Ed Ayers Cuts to the Chase at Appomattox

Today I had a chance to watch the National Park Service’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. It was a fitting conclusion to our Civil War sesquicentennial even if we still have a few more key events to get through. Of all the speakers I thought Ed Ayers stole the show. He cut through a lot of the sentimentalism that still colors our memory of this event. [Begin at the 1hr, 1 minute mark]

First, I want to second Ayers’s congratulations and thanks to the National Park Service for all their hard work over the past four years. Ayers’s brief speech builds on a brief passage in Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir, where he assesses his feelings for the vanquished foe alongside a clear articulation of the cause for which it fought.

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

Ayers correctly notes that Grant’s assessment could be and was interpreted in a way that allowed ex-Confederates to frame their bid for independence as a noble cause. It certainly did not capture Grant’s understanding of the event and Ayers forcefully encourages his audience to acknowledge that it should not color our own. Grant’s ‘worst cause’ was a clear reference to a commitment to the destruction of the Union and the establishment of a nation, whose foundation would be built on the right to own slaves.

I suspect that the theme of Ayers’s talk troubled a select few. It shouldn’t. As Americans we ought to be able 150 years later to acknowledge that the right side won the war.

Ultimately, according to Ayers, what was at stake at Appomattox was the ‘future of the United States and everyone in it.’

Commemorating Richmond’s Fall and Liberation

What I wouldn’t give to be in Richmond, Virginia this coming week for the 150th anniversary of the city’s fall and liberation. There are a wide range of events planned by the National Park Service and a host of other organizations. It’s a fitting way to end the sesquicentennial in Virginia given its track record over the past few years. No state has done more nor has devoted more resources to the sesquicentennial.

In the Richmond Times-Dispatch this weekend Katherine Calos interviewed a number of people involved in sesquicentennial planning throughout Virginia and Richmond specifically. Their thoughts reflect the many differences between the centennial and sesquicentennial and the continued challenges associated with its interpretation and commemoration. Continue reading “Commemorating Richmond’s Fall and Liberation”

Moving Beyond Stonewall Jackson’s Black Sunday School

There is a fairly popular narrative that places slaveowners at the center of a progressive movement to minister to and educate slaves in the decades leading to the Civil War. It tends to focus on high-ranking Confederate officers as part of a larger attempt to get the Confederacy itself right on slavery and race relations. One such book, which explores Thomas J. Jackson’s efforts to educate slaves in Lexington, concludes that he was “the black man’s friend.”

These accounts fail to place changes in the evangelical mission that many Christians embraced in the 1830s alongside the fear that ensued as a result of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. They ignore laws that barred blacks from preaching to free and enslaved blacks and they fail to address the emphasis placed on service and loyalty to one’s master as opposed to stories of liberation. Continue reading “Moving Beyond Stonewall Jackson’s Black Sunday School”

Embracing Pop History on BackStory With the History Guys

Two weeks ago I recorded an interview with Ed Ayers for a segment of BackStory With the History Guys. It’s one of my favorite podcast shows and I was honored to be a guest. Our conversation took as its starting point a recent post that featured a list of the top selling history books from 2014. I offered a few observations about what this list tells us about consumers of history.

Much of our conversation did not make it into the final edited show. Ayers expressed some concern that no academics appeared on the list. I have to say that I’ve grown weary of this concern. As far as I can tell the only people who worry about it are academics. There are different ways to try to understand the past and the approach embraced by academics, including an emphasis on analytical rigor and theory, is a relatively recent approach. People have been thinking about and writing about history for thousands of years. The academy does not get to define what is and what is not history.

The overall point that I tried to make in response is that academic historians have never been in a better position to compete for the attention of consumers of history. Sure, they may not reach the kinds of numbers that appear on the list, but there is plenty of opportunity to build an audience and build interest even in the most academic of historical subjects. There are a number of professional historians who are doing just that.

Get to work.