The American Historian

Caught in History

Edward L. Ayers

Many historians, including me, want to make our work useful in the world. I chose to study the South and its attendant issues of race, inequality, justice, politics, and violence in part because those subjects seemed important to the world in the 1970s when I began my career as an historian and have remained important since. I decided to write about the Civil War because it echoed so profoundly in the present.

My investment in those topics resonated even more deeply when I moved to the University of Richmond from the University of Virginia to serve as president in 2007. The former capital of the Confederacy is a deep and complex city, bustling with millennial energy and yet shadowed by slavery, war, and the Lost Cause. The sesquicentennial of the Civil War arrived early in my presidential term, and in 2009 I was able to offer the beautiful facilities of the University of Richmond for the first event in the nation for the commemoration. Sixteen fellow historians joined me to discuss America on the eve of the Civil War, using their extensive knowledge of what happened after 1859 to pretend that they knew what Americans in 1859 could have known about the crisis that lay before them—not much. It was an exhilarating event, attracting more than two thousand people from more than two dozen states for a day-long session.

Building on that success, about twenty-five historical organizations in Richmond came together to form what we called the Future of Richmond’s Past. We reframed the sesquicentennial to embrace emancipation as well as the Civil War. For five years the coalition sponsored conversations, debates, and events across the city. Our work culminated on April 3, 2015, when we celebrated the liberation of Richmond by the Federal army, including reenactors of the United States Colored Troops. The governor gave us permission to use the beautiful grounds of Virginia’s capitol, where pop-up museums interpreted life in the city in the years of war and emancipation. The governor, the mayor, and local leaders of the black community spoke from the steps of the same gleaming white capitol occupied by the Confederate government. American flags waved everywhere; no Confederate flags appeared.

That work, that collaboration, was thrilling, in many ways the fulfillment of my vision of what history could be: a medium through which we connect with each other and with the past. The American Civil War Museum, a fusion of the Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center, promised to make permanent that moment of connection. I have served as founding chair of the museum’s board, working alongside its charismatic leader, Christy Coleman. The American Civil War Museum will open in 2019, occupying an evocative site next to the James River and offering a uniquely inclusive story of the nation’s defining event. Richmond lay at the center of the war from start to finish, at the center of the slave trade, the center of fighting, and the center of black struggle for freedom and security. We completed arrangements for the museum’s opening early in the summer of 2017 and scheduled the groundbreaking on August 13 of that same year.

In the meantime, a new mayor of Richmond, a dynamic young African American man named Levar Stoney, formed a commission to consider the future of the Confederate statues on the city’s famous Monument Avenue. He invited me to serve on that commission and I was honored to do so. The commission planned to interpret the monuments, explaining who put them up, when, and why. In announcing the commission, the mayor delivered a blistering speech about his distaste for the monuments and his desire that they not stand in Richmond, but he did not call for their removal. His stance angered people who did not want the statues touched and those who wanted them dismantled. As commission members we devoted ourselves to listening to what everyone who wanted to comment had to say on the issue.

A public meeting about that initiative on August 9, 2017, brought out 500 people who took the full range of possible positions on the future of the monuments. The conversation was animated and sometimes contentious. A group of so-called “flaggers” sat near the front, bedecked in Confederate decoration, holding signs that proclaimed “No Context, No Compromise.” The city’s newspapers emphasized the contention, but in retrospect the event seemed civil. The commission planned a series of future meetings and was receiving hundreds of comments, often thoughtful and creative.

Two days later, my family and I went to Charlottesville for the weekend, to the house where we had raised our children and still kept a garden and enjoyed the mountains. I was preparing to teach a class in the afternoon of Saturday, August 12, at the University of Virginia on the history of voting restriction with my friend Brian Balogh as part of a program intended to counter the protests by white supremacy groups. Our daughter and son-in-law, the principals of Field Studio Films, were scheduled to screen two documentaries they had made, one about the history of Charlottesville’s painful “urban renewal” and the other about the memory of lynching.

As we watched coverage of the protests and counter-protests on television on Friday night and then again on Saturday, a few miles from our house, we were shocked, furious, and heartbroken. We soon received word that the events of the afternoon had been canceled. The killing of Heather Heyer deepened the loss and outrage.

We decided to record a special episode of a podcast on American history, BackStory, based in Charlottesville and on which I am a cohost. Brian and I went to the studio on Monday while our fellow hosts, Nathan Connelly of Johns Hopkins and Joanne Freeman of Yale, linked in remotely. We talked of the history of violence, race, and monuments. We also talked of what it was like to be in Charlottesville that weekend. We invited a member of a synagogue in town to read a powerful letter he had written about threats by the neo-Nazis that had so improbably invaded the pretty college town. It was a hard but meaningful show to make.

As a member of the monument commission in Richmond, I was not sure how to talk with the press without compromising my position as an objective civic representative, but I decided that I needed to try. I appeared on PBS Newshour, standing on the memorial site for Heather Heyer, talking to a camera in the street with the producer in Washington as a voice in my ear. I tried to explain how the United Daughters of the Confederacy had erected monuments across the South, simultaneously memorializing their fathers and obscuring the central role of slavery in the cause for which they fought. The response was heartening, people seemingly grateful for an explanation that tried to offer some nuance.

Two days later, on schedule, we broke ground for the new American Civil War Museum in Richmond. It was an event filled with solemnity but also determination. Mayor Stoney spoke, alongside our Representative in Congress and with a letter from Senator Tim Kaine. In my remarks, I said that the events of Charlottesville demonstrated the necessity of a museum that would tell the truth about the Civil War every day, that would show the deep roots and long consequences of that conflict, that would say things monuments could not.

Richmond became caught in the backwash of Charlottesville’s crisis, an inversion not only of scale but also of identification with the Confederacy. Richmond’s mayor told the commission’s leaders that the protests and death in Charlottesville had changed the situation and his thinking; he would now ask the commission to consider removing some or all of the Confederate statues in Richmond. The commissioners accepted this expansion of our work and held meetings with a broad range of groups who want to make sure we hear their concerns and suggestions.

The last few months have offered a strange mix of despair and hope. Professional expertise, slowly acquired through years of teaching and research, can suddenly prove useful in times of crisis. People want informed comment, balanced interpretation, and broader perspective. It also turns out that our expertise is of use behind the scenes, out of camera range. Working as a part of a civic team, offering fact and a sense of proportion on the fly, is helpful. Talking with many members of the communities where we live, listening without always trying to instruct and correct, uses our patient accrual of knowledge in helpful ways.

These events happened to coincide with preparations for the appearance of my book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America. That book, the second volume based on the Valley of the Shadow digital project initiated in 1991, tells the story, on the ground and at human scale, of the last two years of the war and the years when the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were passed. It also tells the story of the first memorialization of the Civil War in both the South and the North. As I spoke about the book I had to confront the present-day manifestations of the war.

I write this report before events have come to a conclusion, just as those who wrote the letters, diaries, and reports of the Civil War did. Like my subjects, I do not know how the story will turn out in Charlottesville or Richmond. That lack of knowledge is helpful, a reminder that humility is essential for historical understanding, whether we are writing history or living within it.