Ahead of our annual Elizabeth Roller Bottimore lecture, we asked our two speakers - Dr. Edward Ayers and Dr. Gary Gallagher - to answer two questions. The lecture is currently sold out, but you can sign up for the waiting list now.
Have the intense public discussion about the Civil War in the wake of Charleston and Charlottesville affected your own approaches to the study of the Civil War?
Ed Ayers: Those of us who had been thinking about the Civil War long before the events of Charleston and Charlottesville were disheartened but not really surprised that those controversies drew on the symbols of the war. Despite generations of scholarship, people want to believe what they want to believe about the causes and consequences of the war. All we can do is use events such as this as opportunities to talk about those enduring issues with everyone who wants to listen to what others have to say.
Gary Gallagher: Discussions about how best to remember the Civil War have provided a consistent thread in my engagement with the conflict for the past forty years. Charleston and Charlottesville stand as two recent incidents that triggered renewed attention to the memorial landscape, and especially to the Confederate part of it. My own belief is that what transpired at Charleston and Charlottesville, as well as the massive response the incidents provoked, had less to do with the Civil War, the Confederacy, and historical memory than with current politics. These events have had no effect on my own scholarship (the arguments on each side relating to monuments are almost identical to those that have arisen periodically since the 1960s)—though each has provided an excellent opportunity to get at questions of historical memory and the need to address the past in all its complexity rather than as a simplistic story easily captured in slogans and sound bites.
The events in Charleston and Charlottesville have generated a lot of anger and divisiveness over the memory of the Civil War. Obviously, anger and divisiveness are not what we want and need. Is there a way of transforming the aftermath of Charleston and Charlottesville into something more positive?
Ed Ayers: We need a new language to talk about the Civil War. I have seen how quickly people turn to clichés to explain where the war came from, what it was about, how it was waged, and what it accomplished. Rather than invoke simple “causes” and “turning points” and what it was “really” about, invoking positive and negative caricatures about leading figures in the war, we need to pause over each debate and issue. I have found that refusing to get ahead of the story is the best way to understand each moment as it unfolded. It also good to approach the war with humility, recognizing how challenging every decision was, from launching a battle, to issuing a law, to escaping to freedom.
Gary Gallagher: I believe scholars of the Civil War and its long-term impact and memory can use events at Charleston and Charlottesville to make a case for confronting the American past with clear eyes and an understanding that history is unbelievably complicated. Discussing Charleston and Charlottesville, as well as the ways in which the two have been presented in the popular media, affords a perfect opportunity to underscore the shallowness and long-term harm of facile generalizations and comforting assumptions about the past.