A New Civil War

Edward L. Ayers

Guest Column by Edward L. Ayers

The Sesquicentennial of the Civil War and Emancipation presents us with the opportunity and the obligation to think about the Civil War in some new ways. Over the 50 years since the Centennial, we have deepened our understanding of the Civil War to a remarkable extent. Whether at the level of accessible biography or arcane technical history, the frames of reference of 1960 have been replaced with a complexity befitting the remarkable social changes of the last half-century. Our understanding of the Civil War has steadily become more interesting and more challenging.

Our understanding of the war began to be revolutionized by events that happened to overlap with the Centennial years. The most important events, of course, were those of the struggle for black rights in the South, the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington and Selma and the Voting Rights Act. Historians began to confront the central role that black Americans played as advocates and agents of their own freedom.

Thanks to other changes that took force in the early 1960s, we also now comprehend the centrality of women’s experiences in both the North and South, seeing women not merely as bystanders or victims but as fierce partisans as well as outspoken voices for their own interests.

Influenced by the course of warfare in our own time, we have taken broader views of the military history of the war, finding unsuspected complexities and complications. The political history of the years between 1856 and 1876 has been redrawn several times, with far more moving parts than we imagined before. Similar complexities have emerged in economic history, in literary history, in labor history and in the history of ideology and political thought.

These various complexities have emerged independent of one another, as specialists have tackled particular problems of evidence or interpretation. The new understandings have not followed any one line of interpretation and have, in fact, been at odds with one another. Rather than cohering into a new kind of Civil War history, therefore, our exciting new studies are actually making it harder to offer generalizations.

In the absence of those new generalizations, the old arguments and assertions and evasions continue unabated. Non-specialists, and our textbooks, still rely on outmoded ideas — such as the Civil War being a struggle between industrial and agrarian ways of life — as quick-and-easy explanations for the profound issues raised by the war. Even as historians come up with more and more nuanced understandings, the old simplicities live on into yet another century. It is hard to escape the images of “Gone with the Wind,” no matter how we try.

The challenge before us, then, is to think of ways to make the Civil War new, to see it afresh. That requires continual reinvention, even as we remain true to the evidence before us, taking advantage of new technologies as well as paying closer attention to evidence that has always been before us. It is time for some new ways of thinking about the enduring problems of understanding this deceptively simple conflict.