Founding and Shaping of the Nation
Misremembering the Civil War
00:41 Douglas Blackmon: Welcome back to American Forum. I’m Doug Blackmon. A hundred and fifty years ago, the foundations of this country fissured, and a gruesome Civil War plunged our nation into a period of massive self-inflicted death, devastation, and regional and racial animosity. Millions fought on both sides. Casualties were immense, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of men who were deeply divided over conflicting visions of the future of their country, and yet united in the belief that their side fought for the most true representation of what it meant to be an American. At the center of this terrible war were more than four million African Americans, mostly enslaved, a few hundred thousand free. The future for them—what it would mean to be black and American—was of course most crucially at stake. A victory of the Confederate rebellion would have assured the indefinite continuation of slavery. Union triumph promised emancipation from a system of involuntary servitude, limitless violence, and a massive system of human trafficking and rampant sexual exploitation of black women that had already corrupted the American experiment for nearly 250 years. Fortunately, the good guys won. The union was preserved. The slow, painful abolition of slavery and establishment of African Americans as full citizens began. Yet all this time later, we still struggle to agree on a national narrative explaining this, among the greatest horrors in American history. Hundreds of monuments to honor the southern rebellion erected throughout the South have become new open wounds. Plans to remove statues of Robert E. Lee and another Confederate general in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we broadcast this program, were at the center of a deadly “Alt-Right neo-Nazi” demonstration in August 2017. Proposals to remove or relocate Confederate monuments in other places are provoking ongoing struggles between supporters who say they simply represent a chapter of American history, and critics who say they stand for white supremacy. How can a country as sophisticated as ours still be trapped in an argument so fundamentally primitive and tribal? Joining us to discuss these issues, is Ed Ayers, one of the current generation’s most influential and widely-respected voices among American historians. His 1992 book The Promise of the New South is a cornerstone of American history and was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He has authored many other books on the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, including In the Presence of Mine Enemies, in 2003, which won the Bancroft Prize, and his newest work, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America. Ayers is president emeritus of the University of Richmond, a host of the award-winning podcast Backstory, and recently launched a slick new website devoted to American history at bunkhistory.org. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2013 by President Barack Obama, and now faces what might be the most complicated challenge of his career—as a member of the commission established to advise the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, on what it should do with one of the largest inventories of Confederate monuments in the country. Thank you for being here.
Ed Ayers: Thank you.
Blackmon: Let’s go back to this question right off the bat that we can never seem to resolve in America, and that is what did cause the Civil War.
Ayers: Yeah, I wrote a little book called What Caused the Civil War? And the answer was, “That’s really a bad question,” but we have to keep answering it. You know, I think one thing we have to acknowledge is that it’s an unbalanced equation. The record shows that there is no doubt that the white South went to war to defend slavery, to defend the right to expand slavery wherever they wished, but that does not mean that the North went to war to end slavery, because it was impossible to end slavery, which was the most valuable economic anchor of the entire nation. Eighty percent of all American exports were created by slavery, an enslaved population worth more than all the railroads and banks and the factories of the North combined. So, no matter how much people wanted to end slavery, they actually went to war to sustain the United States that still had slavery within it. So what caused the Civil War? Basically, Americans talked themselves into a Civil War. There was nothing immediately at stake except the future of the nation as people were imagining it. So people want the answer to your question to fit on a bumper sticker, you know, and when I talk with people, often the answer has the word “just” in it. “Well, Ed, it was just economics,” or, “it was just slavery.” Well, any time you have the word “just” that explains something that complicated, you’re already wrong. It’s this alchemy of things, that we’re bringing on an event that no one wanted and that had fortunately the great, good benefit that you mentioned of bringing the largest, most powerful system of slavery in the modern world to an immediate and uncompensated end.
Blackmon: Was it about tariffs in any fashion?
Ayers: No. When the—we’re coming upon the anniversary of Secession.
We digitized the 3,000 pages of debates that we had in Virginia to determine if the United States was going to keep the state that wrote all its founding documents or not, so we can go in and analyze it. The tariff is mentioned eighty-one times, okay, in 3,000 pages. Slavery is mentioned 1,432, so no. What else have you got?
06:13 Blackmon: So, it’s not the tariff. [laughter] Another thing that I was certain—I was definitely taught as a little boy was that—and as a big boy—was that to whatever degree the war was about slavery, it was kind of irrelevant, ultimately, because slavery was this dying institution, and Southerners realized that, and it would have faded out of its own volition within a relatively short period of time.
Ayers: Yeah, that’s widely believed. The fact is that slavery had never been stronger than it was in 1860.
It was growing even more valuable. Enslaved people had never been worth more, a good signal from the market of what they think. Slavery was being adapted to an ever-widening array of purposes, and the enslaved population proved remarkably adaptable to the different kinds of economic development that was taking place. So, the Southern economy had never been stronger. It’s the fourth-richest economy in the world by itself, and it’s playing an ever-increasing role in the American economy, so there’s no sign whatsoever that slavery would have died under its own weight.
7:23 Blackmon: And, I guess, one indication of that that you write about in the book, which really is a story of the end of the Civil War and then with—particularly, with a focus on the very end, and then you do something that’s very rarely done in a Civil War-related work. That is that you go well beyond. You actually treat this—the end of the war and the period that comes right after it—as a period and sort of distinct from Reconstruction. But then, you also—you don’t write a whole lot about it, but then you take—your last period goes right up into the beginning of the 20th century.
Blackmon: So that ties things together in interesting ways, but, in the detail of how the war really does come to an end, one of the things that you talk about there is the decision by General Grant to begin seizing enslaved people as a—as contraband, in a sense, and in language that we wouldn’t like today, but that the—because of the recognition that they were so central to the ability of the South to continue to have any kind of an economy and to produce the food and the things it needed to continue the fight. Slaves were the engines of this economy, and so that became a very important dimension of sapping the energy of the rebellion.
Ayers: Yeah, the Union army just needed to look at the example of enslaved people themselves. You know, so Virginia has slavery for 250 years before the Civil War, so that much longer than we are from the event, right? And three weeks after Virginia does decide to secede, black men go to the United States Army down at Fortress Monroe and said, “We’re on your side.”
So after 250 years, literally the first moment that African American people have an ally, they cast their lot with that. That is when they are identified as contraband. Now, the Union generals try to figure out, “What do I do with this?” There’s nothing in American law. “The Confederates are saying you’re property. Okay, I’m taking you as property. We’ll call you ‘contraband.’” So the enslaved people themselves had shown at every step that they were central to every aspect of this, and, you know, I find that—you know, you talked in really excellent ways about the way that we’re still wrestling with this unstable narrative. So, sometimes, people really want to start seeing the thin light of freedom shining early with the United States. Other people say, you know, they’re calculating and just militarily driven until the very end, and these things are so woven together, the idealism and the opportunism. It’s really hard to figure out what’s going on. It becomes clear in the campaign of 1862—the Union army is coming up to take Richmond, brings war to an end instantly—that the enslaved people are digging the entrenchments that the Union soldiers were falling against and that the enslaved people want to be free. That’s when the Union starts putting together these two things. One, these people deserve to be free and want to be free and can be our allies and are essential to the Confederate cause. So all of these things come together to say that whenever the United States has the opportunity to dislodge slavery, it will.
10:23 Blackmon: The final half of this war is really what we remember, but we remember it as how terrible the war was. We remember the Battle of the Wilderness and, you know, the horrible casualties among these units, but we leave out of it this escalation of both attitudes against African Americans and also just—these are outright crimes against humanity, atrocities committed by Confederate forces for which there really is not a Union parallel. Is that a fair thing to say?
Ayers: In this context, you think of the Indian wars, right?
Blackmon: Yeah. Yeah, no, but I mean in this—yeah.
Ayers: I think that’s fair. The white South, of course, would have said the entire Civil War was an invasion. I mean, look at this. The white South feels morally superior and victimized from start to finish in all of this, you know. As you said, you know, historians will celebrate this. They find—I mean, there’s a public meeting in March of 1865 in which they—the people in Staunton say, “We will never be reconstructed.” And here’s—you know, it goes back to your earlier question about black Confederates. They say, “If President Davis and General Lee determine that they need our Negroes, we will give them just as we have given our sons,” which is a disturbing thing to say. Three weeks later, they surrender, so this history reminds us that it comes in ruptures, you know, sudden things. People say one thing that they cannot believe two weeks later that they said, and then you have to live with it. You know, Augusta County votes against seceding every chance it has. It sends delegates there, but then, once the war begins, it is the basis of the Stonewall Brigade. It is deeply entrenched in the Confederacy. That’s one of the big questions, is how could people change their loyalties overnight to an entirely new nation, and how could people who live two hundred miles apart, the two communities I deal with, within a space of months—same soil, same climate, same religion, same ethnicity—be persuaded to kill each other?
How can history move that rapidly? That’s what this is really all about, is how fluid and dangerous but full of possibility history can be. It can be so much better than we—who could have imagined the end of history? Who could have imagined that Americans would have killed the equivalent today of the same proportion of the population of eight million of each other? We need to be careful.
12:52 Blackmon: Yeah, it’s—it is an incredibly powerful lesson in current times. Not to be hyperbolic about it, but it’s an incredibly important lesson, so—but, also, there’s another thing you write about, and then I want to get to the—and I wish we could talk for a couple more hours.
Ayers: I’m not doing anything. [laughter]
Blackmon: But you also write about that once the war finally ends and Lee does do one—indisputably a noble thing in that he doesn’t go forth with a guerilla war as is being, you know—he can’t really, either, but he doesn't.
Ayers: There’s that. [laughs]
Blackmon: But he doesn’t suggest that idea.
Ayers: Yeah, he resists suggestions that he do so.
Blackmon: Exactly, and the—but so, then—so the South now is defeated, and in these first elections immediately after the war white Southerners actually elect, as you described them, well-respected men who accepted that slavery was over. There was actually—there was a sort of resignation to—and you see it all over the place in the writings of people of the time that, “Okay, actually, we have lost, and we can’t—we’ve got to accept this, and we have to move forward.” But so—talk about that for a minute, because it’s very different from the way that the South behaves a very short period of time after that.
Ayers: Yeah. There are two things. One, it gives you some idea that white Southerners, when they have a chance to elect people, elect the very people who have just been leading them in the Confederacy. Okay?
So there’s no sense of remorse or, “Sorry, I can see why you would be mad that we tried to lead the country.” It’s like, “These are the people that we respected before. We respect them even more now for being brave. We’re going to put them back in power.” And the white North goes, “What could you be thinking that we’re going to let you put back into Congress men who just rose up in rebellion against the United States?” “Yeah, that’s what we have in mind.” [laughter]
Blackmon: Because they’re willing to say, “I accept that slavery is over.”
Ayers: They accept two things. “One, we accept that we did not succeed at secession, and we accept that slavery is over.” Slavery being over and freedom are different things, but, yeah, they do accept that, and that’s something historians have been arguing about ever since Reconstruction itself. Was there a moment, say, before Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, when there could have been a smoother path back into reunification and toward rights for black people? I don’t see it.
15:16 Blackmon: Also happening at that time is that—I know this was the case outside of Atlanta. I assume it has to have been the case around Richmond and Petersburg. In the immediate aftermath of the war, every time it rains in Atlanta there were bones and skulls appearing all over the battlefield from these hastily made graves at the end of the fighting where Confederates had been buried by Union soldiers, by the way, not by Confederates. And the—so there is this problem immediately after the war of—that people have not been properly buried, and treasure hunters are going out on the battlefield and digging up—digging people up to get their belt buckles. So there’s a need to properly and respectfully bury the dead, and that’s where the first wave of the monument activity begins. But walk through that a little bit, that phase and then what that leads to.
Ayers: Yeah. We tend to forget that—what it was like to have a battle fought in your backyard and what it was like to have some eighteen-year-old boy thrown quickly under the dirt. So, in 1865, 1866, Southern white women take it upon themselves to gather these remains, which would be in ditches, you know, and put them together into a cemetery. They would say, “Our son is in Georgia or Mississippi or Texas. We have all of these people from all of the other Southern states who are here among us. We have a responsibility to them.” So in Staunton, they have the 2,500 people—which is probably more people than actually lived there—march to the cemetery on one day. The children put flowers down. They sing hymns that alternate between Christian hymns and celebrations of Stonewall Jackson. Lee is still alive, so you can’t really celebrate him in the same way, but Stonewall Jackson, from the valley, died now two years earlier, a great Christian man as they see it. They begin—and they’re completely unabashed. There’s nothing like, “We’re afraid the Yankees might be listening to us.” We don’t care. This is what we are going to do, and you think in Richmond the most powerful single monument to the Confederacy in my experience is the pyramid of rough rocks dragged up from the James and piled in Hollywood Cemetery surrounded by 18,000 anonymous graves. Okay? So Charlottesville was a giant hospital. Richmond is a giant hospital, and that’s 1868. This is long before you started having bronze men on horseback. So the memorials begin as memorials, and it’s the Ladies’ Memorial Society who do all of these things. But the interesting things is that the white Southern men really like this because it’s a kind of quasi-political statement that we are proud and love our Confederate soldiers. We are celebrating them in death, but we’re celebrating their cause as well. If white Southern men had just said, politically, “We have nothing for which to apologize. We were right,” it would have been very dangerous. So you have a very kind of—subtle kind of negotiation going on. At the same time, in the same town of Staunton, you would have black residents marching in the other direction to the federal cemetery, which is—both of these cemeteries are still there, of course—to put United States flags on the soldiers who fought for their freedom. At the same time, in the North, you’re finding the same kind of memorial is—now, the Democrats and Republicans, hey, slapping each other’s backs, “Let’s forget about all those harsh words,” but they do debate over what kind of statue to put up in Chambersburg. The men say, “Here’s a good idea, a Union soldier handing a canteen to a Confederate soldier,” already starting to put things back together. And twenty-eight years later, they finally raised enough money to put up a statue. Instead, it’s of a Union soldier facing to the South about the same time that the South is doing this. So one thing we need to remember, all the controversy over statues, these are statues being put all across the United States trying to simplify that story. You know, in the recent controversies over the statues, people— “Well, why did they start going up twenty-five and thirty-five and forty-five years after the war?” One reason is that that’s when the men who did not die in the war were fading away, and you see who’s putting up these statues. It’s the United Daughters of the Confederacy, so they don’t talk about slavery, but they are memorializing their ancestors or their fathers. So I think that, you know, as in everything about this war, it’s better to embrace all the evidence and try to look at it clearly rather than trying to just leave out parts of it. So I think that that’s a large part, but the monuments don't have their histories written the way that we do of battles and all of these kinds of things, and that’s one of the things we’re doing now, is recovering where do these things come from, who put them up, why, and when, and what did they say when they did, and what did people who didn’t like them say at the time? It turns out, of course, there’s an entire history of all of that that we’ve just been immune to.
20:42 Blackmon: And part of that history is that those early monuments, like the one—a big one is built in Atlanta in 1870, and the—or the work begins—the debate over whether to build it is in 1870.
Blackmon: And one of the interesting things that happens there is that the original plan is to build a big, giant, fancy monument. There’s an argument over whether it should be for just those who died in the Battle of Atlanta or for all deaths of the Confederacy. But, finally, a committee of women is put together to—you know, related to the Memorial Association. They pick a location at the center, dead center of the commercial center of the city. The city gives them property to do this on, and then, in the midst of all of that, to build this elaborate message-filled monument, a prominent Confederate—not a person important beyond Atlanta but a prominent Confederate figure—writes a letter to the editor that says, “This is a mistake.” And it’s actually immediately after Lee has died, and, of course, Lee has spoke—has written a couple—in a couple of places that monuments are a bad idea. He’s talking about all monuments, not just Confederate monuments. But this Confederate in Atlanta writes this letter to the editor that says, “No, this would be a mistake. We can’t be reminded of the war every day. We can’t continue to hold these grievances. Let them—let them in the North be the ones who won’t forget.” And finally, he says, “If we’re going to do this, we should—we should put our monument where the dead lie, in the cemetery.” So Atlanta then builds a monument that’s similar to most of the ones in that period of time. It’s big, but it has only two words on it—or three words on it, “Our Confederate Heroes.” That’s all it says, which is not unlike in Germany, in memorials built after World War II. The common pattern in Germany is simple memorials that simply say “Unsere Helden,” “Our Heroes.” There’s no—they don’t say, “Who fought in defense of the greatest society, Nazi Germany, in the history of man.” They in no way lionize the cause of the war, and it’s striking to me that the big—the change you just described is when they go from memorializing the dead to including a memorialization and a celebration, really, of the causes of the war. And when you put that up against what we’ve just been talking about, I think that’s when that gets really complicated.
Ayers: Yeah. It is really complicated, and I think that you think about, you know, Secretary Kelly’s comments that Lee was a good man, right?
So what the statues do are looking at the Confederate generals as individuals, and that’s not an accident. They would have said, “These were great Christian men who were—” pure motives and all of this, but what we don’t have any monuments to are the four million people in slavery or the 800,000 people who died in the war. There are not many places where you feel the weight of our Civil War as we should, and there’s almost no place where you see the weight of slavery as we should. So when I go off on these conversations, I tell people, “I’m not going to have a position, but whatever you say I will argue with.” Right? [laughter] Because I’ve heard the people on the other side who are speaking with goodwill and certainty that what they’re seeing is right. So for people to hear that there’s another way of looking at this is often a surprise to them. I would say that this is not a dysfunction of our society that we’re having this conversation now. It’s a conversation that we were bound to have sometime. It falls to us to have it in as civil and productive a way as possible. I would say that it actually matters that we understand what happened in the Civil War, that we don’t make statements that are self-congratulatory or evasive but that acknowledge the hard history that we live. So, you know, I joke that I’m a cheerful guy who gets up every day and thinks about, really, the worst things in American history for a living. [laughter] And I’m not going to help those people. Their histories have already come and gone, but we need to listen to what their histories tell us. They speak of warning, but they also speak of possibilities of things that are better than we could imagine actually coming to pass. They tell us not to give up. So I think that the monument conversation—I mean, nobody would have wished for it to have unfolded as it has. It’s our job now to see if we can make it come to some kind of conclusion that helps redeem some of the suffering.
25:15 Blackmon: Ed Ayers, thanks for joining us.
Ayers: Thanks very much.
Blackmon: If you’d like to join the discussion about Confederate monuments or Ed Ayers’s new book, reach out to us at the Miller Center Facebook page or directly to me using the email below or on Twitter, @douglasblackmon. The Twitter handle for our guest is also on the screen. One last thing, whatever you think about these monuments, focus on the future of the country, not our bloody past. See you next week.