing you hear is that the tariff played a much bigger role in the conflict than we attribute to it today. People today can't relate to the tariff issue in the same way. How important do you think this was?

Edward L. Ayers: One way to think of this is that the average white Southerner fought not for slavery so much as he did for a nation based on slavery. Confederate nationalism grew rapidly indeed and it always had the preservation of slavery at its core. Without the nationalism, and the flags, songs, uniforms, symbolism, and patriotism that went with it, men would not have fought for so long and so hard.

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Mason Neck, VA: Some historians refer to the Civil War as the last battle of the American Revolution... the end of the landed aristocracies rule in the United States... do you agree with this assessment?

Edward L. Ayers: This would be a convenient way to think of it, but the fact is that the Confederacy won the support of the vast majority of the white population, at least at the outset. The great plantation owners, who owned the largest percentage of enslaved people, would have been the largest beneficiaries of Southern independence, but the white population at the time bought into the widespread benefits of living in their own country.

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South Burlington, VT: I'm not sure I understand why slavery (and other southern institutions) would have faired better if McClellan had been successful early on. Please explain. Thank you.

Edward L. Ayers: Because slavery would not have been abolished by the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation or the Emancipation Proclamation by that time. The war to preserve the Union would have been won before slavery was destroyed along the way.

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Hagerstown, MD: Do you think the modern Southern public is ready to accept the view that the Confederacy fought to preserve the institution of slavery?

Edward L. Ayers: Here in Richmond--the capital of the Confederacy and a center of the domestic slave trade--people have come together to reckon with just this question. An effort called "The Future of Richmond's Past" is bringing together people of all backgrounds from around the region to talk about the war's causes and consequences. At "Civil War and Emancipation Day" here last April, thousands of people visited 15 museums and sites to try to see the whole picture of the war, weaving together the black experience with the white. I think many, many people are eager to talk about the war in a fresh language of honesty and good will.

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Anonymous: Slaves were brought from British colonies on British ships with British captains and crew on sea lanes under complete control of the British empire to be used in fields and plantations owned by British settlers in the new world.

Any comment?

Edward L. Ayers: Yes, you're right. And then the British began the worldwide movement to abolish slavery as well, thirty years before our own emancipation. Your question does a good job in helping us to remember that the American Civil War was an episode in a global struggle that stretched over centuries and much of the Atlantic world.

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Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich.: How did the Army change after the Civil War? And are we guilty of romanticizing the success of Confederate generals? Also, as a former student of yours at UVA in the 1990s, could you do the Internet equivalent of an air-guitar riff as you did during a U.S. history survey lecture on the counterculture of the 1960s?

Edward L. Ayers: I'm afraid I can't figure out how to do air guitar on-line, but I'll try to answer your question! There does indeed seem to be a great romanticization of Confederate generals and a neglect or even denigration of the victorious Union generals. That is in part because the Confederacy did indeed have good military leadership and those leaders fought with fewer men and resources; Americans love an underdog. On the other hand, the degree of generalship and political leadership it required to mobilize the resources of the North to continue a desperate fight far from home was remarkable as well. Grant and Sherman should not be underestimated.

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Edward L. Ayers: Thanks very much, everyone. I tried to answer a representative sample of your excellent questions. Fortunately, we have five more years of the sesquicentennial to think about these enduring issues.

Ed Ayers

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