Edward Ayers is not only one of the nation’s preeminent interpreters of American History, he is a consummate storyteller and educator. Ayers is the Tucker Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond. His latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America won the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize and the Avery O. Craven Award. He was also my professor and advisor at the University of Virginia back in the day.
Recently I interviewed Ayers about his book and the course of history in general. In three segments on Heartlands, you’ll get a lot of what we talked about. In this segment, we discuss the political culture of the Civil War period and how it may have echoes in our current era:
So I started my review of your book by asking, “Who starts a book about the Civil War in the middle?” Of course, you did. Why did you choose to start Thin Light of Freedom with 1863?
This does start in the middle on purpose because it kind of throws us off balance a little bit. We’re used to thinking that Gettysburg is the pivot of the war, the turning point, but they certainly didn’t know it. We need to remember: as many people died after Gettysburg as died before and you certainly see in this book that the White South doesn’t say, “Well, we give up.” They kept fighting and I think the critical thing is to recognize that the election of 1864 is really the pivot of the war. They know it’s going to be from the beginning and a lot of the things that happen on the battlefield are actually oriented toward that. We usually think that a war is a series of battles and instead the war was a struggle for the future of the United States that would be determined by whether the US could hold it together long enough to defeat the Confederacy. That was determined more by the election than by the battle of Gettysburg or Vicksburg.
The contrast between the political culture in the South and in the North was fascinating. You use a lot of newspaper accounts to try to get at how public opinion was changing. You talk about how in Staunton, Virginia, (the Southern community that you chose to focus on) the newspapers were kind of united and probably united more behind the army than the government.
Right, right. Our usual understanding is, “Obviously the Confederacy was wrong,” and so we go back and look for ways that it was also flawed and failing. But the fact is that it considered itself under assault and it set aside the differences, which were just as strong before the Civil War as in the North. The newspapers that seem to be speaking with one voice during the war had been fighting with each other, just like the Democrats and the Republicans in the North, before the war and in some ways even more so because they were fighting over whether Virginia should secede or not. You read those papers in this book and you see that you wouldn’t know that one of the papers had been fervently Unionist a week before the Confederacy is created.
The important thing for us to understand is that the war is not just a playing out of forces that were already in play but rather it changes everything. It’s a crucible in which ideology and even faith are redefined in some ways. The idea of pointing out how much conflict there is in the North is also good for us because we’re self-congratulatory about the Civil War and imagine that it had to turn out the way that it did and that it was clear that the right side scored a win because it was intrinsically stronger, because it was intrinsically right. But recognizing that nearly half of white Northerners would not support Abraham Lincoln in the greatest crisis of the nation should be a sobering recognition for all of us.
That was to me the most surprising thing, even having lived with the story a long time. The divisions in the North were just…vicious.
Yeah, when I give talks about this I joke and say, “Now, I want to warn everybody: back then people used very hard language to talk about politics.”
People laugh but then they go, “Wow, that actually is a harsh thing to say about the greatest president in American history.”
The point of this is not to diminish the Union cause but rather to be grateful for the people who made it happen rather than just give a blanket endorsement of all white Northerners because they don’t deserve it. The people who did fight and make this happen, who were brave and resisted the temptations of racism, deserve more credit and the people who resisted it all don’t deserve any.
Right, and as I’ve been thinking about our current times, I keep going back to the 1850s as a similar time when it felt like things were pulling apart. But the kind of divisions that I associate with that period continued into the 1860s in the North. I mean, it was not over just because the War came.
Not only do I start the book in the middle of the Civil War but I don’t end till Reconstruction. So it is kind of an unusual slice that cuts across the way you usually compartmentalize it, which is: Before the War, the War, After the War. Those are three completely different literatures that don’t talk to each other very much. All we have to do is remember just how much of a presence Vietnam is still today in America to imagine what the Civil War would have felt like 18 months after it was over. We close the books on the War and start to talk about politics, but it’s basically the same thing and the War simultaneously changes everything but leaves the fundamental conversation in place.