A famous historian of the American South visits Blacksburg


Jim Glanville

Edward L. (Ed) Ayers ranks among the elite of active American historians. He recently spent several days in Blacksburg, where this columnist twice had the opportunity to hear him speak.

The author of a dozen books, one of which in 2004 earned the prestigious Bancroft Prize, Ayers won the National Humanities Medal in 2012.

The medal was awarded by President Obama at a White House ceremony. Ayers served in the History Department of the University of Virginia from 1979 to 2007, and from 2007 to 2015 as the president of the University of Richmond, where he remains an active student of history.

Any reader interested in his detailed biography can read it by searching for him in Wikipedia.

Some readers may know of Ayers because of his nationally syndicated public radio program (and podcast) “BackStory with The American History Guys,” where he serves as one of three co-hosts.

According to one source, this program is broadcast weekly on 36 radio stations around the country, and its podcasts have been downloaded million of times. “Backstory,” which has been on the air for almost 10 years, reviews current news topics in their historical context.

On Tuesday evening, Ayers spoke about his recently published book “The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America” (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017).

This book is the culmination of a 25-year study of the digital records of Augusta County in the Great Valley of Virginia with its court house at Staunton and Franklin County in central Pennsylvania just above the Maryland state line with its court house at Chambersburg, about 25 miles west of Gettysburg.

Franklin was a county that fought in the Civil War for the North and was burned by Confederate forces in July 1864.

Augusta was a county that fought for the South and was in the sights of Union General Philip Sheridan in September 1864 during his Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

Online, the supporting data and evidence for Ayers’ recent book are at the “Valley of the Shadow Project.”

Here, digital records provide extensive documentation of the everyday wartime lives of the citizens of two counties, one North and one South, separated by only 160 miles of distance, but separated during the Civil War by vast political and military differences.

During his evening talk, Ayers read numerous quotations from the letters of people from both communities. His approach in these studies has been to examine the way in which the Civil War affected individual people, as opposed to drawing red and blue arrows on battlefield maps.

The morning following his talk, Ayers conducted a history seminar discussion about working with the public and writing for them, and about digital history.

As noted, the study of digital history has been a longtime aspect of Ayers’ professional career. Writing for the public is naturally a special interest for this local historian.

The seminar yielded an interesting exchange of views among professional historians that I listened to intently, but did not feel that I personally had anything to contribute to.

During the seminar, Ayers spoke about his latest digital history project at the link www.bunkhistory.org, which “sets out to capture this passion for the past surging all around us, and to reveal the ways that people of different backgrounds and purposes are connecting with the nation’s history.”

Daily, the site’s editors trawl the Internet for the most interesting articles, maps, videos, conversations, visualizations and podcasts about history that they can find. In this manner, they hope to create a fuller and more honest portrayal of our shared past.

Ayers was raised in Kingsport, Tennessee. That is a place I know well because of my many visits there and my many writings about the 16th century Spanish conquistadors and the Yuchi Indians who clashed in the NE Tennessee and SW Virginia region that I call Holstonia.

In the late evening, between his two appearances, I read Ayers’ surprising candid autobiographical chapter (chapter 1) in his book “What Caused the Civil War: Reflections on the South and Southern History”(W. W. Norton & Company, 2005).

That chapter tells that with a vague plan to major in American Studies, Ayers in 1971 began to attend the University of Tennessee — because it was cheap and only 90 minutes away from Kingsport.

A professor at UT told Ayers that Yale was the best place for American Studies, so during the summer between his sophomore and junior years at UT, he stopped at Yale on his way home from a summer job as a carnival worker.

Despite his rather disheveled appearance, he was encouraged by the chairman of the Yale American Studies department to pursue the field and apply in due time.

Eventually, that encouragement led to a graduate student appointment at Yale, with a fellowship to pay the bills. At Yale, Ayers took the very last class (titled, “The New South”) ever taught by C. Vann Woodward, “the most eminent of southern historians.”

With his dissertation on southern crimes and prisons, Ayers completed his transition to becoming a southern historian himself and got his first teaching job at the University of Virginia.

Ayers provided the quote, “history is all the information about anything that happened before today. Which amply confirms what I often say — that there is just too much history.”

Listening to Ayers and briefly speaking with him was a privilege.

Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.