American Anguish, American Freedom: A Conversation about the Civil War with Historian Edward L. Ayers

Albert Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Edward Ayers combines some of the most interesting responsibilities. He has been president of the University of Richmond, but he is also one of the most published historians of American history. He’s a scholar. He has also been involved in the Academy. Indeed, he has served as president of the Organization of American Historians completing his term in 2017/2018. President Barack Obama awarded him the National Humanities medal in 2013. He’s the author of some of the most interesting and informative books in American history, including a two-work project entitled The Valley of the Shadow. His newest book, The Thin Light of Freedom, the Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America has received the Lincoln prize from the Gilder Lehrman Institute and Gettysburg College. His earlier volume, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, Civil War in the Heart of America, the first volume of this Valley of the Shadow project won the esteemed Bancroft prize and it also won the Beverage prize. A graduate of the University of Tennessee, he holds a PhD from Yale University and he’s currently the Tucker-Boatwright professor of the humanities at the University of Richmond where he is also President Emeritus.

Albert Mohler:  Edward Ayers, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Edward Ayers:   Thanks very much. Glad to be with you.

Albert Mohler:  I have to tell you, I’ve been reading your works for a long time and I really look forward to this conversation. And I think the first question I want to ask you is how you came up with the idea of the Valley of the Shadow project? How did you think of the conception of what would become these two books and enormous life project?

Edward Ayers:  Yeah, thanks. It was a long time ago now. It was around 1990, in fact. And I was driving up I-81 in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and noticing just how beautiful it was. And I saw a sign for the new market battle that had taken place there. And suddenly, and this is partly from my upbringing as a Southern Baptist, in all candor, the 23rd psalm leap to mind that this beautiful valley had been the place of so much death and suffering. And yet, now it just looked like the prettiest place in America. And how could it be that Americans could have brought this on themselves. And part of the idea was that you look at the Shenandoah Valley and you have the Mason Dixon line cutting right across it and you can’t see it. Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia all look the same. So how was it that Americans of the same religious denominations, the same ethnicities, the same soil, the same climate could go to war in a matter of months and kill each other? So I began with the lack of obvious sources of conflict there and it felt like a good story to me but it also sounded like the 23rd psalm. I’m a little amused sometimes when people don’t really understand this and call it the valley of the shadows, or the shadow of the valley or whatever else-

Albert Mohler:  Right.

Edward Ayers:   No, it’s the 23rd psalm. You know what it means but that’s where it came from. And so, I reversed engineered all of the details of it from that one idea, is that we can maybe understand how people in Massachusetts and Mississippi might go to war, but how could people who were neighbors who belonged to the same church organizations, who were inter-marrying, how could they go to war? So that’s where the project began, with a question.

Albert Mohler:  And indeed, you had the 23rd psalm printed in the first volume of this, basically, two volume work, In the Presence of Mine Enemies. And you’re referring to the great valley there, the great valley that runs all the way from Canada down through the Eastern United States. And especially there where Virginia and Pennsylvania meet, one nation went to war. And I have to tell you that as much as I read in this area, I’ve rarely been as emotionally affected as by reading your two volumes. And I went back to read the first one as I was preparing to talk to you about the second one, and realized it was happening all over again. And just given my own personal history and my own visceral acquaintance with these issues, at the remove of over a century, it’s hard to read. It had to be hard to write.

Edward Ayers:   Yeah. I describe myself as a cheerful guy who gets up every day and thinks about the worst things in American history for a living. And why would I do that? Because we have to if we’re going to move forward. It is the idea with any sin or transgression that you have to face it if you’re going to transcend it. You have to repent for it if you’re going to transcend it. And so, I’ve tried to bring a voice of compassion for everybody in the story. And just say, “Let’s imagine that you’re sitting in one of these places,” so it’s Augusta County, Virginia where Stanton is, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania where Chambersburg is, and you’re not causing a civil war but you suddenly have to decide what do you believe in enough to die for? Whose side are you on?

Edward Ayers:   And so, I think, I grew up in Upper-East Tennessee in Kings Port, Tennessee and went to Andrew Johnson Elementary School.

Albert Mohler:  Wow.

Edward Ayers:   There are not many of them, I think in his hometown and our town. And so, when I was growing up and my grandparents lived way up in the mountains of North Carolina, and asked my grandfather one time, said, “Why don’t we talk about the civil war?” And he says, “Well, son, we shot each other.” And so, growing up I never had any sense of any loyalty to the Confederacy or anything. And when we played war, we played World War Two because that’s what was on television. And so, I feel going into the war that we’ve been hindered by too much certainty and too may pat answers. I find out talking with people about this over the last 20 years that everybody has an answer if you say, “Well, what caused the civil war,” but it’s usually just one or two words. And we know that that’s inadequate but we keep returning to them, whatever they might be. And, of course, when I first conceived of this it was right after the Berlin Wall had fallen and it seemed that maybe the world was going to get better. Never occurred to me that the civil war and the issues that it touches upon would be this relevant as we get ready to head into the third decade of the 21st century. So I think that it was hard to write because I tried to imagine myself in the shoes of all these people. But on the other hand, it was gratifying to write because I gave these people a chance to speak to us, to tell us what they had experienced and maybe we could learn something from it. So I felt myself something of a translator in this. And so, I don’t want to act like I was getting up and being miserable ever day, but I did feel a moral burden with it and I thought only if we got down close to the ground could we understand what these people were feeling.

Albert Mohler:  Well, the idea of using these two counties, Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania as symbolic polarities of north and south because of their proximity when they’re basically just 200 miles distant. You’re talking about people who thought themselves the same nation, and then thought themselves two different nations at war, and then somehow had to see themselves as one nation again. I think that is one of the greatest historical questions of human history. How in the world does that happen? And what I found so captivating in the way you approach this is that you’re dealing with people who are really married to one another. They were part of a common culture, if ever there had been a common culture there in the great valley. And all of a sudden, everything changed. I still find that at a distance and I know intellectually the reasons why. But it still seems to me incomprehensible that brother could turn on brother in that sense, but it happened.

Edward Ayers:   Yeah. And what we have to understand is that it happened one step at a time. Nobody thought, “Okay, now I turn against my brother.” So they think, “Well, I’m going to vote to send the Yankees a lesson.” They’ve elected … And the North says, “We’re going to vote for Lincoln to send these Southerners a lesson and then they’ll back down.” And then, people know the series of the events. People did not back down. They kept calling each other’s bluff. I mean, there was no reason, objectively, materially for there to be a civil war in 1860. Basically, Americans talked themselves into it. And so, Virginia’s especially poignant in this regard, and Augusta County is especially poignant because Augusta County was the most Unionist County in Virginia, and Virginia was the most Unionist county in the South, even though it was the largest slave state. And so, after the original Deep-South states secede, Virginia says, “Listen, we’re not going to do this. We’re the mother of democracy in America. We’re going to let every county send delegates to Richmond and we’re going to talk this all through before we run into all this.” People just don’t realize it took months and months and months, and many speeches before Virginia decided. And Virginia thought it was going to save the United States, that it was going to come in with its duel identity as the mother of the presidency and of the country, and as the largest slave state and work it all out. And Pennsylvania has the same feeling, “Here on the boarder, we’ll figure it out.” But what happens is that once people have declared that if they do this, then we’ll do that, then they lock themselves into this situation in which they find themselves crying to vote to leave the Union, and then they find themselves fighting.

Edward Ayers:  So here’s the thing I often tell young people when I’m talking with them, that the story of the civil war shows two things. One, that far worse things than we can imagine can happen, that all the dangers are lurking within our culture all the time that can be triggered into worse events than we can imagine. On the other hand, those same materials are there for better things that we can imagine. So in the case of the civil war, you get both of them. You get the equivalent of eight million Americans dying, if it happened today, but you also get the immediate end of the largest, most powerful system of slavery in the modern world, something that no one thought was possible. In my own lifetime, I grew up in the segregated South and watched it dissolve in a matter of a few years, the legal part of it. So it’s easy to be discouraged and to think that the future is only going to be more of what there is today, but the story that we’re talking about right now shows you that you better be very careful because you can talk yourselves into far more dangerous situations than you can imagine. On the other hand, don’t give up. There are sources for good all around us. So I think that one reason it took me a thousand pages to tell this story is that if you go step-by-step and, in many ways, then battle by battle, people keep thinking, “Okay, this is it. Okay, we’ll vote this way. Then they’ll step down,” “We’ll form this army. Then they’ll stop,” “We’ll beat them at this battle. Then they’ll quit,” “We’ll pass this law. Then they won’t.” But the thing is, is that once these tribal identities had been formed, once people had to realize there’s no middle way here, I’m either with all my neighbors here in Augusta County, of course, Virginia has succeeded. We voted against it, until the very end, but now we’re in the Confederacy, sign me up. And that’s the other thing that’s so surprising is how people can switch their loyalties so quickly.

Albert Mohler:  Putting your two volumes together as a project, you actually make an argument and I don’t know how self-consciously consistent this was, but I will tell you, as a critical reader it’s rather consistent. You give attention to the fact that this was a horrible war in which both sides really tried to break the will of the other. At one point in your second volume you stated the civil war is really … comes down to a battle over territory. And certainly, I understand that argument at the end. But you also make the argument that, for instance, Lee’s invasion of the North in 1863 was his attempt to break the will of the North to fight, to require negotiation and a settlement to recognize the Confederacy. Meanwhile, you’ve got Sheridan in the valley and others who are trying to do the very same thing, just to make the war too excruciating for the South to continue. Reading your book, I just have to say, as a Christian theologian it just reminds me of the fact that we can never actually be as manipulative of others as we might like to think.

Edward Ayers:   Yeah, because they both failed. I mean, nobody’s will was ever broken in the civil war. The main thing that happened is, I tell people, that there’s no battle that’s the turning point of the civil war. There could always be another battle but there could never be another election of 1864. So when Lee is invading Pennsylvania he writes his wife that he wants to show the people of the North that the current administration cannot sustain them and that they will have to turn it out in the next election. So it’s a little bit strange to think about. They’re about the same distance from the 1864 election as we are from the 2020 election, right?

Albert Mohler:  Right.

Edward Ayers:   And so, he’s looking ahead and thinking, “If I can just walk right into the richest part of Pennsylvania and stay there for a while and take what I want and ship it back down to Virginia, after all that the Lincoln administration has mobilized and demanded and asked, surely they will elect somebody else who will sue for peace the following year.” And I think that that’s one of the things that people tend not to realize. People tend to be either interested in military history, or social history, political history, but I hope I showed you over those thousand pages that they’re all the same thing, that they are all-

Albert Mohler:  Oh, indeed. Yeah.

Edward Ayers:   And so, the biggest test then, would the Confederacy break the will of the North to support Abraham Lincoln in November of 1864? And I don’t think people realize how close they came to doing so. A couple of facts that are like reading the front page of the paper now, if 80,000 men had voted differently in 1864 in particular parts of South, George McClellan could have been president of the United States. Lincoln persuaded exactly 1% of Northern democrats to change their votes from Republican to Democrat. This is the greatest crisis of the nation and you still had nearly half of white Northern men who wouldn’t support Abraham Lincoln. People ask me, what’s the biggest surprise that I came across in the book? It’s that. And so, the positive thing about this is that Lincoln could have declared martial law, or not had an election. He does it anyway, wins, and then as soon as he wins then the war really does begin to wind down.

Albert Mohler:  But he didn’t even expect to win. He had even written a letter, a secret letter to his cabinet members anticipating a loss, and he had to even come up with the idea of this new party, this National Union party to be something of a coalition. He still thought it was going to fail, and that’s where I realize Lee and his strategy came closer than I think most Americans now recognize to breaking the will of the North. And the other point you make about the numbers here, I mean, as I add it up Lincoln had to be reelected by his own army.

Edward Ayers:   Yep. There’s a large element of truth to that. And I think the thing to realize is that Lee did prevent Virginia from falling to grant, almost to the edge of the election. Now, you’re referring before the Sheridan who takes the valley, finally, in October, which ends up being perfectly positioned for the election because it allows to have a big hero. You know, October surprise that we talk about? And, of course, Sherman taking Atlanta in September. So it’s in August of ’64 that Lincoln does not think he’s going to be reelected and then those two battles change things. That’s one reason as a historian I let myself look at my phone more than I might, just to see if anything’s happened in the last hour that might change history because you never can tell when it’s going to happen.

Albert Mohler:  In the beginning of your second volume, Thin Light of Freedom, you make a very interesting statement about history and the history of the civil war in particular. You wrote, quote, “Our stories of the American Civil War and reconstruction keep changing. The generation that fought the war celebrated its sacrifices and accomplishments. By the end of World War One leading historians considered the Civil War a waste and a delusion. Scholars who lived through World War Two argued that the war against slavery been necessary. While those who experienced the Civil Rights Movement judge that reconstruction had left the nation unredeemed.” Well, where are we now in your judgment?

Edward Ayers:   That’s a good question. You might think that we had changed more than we thought. I live in Charlottesville, which is strange for a place to become an event. I say that now and I know what people are thinking. They’re not thinking at Thomas Jefferson’s University, or Monticello, they’re thinking of torches around the Jefferson statue. And I think that as a recent war of words between Joseph Biden and President Trump suggest these fights over the symbols of the Civil are still remarkably resonate with a lot of people. It turns out, if you look at polls and they ask, what do you think caused the Civil War, 40% of people say states’ rights and that number is not very different between Northerners and Southerners, though Westerners think it was slavery. And it’s not very different between younger people and older people. So you might have thought, since no historian really in 50 years has argued that the Civil War was over anything other than slavery, that that would have percolated to the general population. But it doesn’t. It hasn’t. People still say, “Well, it was either states’ rights or it was just economics,” but which they imagine that the Industrial North had to go to war against the agrarian South for some reason they can’t specify. So there’s been a book since the Civil War written about the Civil War, 54,000 books. And yet the fact that here in 2019 we can’t come to a greater consensus just shows you how deeply these identities still run.

Albert Mohler:  As this conversation makes very clear, history is an ongoing conversation. It can’t be otherwise. It’s made up of telling stories, and those stories are told by human beings about other human beings. Whether we recognize it or not, we’re arguing over who we are right now, who we are as a nation, who we are as a civilization, who we are as a people, who we are as contemporaries, because arguing about the past is never merely about the past. The further we might go, the more remote that story may seem from us. But for Americans, talking about the Civil War, it’s hard to imagine that it’s not almost just as if it were yesterday. And furthermore, when you consider so many of the current tensions in American life, just consider how many of those tensions are so deeply rooted in a conversation that turned into a debate that turned into division that turned into bloody war, the bloodiest war in American history. I am a Southerner, and so … and our lives basically overlap chronologically. I’m just a little bit younger. But I experienced the very same pattern that you talked about. I too asked my grandfather why we didn’t talk about the Civil War, and he wouldn’t call it the Civil War. And that’s when I realize, this is the kind of thing … I think it would have been easier for him to talk about sex, which was incomprehensible, than to talk about the Civil War because it was just untouchable. And then, of course, I’m a leader within the Southern Baptist Convention. We bear the entire weight of all this history. I’m president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Two of our founders were chaplains in the Civil War, and the institution is famously tied to this history. And I think every once in a while a historian is capable of a very honest, clarifying sentence. And I want to say, I think you offer one of those sentences, which I think is self-evidently true when you say that for the North, I’m having to paraphrase you here, but you argue about midway through the book that for the North the war came to be about slavery, but for the South it always had been about slavery.

Edward Ayers:   Yeah.

Albert Mohler:  And I think that’s a very difficult sentence to refute. It’s clean. It’s pristine. There it is.

Edward Ayers:   Well, thank you. I believe that’s a better sentence than I’ve ever actually said, but I think I shall now adopt that as the version of it that I have. And I think this is the thing, in that 40% of people who are skeptical that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, some of them are skeptical because they don’t think the North had the moral fiber to go to war against slavery. And in that regard, they’re right. The war did not begin to end slavery. And so, and then the people then who want to defend the South and deny that it had anything to do with slavery, have to overlook an enormous of evidence including everything that the people who succeeded actually said. But they look at the North’s hypocrisy as they see it as a reason why the South therefore could not have been fighting for slavery. One way I put this, it’s an unbalanced equation. The North did not fight to end slavery but the South did fight to perpetuate it. And so, I think … And something I’ve been pointing out to people, they wonder, “Well, how can we possibly understand this?” I said, “Well, we already know how to understand this. It’s called a story.” Things start out one way and end up another. People grow and change. The trial of history shows some people to be something other than they thought they were. So our kids love all these Harry Potter books and all these kinds of things, and they can read these incredibly complicated stories, and yet we don’t think they can handle a story in which people change in the American Civil War. So I think we’ve replaced the narrative power that all of us know and love, and that’s so effective in the Christian faith, with fake sociology in which you have to have, well, it was this causal element against that casual element. I don’t know how we lost our way on that but the fact is that in our schools we teach these hollow categories of cultural differences, or of economic differences. The war was about whether or not slavery would be able to expand in the United States. That’s what it was about and nobody in 1860-61 would have disagreed with that statement. It’s after the war that we begin telling a different kind of story that removes that from the center.

Albert Mohler:  And I think, also, as children and maybe as human beings craving clarity and simplicity, we want to reduce everything to being good versus evil, and that includes individuals. We want some to wear white hats, some to wear black hats and to stay that way. But the fact is that the more you come to know the human beings, the more difficult that becomes. And for me, as a teenager, the great intellectual problem for me in this regard was Abraham Lincoln. Because I would read his words, just as a teenager, very intellectually curious and deeply patriotic teenager, I would read Lincoln. And by the way, I agree with Allen Guelzo, that he’s basically a secularized Calvinist. He basically holds to this idea of providence and his understanding of morality, the brokenhearted-ness of his second inaugural address. I just look at that saying, how can you not have sympathy for this man who is carrying the weight of human history, it appears, upon his shoulders? And yet, he can be very manipulative. He could basically act extra-constitutionally. He could be as human as any of the rest of us. And I think on the other side, you have people look at someone like Robert E. Lee and fail to understand why he was so popular in the North as well as the South. And I realize that during reconstruction there were some bad reasons that was true, but there are also some good reasons it was true. Some of the men who had known him at West Point could not shake their affection for him.

Edward Ayers:   Well, I’ve had many conversations on issues such as this and I will tell you a couple of them and what I’ve said. And you can disagree with me if you like. So I was on the Monument Avenue Commission for Richmond and we were charged with interpreting all those monuments and what they meant and what should be done with them. And so, we had hearing for months and months and people would say, “So Dr. Ayers, what do you think?” And I’d say, “Well, I’m a civil servant right now. I tell you what, you tell me what you think and I’ll argue with you,” because I’ve heard every side of all this. And a very frequent argument that the Civil War was not about slavery was the fact that Stonewall Jackson taught his enslaved people to read and taught Sunday School for them. So people very often would say, “Well, Thomas … Stonewall Jackson was a fine man. He couldn’t have been fighting for slavery because he taught Sunday School for his enslaved people.” So Stonewall Jackson was teaching his enslaved people Sunday School, therefore he could not have been fighting for slavery. And I say, “Well, let’s just think about it this way. What would have happened had he and Lee won?” Forget about what they like and what the causes of their motivations were. Let’s just imagine what they want. You would have had the fourth richest economy in the world with its own nation state, explicitly based on perpetual bondage with its intention clearly stated of expanding into Cuba and Central America. So the idea of personal motivation is not really, or even personal character is not really what’s at issue here. It’s what would have been the consequences if they had won. And I find that people just like to segment the story without thinking about the consequences in that way. And so, you can understand why people admired Robert E. Lee and you’ve heard President Trump just say in the last week that he does, but to do so is an a historical way of thinking, which we rip people out of the content in which they lived. The flip side of that is, is passing moral judgment on people who are living in situations that we’ve never confronted. Sometimes I will say, “I’m morally superior to every dead person there is,” because … but we know we’re not. We’re presented with different challenges. The way I would turn around and say, “Well, let’s imagine that these men are as good as you think they were,” and they certainly were good Christians. And yet, we look back on them today and we see the consequences of their actions. What would people think about the things that we’re doing today? What are the consequences of the things that we are doing? And so, I think that to use them as a mirror rather than as an icon is a more effective way to think about the people of the past.

Albert Mohler:  That does require thinking, though. And it’s heartbreaking reading your two volumes of this Valley of the Shadow project. It was very difficult for me. And I might look at the monuments a bit differently than you. I might look at it the same. I don’t know. Frankly, it is that this is not something that I think should be a civilizational crisis point. Partly because I think we have to tell the whole story. I’m a biblical Christian. I’m committed to an Augustinian world view, which means an honest understanding of human sin and depravity and the fact that there’s actually no one worth of a monument. But the fact that someone put up a monument means that that’s a part of the story we need, at least, to tell.

Edward Ayers:   Exactly, exactly.

Albert Mohler:  And there’s more to tell.

Edward Ayers:   Exactly. And that’s … We’re in the same place on that, is that the problem with the monuments is they had stopped speaking to us. They were just … They weren’t telling any story, except the residue of, “Well, this is some previous generation that held up white supremacy as the law of the land,” and this is left over from them.” And so, we need to explain all of those monuments, where they came from. I’ve been working really hard for the last six years on the new American Civil War Museum that’s opening this weekend in Richmond and we’re trying our very best to tell the story, just as you say, by showing all of the evidence and showing it unfolding and showing that all these personal decisions were required. And so, ironically, you have to be arrogant enough to think that you could understand something like the Civil War but humble enough to know that you never can if you’re going to do this. So it’s going back to that issue of getting up here every day and working on this book, that was the issue. How do I feel that I’m authorized in some ways to organize this evidence and tell this story? On the other hand, I’m simply not passing judgment on these people of the past.

Albert Mohler:  So, yeah. Karl Barth, when he wrote Theology, and I wrote my dissertation of Bart, he had two different kinds of text. He had the main text and the minuscula. And actually, the minuscula included all that … the smaller text included all of his documentation and the primary sources. And so, I’m actually not Bartian. I’m classically evangelical. But it was Bart who made me think through that, largely the minuscula because I had to deal with the primary sources. That’s where I wanted to get. I wanted to see what’s Bart looking at? And frankly, Augustan was one of the major figures he kept looking at. It’s what drove me back. Well, oddly enough, you do the same thing in a way that I see almost no one else in modern history, writing of history that is, you use two different type fonts to make two different kinds of arguments and I just want to tell you, you would have a very good little book if you just took all the italicized text and put that into a small volume. Because, as I see it, you’re doing a novice school of social history in the main text, but you do give the superstructure in the italics. And I have to tell you, I loved reading them both but you had to have a strategy there. I’d love to hear you talk about it.

Edward Ayers:   Well, it’s called writing 100 pages and looking at it and going, “Well, this isn’t right,” and starting all over again. Yeah, I came to realize if you love a minuscula you’d love the Valley of the Shadow project which we’ve not really described yet. But it’s this website that has every piece of information about every person who lived in those two counties from 1850 to 1870. And it’s basically crazy. We had no idea we began it in the early 1990s what that would involve, transcribing 10,000 pages of newspapers, and every census record and all this. This was long before pdf files existed, certainly long before Ancestry and all that. And the idea was much like Bart, that you’d say, “Here’s my story. Here. Click here and here’s all the evidence.” You tell your own story. If you think that I’m not telling it fully, here’s every letter, every diary, every military report. You can tell your own story. And so, there is a transparency that I was aiming for on that. But it also became clear that if I told you everything that was in that archive, and that’s what the first hundred pages was, I could tell you the weather every day. I could tell you the color of every major … eyes of every major character. And I said, “Okay, this isn’t going to work, so how do I move the story forward and still have this granular, very human story?” And I end up calling the italic Voiceovers, like in a TV show or a film, and that’s how I see it. What I really care about is the story on the ground but they couldn’t see these things, but we can. And so, it’s juxtaposing of those two things. So yeah, all of this required inventing narrative strategies to do the multiple things I wanted to do. And now I’m thinking, well, would it be, in case there’s anyone listening who has the capacity to turn this into an HBO series, I’d be all up for that. And so, because I think in some ways it’s a visual book too. Don’t you think?

Albert Mohler:  Oh, absolutely.

Edward Ayers:   … it’s a narrative in that regard.

Edward Ayers:   But that was the idea, is that I would try to shift focal length. Here’s an up close, and then now we’re going to have a luxury that nobody at the time had, which is to go up on Mount Olympus and be able to see all the things that were happening. So it took me a long time to figure out how to do that. Fortunately, I wrote volume one and then I was a university dean, and then a college president. So I could not get the energy and time to write volume two until I was finished with all that. I’m sure I could have if I’d have to invent the form all over again. But fortunately, I had the Valley of the Shadow sitting there and I had my narrative forms. So I was able to turn off the email and quit going to alumni events and sit there and write that book in a year.

Albert Mohler:  Well, it is a remarkable achievement. And you write elegantly, not every historian can or does. And as you just mentioned, it is pictorial. You do get a picture. I want to go back to one of the pictures, actually, that you made me think a lot about. Knowing the area every well, never having lived there but growing up in the South in the valley a lot, you mention that if you take Pennsylvania in Franklin County and then you take Augusta County in Virginia, you said traveling through the valley it would have looked like one continuous system of valleys, at least, mountains on the left, mountains on the right, shadows and light falling, respectively. But then you said it was different too, and you said something I’d never seen before. You said that the farms were different. That was a clarifying insight. Explain what you meant that the farms were different in Pennsylvania versus Virginia?

Edward Ayers:   Yeah. It’s a really surprising thing to discover. We have all of this ridiculous amounts of data and we explored it all. And it turns out, really, that from the Mason/Dixon line all the way to Texas the average Southern farm was about twice the size of the average Northern farm. And the book I’m currently working on, I’m looking at this more intently. The one answer is slavery, of course, something that we’ve not talked about as much now as I … yet, as I’d like to, but in slavery if you have even two or three people who are not your family to work, you can work a lot more land. And so, the more enslaved people planters owned, the more land they owned. And so, you would find economies of scale. Whereas, if you’re the little house on the prairie in the North, there’s no reason, really, to buy more land than you can handle. You don’t have the money anyway and you can’t really farm it. But it’s also the case that, as people probably know, three-fourths of white Southerners did not own slaves, and yet they would also have their farms larger if they could. And had you grown up in the South, you’ll recognize this. We know what a farm’s supposed to look like. You have the house in the middle, and then you have … you’re close to the spring house. The barn’s not too far away. Then you know there’s a part of the farm, though, that’s the wood lot. I think we’ve maybe forgotten what it was like to have all the fuel that you burned growing somewhere on your farm. You needed land to graze animals and so forth. So it’s kind of a mystery that I resent you asking me about, as I don’t have a better answer than this, about why culturally Southerners would do whatever they could to have more land than they could actually farm, because the population density of the South is about half that of the North. So the flip side of that is that the farms were larger, but it’s also the case that there are many fewer towns. And so, people would … people who were very interested in spreading the gospel and establishing churches had to confront the fact in the South that you just didn’t have the population density to sustain all the churches that you wanted. So the evangelical churches in the South were far more widely dispersed than they should have been for maximum efficiency. And so, it has all different kinds of consequences. But that’s the difference that a line on the ground made. Ultimately, there’s slavery on one side and not slavery on the other. That ended up being the difference over which the nation divided itself. Now, there in Kentucky, the joke goes that Kentucky joined the Confederacy after the Civil War culturally. But the fact is that except for Kentucky, there’s a very clear line of demarkation between a nation that was going to define itself around the security of slavery and another nation that wasn’t. It wasn’t a nation that was going to end slavery, as Lincoln said. It was illegal for him to do so. He did not have the constitutional right or any intention to end slavery. So it goes back to that same issue. And the big mystery in many ways for Southern history and for this episode is, why would the through force of people who didn’t own slaves fight so doggedly for a new nation that was based on slavery? And I think that’s the problem that we have, which is a productive problem. It keeps us from falling into pat answers about all these things. But in the same way that people would come up and tell me about Stonewall Jackson teaching Sunday School, people would come up and say, “Well, Dr. Ayers, the war couldn’t have been about slavery. Mine ancestors didn’t even own slaves and he died for the Confederacy.” And the statement I have about that is, he did not fight for slavery. He fought for a nation that was based on slavery.

Albert Mohler:  How much can you distinguish that? This is a tortuous question. You ask the question, why would three-quarters of Southerners, or least as represented in the Confederate Army, fight for the Confederacy in that light? How do you answer that question?

Edward Ayers:   Well, it goes back to my first answer that they’re doing it one step at a time. First of all, they do say that we’re fighting against the abolitionist hoards but they see that as not only attacking slavery but attacking them, their moral virtue. And you know, the churches are the first institutions to break. And why? It’s because the Southern churches felt Northern attacks on slavery to be attacks on the morality, the Christianity of their compatriots. And so, white Southerners felt that the North are hypocrites who were invading them for just greed and resentment and didn’t care anything about the black people. And so, white Southerners say, “Listen, let’s all band together to defend our homes against these people.” And once that starts happening, once your best friend has died, once you’ve lost your brother, you’re fighting for him. And so, that’s the thing you talked before about, the failure to break will. The longer the war went on, the more deeply committed non-slave holding white Southerners in most of the South were to the Confederacy. Now, there are parts like where I’m from in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina where they did not, where they said, “Enough of this. We quit. We’re deserting. We’re walking away from this.” But by and large, until the very last days, the rates of desertion in the Confederacy were not particularly high. And so, I think it the trial itself is crucible that welded Southerners to the Confederacy. The more they suffered, the more they believed in it. And then once the war is over and there’s nothing at stake, then they don’t want to give up this idea of the nation that might have been, that was based on virtue and self-sacrifice, that never had to levy taxes or ask anything else of you. You could just love the Confederacy because it was always in time, in the past, and perfect and led by noble men.

Albert Mohler:  And it was never a government, except a government at war. So we have no idea how the Confederacy would have operated as a government, except as a government at war, because it was never at peace.

Edward Ayers:   That’s right, that was its great benefit and its deficit. To lead a government at war is to have people unified, and that’s what was remarkable about that election of 1864 that 46% of white Northern men wouldn’t vote for Lincoln when the nation was under assault. Right? That’s the way to think about it, is that we think of the United States, the North being more unified but the North in many ways was more divided than the white South, because … Now, we’ll never know exactly if there’d been an election, because one of the only changes that the Confederacy makes in the United States constitution when it creates the Confederacy is to change the term of office of the president from four years to six, so there’s never a presidential election. Jefferson Davis was not a popular man. We could imagine him being voted out of office he he’d come up in 1864. So it’s hard to know. Here’s the thing, people are loyal to the people they fight with. People are loyal to an army. People are loyal to a general. That’s why the statues that we have are to the generals. And so, by 1862 or 1863, people are loyal to the cause of the Confederacy whatever its roots were. And you notice the Confederacy, once the war begins, never talks about defending slavery. It’s at the moment that it’s created that they’re very explicit about it. Once the war begins it’s to redeem the suffering.

Albert Mohler:  There are two things I want to raise with you. One is that as a theologian I just have to say, there’s a dimension to this I think most historians miss. And that is the fact that theological liberalism had already become such a driving energy in the North that the Northern denominations were largely discredited within the South on theological terms. And so, the arguments that they made had very little impact upon the South. So it meant that the South could rightly, in this sense, position itself and understand itself the defensive Christian Orthodox and biblical revelation.

Edward Ayers:   Well, that’s exactly right.

Albert Mohler:  That’s a big part of the story.

Edward Ayers:   It is.

Albert Mohler:  And I want to say the historians generally just miss it or disregard it, but that was a lot of the driving energy behind many of the people that established this school and others.

Edward Ayers:   Well, and I take it very seriously. I think if white Southerners said, “Listen, we are upholding the law of the constitution and of the bible, show us anywhere in the bible where it says that slavery is wrong,” you can’t. “Show us anywhere in the constitution where it says that slavery’s wrong,” you can’t. Therefore, you are the apostates. You’re the ones who are trying to change the law of God and of humans. And so, there is no doubt that white southern Christians believed that they were fighting for the right on theological ground.

Albert Mohler:  If I can interrupt and say, it’s a little bit more than that because in the Northern divinity schools, and in the Northern intellectual elites, they largely disregarded biblical revelation. And so, I mean, famously Harvard, Yale. You can go down to unitarian Harvard. So the South was not ready to be moved at all by Norther liberals who all of a sudden decided to cite scripture, which they saw as merely a human artifact, in ways that Orthodox Christians believed to be entirely illegitimate and rightly so. So there was a talking passed each other on theological grounds.

Edward Ayers:   Yeah. And I think in the same way. And that fits into this larger story of how people were talking passed each other on constitutional grounds. I mean, the Confederacy says we’re fighting on entirely constitutional grounds, and it’s not clear that they were not. I mean, it’s not clear the succession was illegal. And so, that’s the thing that’s hard for people today, modern world, to understand that we have to take them seriously for what they believed. And if you do that, then some of the facile answers that we have don’t really work. But yeah, the South would have seen themselves as fighting for what they believed had been the best that been handed to them by their faith and by their forefathers constitutionally. And it was the Northerners that were trying to undercut that in many ways.

Albert Mohler:  I had another experience as a young man, a young Southerner trying to understand these things. I read many of the diaries, and especially the letters by soldiers in the Union army and in the Confederate army. And let me just suggest that that presented a different tale than the one often argued about in the elite academic guilds. And it comes down to this, I gained the impression that the Northern solider really did believe he was fighting in defense of the Union and to end slavery, just by the way they wrote to their wives and to their mothers and fathers. And I just noticed that there was very little, at least, evidence I found on the part of Southern soldiers, they didn’t really focus so much on slavery.

Edward Ayers:   No, no, not at all.

Albert Mohler:  They were focused upon defending what they saw as home.

Edward Ayers:   That’s right, and that’s why I use that phrase, they don’t think they’re fighting for slavery. They’re fighting for a nation based on slavery. And so, you never hear any episodes of Confederate soldiers charging into battle, “Long live slavery.” They’re not doing that. It’s the very … In the same way that today United States army wouldn’t say that it’s fighting for Capitalism. I mean, that’s not the way that we would imagine that that’s what we’re doing. We’re for democracy and freedom. But what underlies it? Well, okay, yeah. It is our belief in Capitalism. So in the same ways that it’s not illusion, it’s not even trickery but it is the way nations work. It’s especially the way that armies work, in which you focus on what would unify us. There’s a good … You find very little discussion of slavery in all the letters of the soldiers. Matter of fact, one famous historian said, if you took all the letters of Civil War soldiers from the North and South and mixed them up and threw them in the air, you wouldn’t be able to put them back into the Confederate and Union boxes. They’re all talking about mother, and they’re often talking about Jesus and God. And so, I think that historians continue to argue. You’ll be shocked to learn that we continue to argue about anything. But a big debate now is did white Northern soldiers really care about the end of slavery? And there are prominent historians who say no. If you look at what they write unofficially, that you don’t find very much of that. By 1864 you will, but you’re not going to find very much of it in 1861. So again, that’s the power of story and of change and of recognizing that there’s not an essence of the Civil War that we can distill. You can only see it as it’s flowing.

Albert Mohler:  So if you go into a meeting of something like the Organization of American Historians of which you served as president, academic history being the whole purpose of the organization, how do you morally handle the fact that you’ve got to deal with issues as heavy as moral guilt and the stain of slavery and the wrenching horror of a civil war? I say that as a theologian. I think you can’t avoid it but I don’t know how in the world history can deliver on it.

Edward Ayers:   Yeah. I think that my book is a little more, I don’t know how to put it, moist than most. I wear my emotions closer to the surface. I think the history of … If we don’t have the emotion hitting us, we’re not doing it right. I would say most of us feel like we’re solving problems about the past, which is one thing that journalistic historians don’t really try to do, the people who sell a lot of books, mainly because they sell biographies in which you have the form is already self-evident. And I don’t disdain that, and sometimes people say, “Well, what’s the point of academic history?” Well, we’re trying to solve problems. I think, in my case I was trying to figure out the Civil War but the answer was you can’t figure it out unless you trace it almost day by day. So even though mine is a story, it’s also an answer to the question. It’s also trying to solve a problem. And the thing is, of course, that we keep inventing problems for ourselves to solve, which to some people don’t really seem like they should be problems at all. But I’m a believer in the academic enterprise, certainly the teaching of it. I just finished grading my papers this semester this morning. I’m feeling virtuous at this moment.

Albert Mohler:  I bet.

Edward Ayers:   But you see that these issues of morality and what’s at stake live better in the classroom than they do on the pages of an academic monograph. So those issues are there. And frankly, I wrote these books maybe as an aid to somebody who’s trying to teach this and the student would read this quietly in the library and come to class prepared to wrestle with these hard moral questions. I wrote an essay back in 1998 called Worry about the Civil War and the point of it was that we don’t worry about it anymore. I said at that time that it felt like we’d solved a problem, and I … So the books that you’ve read are some ways my response to that. There’s a lot to worry about. The answers here aren’t clear cut. It’s not clear why any of these things that we take for granted actually had to unfold the way they did, because they didn’t. And matter of fact, you’ll see in volume two, I go all the way through reconstruction and show how-

Albert Mohler:  That’s right.

Edward Ayers:   … even then this not preordained. I would say that I believe in the academic enterprise. It can’t fulfill all our emotional and spiritual needs. It does some things very well. And really don’t think academic history’s ever been more vital than it is right now. I don’t think we’ve ever told more stories about more people using more inventive ways. As it turns out, I just … as president of the Organization of American Historians, I just read the 100 books nominated for best first book. And so, those were quite the core sample of the profession. And to see all the incredible work that’s being done now on all kinds of issues is really heartening.

Edward Ayers:   So I’m-

Albert Mohler:  Good.

Edward Ayers:   … a big defender of it but I also recognize that it doesn’t do everything that we need the study of the past to do, which is why I’m very much invested in public history as well.

Albert Mohler:  Well, I really appreciate that answer. If I didn’t believe in academic history, we wouldn’t have had this conversation.

Edward Ayers:   That’s right.

Albert Mohler:  But I’m very, very glad that we did. Every reader will be indebted to you for these two books and for your intellect and your heart invested in this project. And a story that you tell, and it becomes a part of the larger story and it’s a story that’s debated and the debate will go on. But I want to say how much I’ve appreciated this conversation. Edward Ayers, thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

Edward Ayers:   Well, thank you so much. I’m honored to have a chance to talk with you and it’s rare to find someone who is the ideal reader. But that was you today, so I’m very grateful.

Albert Mohler:  One of the challenges in a conversation like this is taking a thousand pages in one project, two massive volumes and trying to distill the most important portions of those books, the most important stories and arguments into a conversation, into a conversation that’s an exchange of ideas, not only about what is argued but what could be counter argued, how history could have happened differently, and how the history could have been told differently.

We’re indebted to Edward Ayers for his contribution to the telling of this story and for his latest book, but also for the rest of his books. It’s a part of an ongoing conversation that, no doubt, Edward Ayers is having with himself but he’s sharing it with the public. And that’s what one does, whether an academic historian or anyone else making an argument and writing a book, you are sharing your thinking out loud with the public. That’s what makes me really glad to have this program and to have guests like Edward Ayers. And I had the experience of reading the book, and then thinking about the book, and also having a conversation with the author of the book. I don’t discount the fact that that’s a very rare privilege. And it helps me to think, hopefully it helps you to think too.

And I want to thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public. If you enjoyed today’s episode of Thinking in Public, you’ll find more than 100 of these conversations at under the tab Thinking in Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to Thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.