Ayers to speak on viewing Civil War with new eyes


Ed Ayers

Patrick Hosken | Staff Writer

Chances are most Chautauquans learned about the Civil War in a traditional classroom setting, with textbooks and lectures and written homework. In 1993, as the Internet was beginning to take off, Ed Ayers began a digital history project, The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, that offered a new vehicle for a continued education.

Projects like these utilize modern technology to engage in the Civil War with a fresh perspective, Ayers said.

“The greatest enemy in studying the Civil War is thinking we already know the answers,” Ayers said. “I think we can approach fundamental questions that we don’t have universally accepted answers to.”

Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, will speak on the importance of those questions at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater.

The Valley of the Shadow website, formed by Ayers and William Thomas, allows visitors to effectively choose their own path through history as they navigate newspaper stories, letters, diary entries and records from the 1860s. The site includes detailed accounts from a Union area and a Confederate area — Franklin County, Pa., and Augusta County, Va., respectively.

Ayers said the project, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, aims to inspire historical exploration.

“The goal is to connect us all with history in more exciting ways,” he said. “We’re trying to show that you can show real history by using them.”

Ayers formed The Valley of the Shadow project during his time as dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. Since then, he’s turned his efforts to the Digital Scholarship Lab at Richmond, available online at dsl.richmond.edu. This project employs advanced technology to organize language maps, voting records and other historically significant information to add new insight to the Civil War.

“What we’re trying to do now, it’s a little more Web sophisticated,” Ayers said. “It’s a little more Web 2.0.”

In his talk today, Ayers said, he plans to address the similarities between America in the 1860s and America today. Questions of racial identity and political identity are just as valid today as in the time of the Civil War, he said.

Using visual aids from the Digital Scholarship Lab, Ayers said he plans to engage his audience here at Chautauqua just as audiences would be engaged on the digital learning sites. The goal is to spark the interest of audience members so that they can pursue further Civil War learning on their own once the lecture is over.

“(It’s) the idea that the digital stuff can be turned back into what we think of as real history,” Ayers said. “The stories are important. People tend to think that history is a very traditional kind of art and that computers are subversive to that learning, but I think they’re two different ways of seeing the same history.”

Ayers holds a doctorate in American studies from Yale University. He also won the Bancroft Prize for distinguished writing in American history and the Beveridge Prize for the best book in English on the history of the Americas since 1492 with his book In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863.