Session 1: “Taking Stock of the Nation in 1859” (Part 2)

The importance of Cuba connected directly with representation in the Senate – few slave states and a growing number of free states.  Cuba has the potential of bringing some balance to Congress.  White southerners not only have to deal with the growing power of free states in Congress, but an active abolitionist community.  Upward mobility in the South was being threatened by this more aggressive tone in the North as well as the gradual move of slavery further south.  The southern way of life is being challenged – more and more slaves are escaping north and in many cases Canada.  The best friend of slaveholders in 1859 was the federal government and its enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  The South is a friend of strong federal power; it is their friend given the role it plays in returning escaped slaves.  FSA Commissioners are paid double if they prosecute a fugitive slave case.  Federal government is not simply involved in protecting property rights of slaveholders, it is also involved in kidnapping free people of color and putting them in slavery.

Even non-abolitionists were beginning to believe in a slave-power conspiracy.  The trial and eventual return of Anthony Burns fueled these concerns.  Northerners were weary of the power of the federal government.  Somewhere around 97% of white Northerners were not abolitionists.  Who was an abolitionist?  First, it was an extraordinarly brave thing to do given that both southerners and northeners might do you serious harm.  Claiming oneself to be an abolitionist was a major risk to take.  Abolitionists did not come in one form; rather they fell on a wide spectrum.  Example: Detroit (pop. 40,000 along with a professional Afr. Am. community)  They were very active in helping escaped slaves out of KY and even hosted F. Douglass.  A meeting was held in 1859 in which they considered an offer to speak with John Brown.  “Bleeding Kansas” caused a great stir and a great deal of controversy within the black community.  [GG is in his usual rare form – hilarious]  The black community sent him away because they thought he was much too dangerous.  Important to remember that the Second Great Awakening exercised an important influence on part of the nation’s view of slavery.

Growth and the importance of the railroad: Railroad mileage has more than quadrupled in slaveholding states and tripled in the free states.  Atlantic cable was placed in 1858, which revolutionized communication: space and time are shrinking.  Two engineers are gripped by the idea of transcontinental RR: Theodore Juda and Grenville Dodge.  The big problem is the politics of the RR: Where will it go?  Whichever city gets will derive economic development.  All of this had a profound impact on Native Americans.

To be continued…. [Send me question at and I will forward them to the moderator.

Opening Remarks

Edward L. Ayers

The goal of today’s panels is to understand how Americans viewed their world in 1859 without the knowledge of what was to come.  From this perspective, Lincoln was a successful lawyer and Jefferson Davis still a senator.  If we do not understand the years leading to secession and war than we cannot understand four years of bloody conflict.

Governor Tim Kaine

Two crucial events in American history: Civil War forged our national identity and WWII secured the nation’s place on the world stage.  Comments on placement of Arthur Ashe, statue of Lincoln, etc.  All created controversy owing to the divisive nature of the war.  We are still wrestling with it as a commonwealth and as a country.  Not only did the war end slavery, but it enabled civil government to evolve in its responsibilities.  Mentioned that he read a biography of Andrew Jackson and learned that regional disputes have a rich history.  Hmmm…could it have been Mechum’s new biography.  Without the war and reunion the nation would not have become a player on the world stage.  Kaine is committing the state to battlefield preservation over the next few years.  We are here to learn from our past so we can come together in better understanding.

A Short Chat With Professor Charles Dew

Good morning and welcome to the University of Richmond for the first major event of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  The Robbins Center is beginning to fill up and there is certain excitement in the air.  As I mentioned we are expecting over 2,000 people today; keep in mind that this is a weekday.  I just finished talking with Professor Charles Dew of Williams College.  I asked him about the significance of beginning Virginia’s commemoration with 1859 as opposed to the Civil War Centennial which began with the firing on Fort Sumter.  Professor Dew believes that this will highlight the issue of slavery as the sectional conflict – the one issue that ultimately could not be dealt with within the political framework.  He believes that the integration of race and slavery is long overdue in our popular understanding of the war.  Ultimately, he hopes that this renewed focus will bring African Americans back into our national discussion of the war.

As for the format of this conference, Professor Dew couldn’t be more pleased.  He noted that historians have a tendency to talk shop and in a way that alienates the general public.  The lack of formal presenations will hopefully make for some interesting give and take between panelists and, ultimately, the audience.  We shall see.  Stay tuned.

[Note: Please keep in mind that these posts are being written on the fly.  There may be serious spelling and other grammatical issues.]

See You in Richmond

sesquicentennial-logoBeginning tomorrow morning around 8:45am you can view a live webcast of Virginia’s first “Signature Conference” commemorating the Civil War Sesquicentennial from the Robbins Center at the University of Richmond.  You can also follow the day’s events right here at Civil War Memory where I will be live blogging beginning with Edward L. Ayers’s opening remarks right up until the final Q&A.  I will be sitting with the rest of the media in a special section of the Robbins Center, along with 2,000 people from around the country.  We will have access to all of the panelists as well as conference organizers.  For those of you who do have the time to view the webcast you can submit questions to panelists in one of two ways.  You can email directly to or you can submit them directly to me at after which they will be forwarded.  I was hoping to do a few video interviews with my new hand held, but I haven’t had enough time to get accustomed to its features since unwrapping it on Saturday.  I do plan on taking plenty of photographs and I will also be Twittering throughout the day, which you can follow at [Tweets will be organized with the hashtag, #cws09].  The format of each session will force panelists to acknowledge the contingency that colored events in 1859.  Panelists will have to discuss the significance of events without referring to their causal connection to future events.  We shall see if they can stick with such strict conditions.  This promises to be an exciting and educational day for all of those who can attend and for those of you who will be watching via the Internet.

Future “Signature Conferences” include the following:

– 2010: “African-Americans and the Civil War,” Hampton University.

– 2011: “American Military Strategy and the Civil War,” Virginia Tech.

– 2012: “Leadership and Generalship in the Civil War,” Virginia Military Institute.

– 2013: “The Home Front in the Civil War,” the College of William and Mary.

– 2014: “Civil War in a Global Context,” George Mason University.

– 2015: “Memory of the Civil War,” University of Virginia.

Civil War Sesquicentennial Fast Approaching

I am counting down the days for Wednesday’s much-anticipated inaugural event of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Virginia is far ahead of the pack in organizing events for this 4-year commemoration.  In fact, we are so far ahead that we extended the time line to include events marking the lead up to the war.  On Wednesday, April 29, 2,000 people from all over the country will converge on the University of Richmond for a day-long conference that addresses various aspects of life in the United States on the eve of the war.  Edward L. Ayers, who is the president of the university, as well as the organizer of the event, promises lively discussion along the lines of a format that we’ve come to know all so well in his scholarship:

We have the opportunity to look at this with a fresh eye.  Let’s enter into a conversation with these people of the past and understand just what they were thinking. How was it they could end up killing people that were their neighbors?

As I mentioned before, I will be attending this conference as something along the lines of an official blogger.  I will have full media access and will view the day’s proceedings from a media booth with the Washington Post, AP, Richmond Times-Dispatch, etc.  You will have a chance to view a live webcast and ask questions of the panelists through my blog.  [I recently read that VMI is also organizing a live webcast of the event on their campus.]  My plan is to live blog, Twitter, and take some video so you should expect constant updates in the form of commentary, interview, and images.  I will also be hosting The Educator’s Affinity Group Lunch for teachers who are interested in networking and discussing the morning sessions.  This promises to be an educational and fun day and I encourage all of you to take part.

I leave you with some thoughts from a few of the panelists:

Charles B. Dew, professor of American history at Williams College in Massachusetts, said southerners have been unwilling to confront a prewar economy based on slavery while northerners have sought to blot out memories of their own “profoundly racist” society.  “Americans, like most people, want a usable past. They want it to make sense,“ Dew said.  The conference, he said, is an opportunity “for shining some light in some of the darker corners in Virginia, and by extension, Southern history in a very critical moment.”

As president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar in Richmond, Christy S. Coleman makes it her mission to offer a more complex, layered view of the conflict. The roles of women on the homefront and suffragists who began their activism in the anti-slavery movement are rarely told, she said.   “These women not only advocated for freedom of the enslaved, but began to tie the issue to the lack of freedom that women had in the nation,“ she said.

Manisha Sinha, an associate professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the role of black Americans is especially overshadowed in the “whitewashed version — literally and figuratively — of the war itself and its consequences.“  “It’s about time when we talk about the Civil War in the South that we take into perspective not just the views of white southerners but also of black southerners,“ she said.