A national reading and discussion program on the Civil War has just begun at 65 community libraries across the country — including some in Virginia and Maryland — to better understand the conflict’s impact on modern Amerian culture.

The effort, called “Let’s Talk About It: Making Sense of the American Civil War,” was organized by the American Library Association and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is being led by University of Richmond President Edward L. Ayers, a leading scholar on the conflict.

Libraries participating in the program include three in Maryland — at Harford Community College in Bel Air , Montgomery College in Germantown, and Worcester County Library Foundation in Snow Hill — as well as four in Virginia: Washington County Public Library in Abingdon, Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg, Russell County Public Library in Lebanon, and Loudoun County Public Library in Leesburg.

At each library five discussions will be led — between now and May 31, 2012 — by scholars based on texts chosen by Ayers, as well as an accompanying text, “America’s War: Talking about the Civil War and Emancipation on Their 150th Anniversaries,” an anthology of historical fiction, speeches, diaries, memoirs, biography and short stories. Books included in the program are “March” by Geraldine Brooks and “Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam” by James McPherson. (See more on the specific works below)

Last week in Chicago, Ayers met with scholars and directors from the 65 participating libraries to prepare the discussion series. Ayers has written or edited 11 books related to the Civil War, including “The Promise of the New South,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history and National Book Award for non-fiction, and “In the Presence of Mine Enemies,” which won the Bancroft Prize for books about American history, biography and diplomacy.

I asked Ayers a few questions about why the program is being undertaken:

Q) How was this national conversation conceived?

A) In the absence of a national commission on the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the National Endowment for the Humanities wanted the country to have an opportunity for a civil conversation about the important issues raised by the war and emancipation. The American Library Association was an eager partner from the outset, devoted to using libraries as community cultural centers and a center for civic engagement. The partnership made perfect sense and 170 communities across the country competed for the opportunity to host a session. The 65 libraries chosen to pilot these programs will be joined by 150 additional libraries in the coming year, carrying the same program forward with state humanities councils’ support. It’s been very heartening to see all this interest at libraries from big cities and small communities, from Martha’s Vineyard to Puget Sound to the border with Mexico.

Q) Why is it important that the country keep talking about the Civil War so long after the last shot was fired?

A) It’s always going to be important that we think hard about the defining event in the nation’s history. The founding would not be the founding without the salvation of the United States in the Civil War; we would remember Jefferson and Washington quite differently if the nation they forged had broken apart only a few generations after the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s also crucial to remember that until emancipation, four million Americans lived in perpetual bondage. Their freedom freed the nation to begin living up to its fundamental ideals. Understanding how slavery came to an end, and celebrating that end, should be far more important in American life than it is. Here is our opportunity.

Q) How different is the war taught in different parts of the country?

A) It’s been fascinating [at last week’s training event] to hear people from all over the country talking about how the Civil War and emancipation are remembered and discussed in their communities. Sometimes the differences are to be expected, but more often it seems that people across the country simply do not have the fundamental information they need to understand abolitionism, secession, warfare, freedom, and Reconstruction. That’s what this effort is about.

Here are the works that will be used during the five discussions:

1. Imagining War

Geraldine Brooks, March [2005]

2. Choosing Sides

selections from the anthology:

Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” [1852];

Henry David Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown” [1859];

Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address [March 4, 1861];

Alexander H. Stephens, “Cornerstone” speech [March 21, 1861];

Robert Montague, Secessionist speech at Virginia secession convention [April 1-2, 1861];

Chapman Stuart, Unionist speech at Virginia secession convention [April 5, 1861];

Elizabeth Brown Pryor, excerpt from Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through his Private Letters [2007];

Mark Twain, “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” [1885]; and

Sarah Morgan, excerpt from The Diary of a Southern Woman [May 9, May 17, 1862].

2. Making Sense of Shiloh

selections from the anthology:

Ambrose Bierce, “What I Saw of Shiloh” [1881];

Ulysses Grant, excerpt from the Memoirs [1885];

Shelby Foote, excerpt from Shiloh [1952];

Bobbie Ann Mason, “Shiloh” [1982]; and

General Braxton Bragg, speech to the Army of the Mississippi [May 3, 1862].

3. The Shape of War

James M. McPherson, Crossroad of Freedom: Antietam [2002]

4. War and Freedom

selections from the anthology:

Abraham Lincoln, address on colonization [1862];

John M. Washington, “Memorys [sic] of the Past” [1873];

Frederick Douglass, “Men of Color, To Arms!” [March 1863];

Abraham Lincoln, letters to James C. Conkling [1863] and Albert G. Hodges [1864];

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address [1863];

James S. Brisbin, report on U.S. Colored Cavalry in Virginia [Oct. 2, 1864];

Colored Citizens of Nashville, Tennessee, Petition to the Union Convention of Tennessee Assembled in the Capitol at Nashville [January 9, 1865];

Margaret Walker, excerpt from Jubilee [1966];

Leon Litwack, excerpt from Been in the Storm So Long [1979]; and

Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865.


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