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Where Did Freedom Come From? A Case For Coincidence In U.S. History’s Defining Conflict

Frederic Edwin Church
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Our Banner in the Sky

The nation pauses Monday to mark Memorial Day and honor the thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice for this country’s freedom. The holiday started in the late 1860s to honor Union and Confederate soldiers killed during the four brutal years of the American Civil War.

The conflict from 1861-1865 also led to an entire population of Americans receiving their first taste of freedom after nearly 200 years of slavery. Nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War, University of Richmond President Edward Ayers says two mysteries about the conflict are still intertwined.

“How was it that a war no one intended and no one wished descended upon the largest, richest and most successful democracy in the world?” Ayers asked in his keynote address March 10 during the University of Oklahoma’s 2014 Teach-In on the Civil War. “And two, how was it that out of this disaster of a war came the greatest blessing in American history, the end of perpetual bondage for four million people?”

Ayers has led the college in the former Confederate capital since 2007. He says the 1850s saw the rise of a new Republican Party, the decline of American Whigs, and the rise of third party candidates that created a political powder keg by the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

“This is what brings on the Civil War. It’s not the inevitable conflict of a unified North and a Unified South, but it’s chaos,” Ayers says. “A candidate has been elected in the North without the support of anybody in the South. And what this really means is we [South Carolina, the first state to secede] are getting out of here as quickly as we can because two bad things might happen we wait for Abraham Lincoln to be inaugurated.”

South Carolina saw opportunity to create its own nation centered around the American South’s monopoly on the single most valuable commodity in the 19th century – cotton. If Lincoln turned out to be the moderate candidate he ran as, that opportunity might pass them by. If the 16th president turned out to be a radical, the South could quickly lose its powerful position once Lincoln starts enacting his “Northern” agenda.

But Ayers their plan backfired, since ending slavery didn’t even enter the picture at first.

“The biggest slave-holding areas are often the people who want to compromise, because they are the ones who are going to lose something if a conflict breaks out,” Ayers says. “[If] the South doesn’t secede, there’s no emancipation anywhere near 1865. The South brings on the very thing that it had feared in the long haul.”

Ayers also argues two unlikely figures helped bring about the end of slavery – Gen. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

“[If Union Gen. George] McClellan had been able to take Richmond in 1862 as he should have…slavery would not have come to an end in the Civil War,” Ayers said. “If they had allowed Richmond to fall before there had been an explicit declaration that this war was somehow about slavery, the end of slavery would not have come with a speed and finality that it did.”

Ayers says destroying slavery became the policy of the Union even though the white northern population never voted to support the idea.

“Emancipation reminds of where all significant social change comes from – through purposeful action and through accident,” Ayers says. “This is why history is more than the sum of its parts. It is about things connecting often in unpredictable ways.”


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