'Revolution in Understanding': As Civil War Scholarship Has Evolved to Focus on African-Americans, the Tone of the War's Anniversary Should Be Markedly Different Than It Was 50 Years Ago

By Galuszka, Peter | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, February 3, 2011 | Go to article overview

'Revolution in Understanding': As Civil War Scholarship Has Evolved to Focus on African-Americans, the Tone of the War's Anniversary Should Be Markedly Different Than It Was 50 Years Ago


Galuszka, Peter, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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To Dr. Edward Ayers, a recognized expert on Southern history and president of the University of Richmond, 2011 marks the start of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the emancipation of African-Americans. It's an important distinction based on the evolution of Civil War scholarship that has produced a fuller understanding of history, one that puts the role African-Americans played in the transformative conflict front and center.

The Yale University-educated scholar has written and edited 10 books including In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America, which won the Bancroft Prize for distinguished American history. He now leads a consortium of 15 institutions, including Virginia Union University, that is coordinating Civil War sesquicentennial events in Virginia.

Ayers spoke with Diverse about the role Blacks played in their own freedom, the context of the Civil War's legacy in today's equality struggles and the war's global significance.

DI: What's coming up with the sesquicentennial?

EA: The most important thing that has happened is that we changed the very definition of the event from the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War to the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War and Emancipation. That is the note we are striking. Once we recognize that we're not just talking about the 150th anniversary of the war but of the end of slavery of 4 million people, it takes on a different meaning.

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It is very different from the centennial. When [the centennial] began in Virginia it was (marked) with a tone of states' rights just after Massive Resistance. By the time the centennial was over you had freedom rides, sit-ins, the March on Washington, Selma, Birmingham, the Voting Rights Act. So during the years of the centennial, the moral geography of this country was forever altered.

Historians of the American Civil War have been going back and looking at that event and wondering, 'If the most important consequence of that event was freedom, how did that happen?' I think, starting in the 1980s, the people began to notice more and more and the evidence was that African-Americans made themselves free. That if you think emancipation as only what Abe Lincoln did for African-Americans, you are missing the full meaning of the story.

One big shift occurred during the start of the Civil War. Black men started going to (Union Army General) Benjamin Butler at Fort Monroe just weeks after Virginia seceded and declared themselves to be on the Union's side and wanted to help the cause. And that was when Butler came up with the idea of contraband. Before that, whenever Black people fled to the Union they were supposed to be returned to their masters, but Butler says 'No, your master says you are property so I define you as property and you are contraband of war.' So starting then, emancipation actually begins.

So, the whole center of the entire event has shifted away from what White people have done to each other, then what White people did for Black people and now it is what Black people did for this country.

Remember the movie "Glory" from 1989? It was about Black men finally being able--in 1863--to fight for the Union cause, and ultimately over 200,000 did. So, there's been a revolution in the professional understanding of the war since the centennial, and now with the sesquicentennial.

DI: Can you elaborate about the revolution in professional understanding?

EA: We've broadened the story to include the half that was female, the home front, economic history, literary history and in many ways we've shown that this war touched everything in this country. It goes far beyond the battlefields now. Many people just haven't had a chance to see it. They haven't had a chance to see the war, as it appeared in the 1960s, as a kind of armchair "this general did this or that. …

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