Ed Ayers Fights the Good Fight on Slavery and Civil War

Civil War Emancipation perhaps has not been as kind to Ed Ayers as he deserves. Back on May 1, I posted an entry critical of Ayers’ piece in Disunion in the New York Times in which he touted the computer analysis he and his colleagues at the University of Richmond had done on Virginia’s 1861 secession convention (instead of using a more common touch to correct the common view among the public that slavery was not a major cause of the Civil War). While I stand by my blog entry, a recent feature article (dated June 12) on Edward Ayers in the Chronicle of Higher Education has provided some useful perspective on the Disunion piece.

For anyone not familiar with Edward Ayers, he is a distinguished scholar of the 19th-century U.S. South and the American Civil War, who in 2007 was tapped to become the President of the University of Richmond. I don’t know Ayers personally, having only met him once at a 1997 academic conference at the University of Richmond organized by Catherine Clinton. He was then on the history faculty at the University of Virginia. I doubt he remembers me and I would not blame a bit if he didn’t. Even then he was a very well-regarded historian and quickly becoming something of a legend for his ground-breaking website on the Civil War, The Valley of the Shadow, which I learned at the conference he had financed in part personally by taking out a second mortgage on his house–now that’s dedication.

In any case, the Chronicle article provides a sympathetic portrayal of Ayers’ difficult and controversial efforts to ensure slavery’s coverage in the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy. While the Richmond of the early 2010s is a different place than the Richmond of the early 1960s, where resistance to the civil rights movement and entrenched racism insured slavery’s absence from consideration, Ed Ayers has still found the topic to be a controversial one in the context of the sesquicentennial. It does not fit in well with the way some Richmond residents want to remember their ancestors. Some elements of resistance seem to arise from neo-Confederate circles, others from Richmonders loath to remember a painful topic in the city with significant racial tensions lying just below its surface of polite civility.

From the Chronicle‘s description, I must admit I admire Ed Ayers for the moxie of broaching the topic of slavery and emancipation in the Civil War in Richmond, especially considering his position as a university president. He was smart to seek and win the unanimous backing of the University of Richmond trustees before proceeding and from the article it appears he is proceeding in a diplomatic way, aiming for a frank yet peaceful discussion that promotes reconciliation rather than stirring up racial antagonism. Maybe he should have discussed his activities in this regard in Disunion, although I can see how it might not have been politic for his university leadership role to do so. In any case, I wish Ed Ayers good fortune with his initiative–he’ll need it.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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