Dr. Edward Ayers Encourages Us to Ask Questions about the Civil War
By Lizzie Hobbs, Contributing Writer
On Wednesday, October 3, the Civil War Era Studies Department hosted their annual Lincoln Lyceum Lecture, this year featuring Pulitzer Prize nominee and 2018 Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize winner Edward Ayers. Dr. Ayers currently serves as the Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities at the University of Richmond, where he formerly served as the university’s president.
The topic of this year’s Lincoln Lyceum lecture was Ayers’ newest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, which serves as a part-two to his previous book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America. Both works follow the stories of two counties in America during the mid-nineteenth century, Augusta County in Virginia and Franklin County in Pennsylvania.
During his lecture, Ayers said that in beginning his research, he wanted to pick two places which were incredibly similar, but were majorly different in their varying stance on slavery. Two places, he said, where, while driving through, he was forced to ask, “How could people in this beautiful place fall into war?”
The room — full of students, staff members, and members of the Gettysburg community — listened eagerly as Dr. Ayers relayed the stories of these counties, and how the experiences of their inhabitants compared to those of all Americans. Reading excerpts from The Thin Light of Freedom, Ayers painted a picture for the audience of a politically-divided nation.
The presidential election of 1860, Ayers commented, was “the only real turning point of the war.” Chuckling, given our current climate of national political debate, Ayers said to the audience, “You’ll have to imagine this, but people were really riled up about politics!”
As the lecture continues, Ayers spoke on the humanity which often gets forgotten in discussions of war. Speaking on memorialization of the war, and those who fought in it, he described communities on both sides of the war, coming together to bury fallen members of enemy ranks, or as Ayers put it, “digging graves for strangers, in hopes that someone somewhere is doing the same for your son.”
Ayers closed his lecture with a few brief comments about the importance of the study of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period, and the importance of studying the war holistically, not categorizing the study of the war into boxes of social issues, military tactics, or political actions.
Dr. Ayers encouraged the audience to remain curious about this time in our nation’s history, finishing his talk by saying, “When we stop asking questions about the Civil War, we stop asking questions about who we are.”