Complicating the Civil War Narrative: The Lincoln Lyceum Lecture

By Savannah Labbe ’19

Edward Ayers

On October 3rd, the 2018 Lincoln Prize-winning author and historian, Edward Ayers, gave a talk on his most recent book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America. Ayers began the process of writing this book in 1991 while driving through the Shenandoah Valley and wondering how places so naturally beautiful could go to war with each other so quickly. In his book, he attempts to answer that question by looking at how the Civil War was experienced on the ground by normal, everyday people. He does this by following two communities from 1863 to the immediate post-war years: Augusta County, VA and Franklin County, PA. He began following these two counties in his previous book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, and The Thin Light of Freedom serves as a follow-up to that book. Ayers chose these counties because, on the surface, they seemed to be very similar. Both counties had similar soil and geographic features and they are relatively close in proximity. They also both initially supported the Union. However, despite their similarities, their inhabitants still went to war with each other and had very different opinions about the war. Augusta County ultimately sided with the Confederacy when Virginia seceded, which radically changed the lives of the county’s inhabitants, both black and white. By examining the war’s impact on both whites and blacks in these two communities, Ayers provides a fuller picture of the complex racial, social, economic, and cultural fabric of these societies. Ayers sees these counties as a sort of microcosm of the Civil War itself, in that they provide specific examples and concrete evidence for the larger, intangible legacies of the war, such as the fight over historical memory.


Ayers began his lecture by arguing that the Civil War was marked by boundaries of all kinds, not just regional ones. The war changed the boundaries that marked who was considered a human being and who was considered property. Time also made its mark on the lives of soldiers in that soldiers would often look back upon battles and see them as landmarks, or turning points, in their lives. Battles such as Gettysburg, where Ayers begins his book, had this effect. A man from Franklin County was at Gettysburg, and after the great victory near his home, he was able to sneak off to see his wife. His wife back home could hear the roar of battle but could not see it. After his visit, though, she was able to feel secure in the knowledge that her husband had survived the battle. For the soldier, his visit home after the great carnage at Gettysburg served not only as a much-needed break from the battlefield’s death and destruction, but also was a celebratory moment and a happy memory from which he could derive hope and purpose. However, on the Confederate side, the scene was very different. Confederates were not able to return home and celebrate their victory with their wives. Instead, they watched as wounded and mutilated men were dragged down the road by wagons, some of whom had not even seen a doctor yet. In contrast to the more hopeful Union soldier, the Confederates looked back upon the Battle of Gettysburg as a moment of immense and unmitigated suffering and loss.

Though the Confederates lost at Gettysburg, they were able to come back in 1864 and capture another Pennsylvania town: Chambersburg. In addition, the Union forces also occupied Staunton, the largest town in Augusta County, in June of 1864. When the Confederates took Chambersburg, the residents of Franklin County despaired over its loss. However, the Confederates relished in the terror of Chambersburg’s citizens and hoped that the county would never again be under Union control. An African American soldier defending the town wrote about how bravely his regiment had fought. The raid was particularly dangerous for this black soldier not only because he risked his life in battle, but also because he risked being captured and sold into slavery by the Confederates. However, he was determined to fight to gain the rights of black people to be acknowledged as human beings, to be free, and to vote, or die trying. Ayers used the experiences of town citizens, Confederates, and the black soldier to portray the range of emotions involved when the Confederates captured Chambersburg. Ayers showed this range of emotions and opinions in order to provide insight into what was at stake for each of these groups of people.

The citizens of these counties had differing opinions and feelings about many political and social issues, including the election of 1864. During the campaign season, northern Democrats vilified Abraham Lincoln. The Republicans and African Americans, on the other hand, believed Lincoln was correct in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and making the war not only about the preservation of the Union but also about ending slavery. Though he only gained 1% of the northern Democratic vote, Lincoln won in a landslide vote in the electoral college, ultimately ensuring the demise of the Confederacy. However, white Augusta residents vowed to never give up, and even offered to send their slaves to fight for the Confederacy. They had already lost so much, since much of the war was fought on their land, and were willing to sacrifice even their most prized “possessions”—their slaves– in order to preserve southern independence. In proposing to send their slaves to fight for the Confederacy, Augusta residents defied many other southern slaveowners who believed that slavery provided both the physical labor and the socio-political backbone that kept the Confederacy on its feet. The actions of southerners like the Augusta residents helped shape the Lost Cause narrative and southern memory of the war. For example, the idea that southerners would never give up influenced the Lost Cause idea that the southerners never did give up but were, instead, simply overrun by overwhelming numbers. Augusta residents’ willingness to give up their slaves also shaped the Lost Cause narrative, as southerners used such evidence to try to argue that the war was not about slavery, but rather about southern independence.

White southerners, such as those of Augusta County, entered the post-war world believing they were in the right and that God had been on their side, and they fought tenaciously to preserve such a narrative for posterity in their attempts to control the historical memory of the war. Immediately after the guns of war fell silent, the whites of Augusta County set out to decorate the graves of the Confederate fallen. In doing so, they sought to promote the notion that the Confederate dead were the only war dead that deserved to be honored, as they had fought for the only noble cause. The next day, the African Americans of Augusta County went out to decorate the graves of Union dead. With this action, they fought back against the white residents’ attempt to control historical memory of the war by arguing that the Union dead were more deserving of having their graves decorated because they had fought for the more righteous cause of freeing the slaves.

Due to African American resistance to the Lost Cause narrative, southerners did everything they could, both legally and illegally, to prevent African Americans from gaining suffrage and fully participating in American society. In this way, Ayers believes, the South committed its own suicide: If southerners had not fought so hard to deny blacks their rights, then the drastic reforms of the Radical Republicans in Congress that forever changed the fabric of southern society would not have been necessary. Ayers believes that the Radicals’ most important reform was the public-school system, which allowed African Americans to become educated. Southerners did not want blacks to have access to education because then they would become a threat to southerners’ visions of “proper” political and social order. Through public education, blacks would gain the knowledge and intelligence necessary to fight for suffrage and to stop discrimination. African Americans would then realize that they could achieve everything white people could, thus making them the equals of the white man. Such realizations would challenge the claim that white people were inherently superior and would ultimately undermine whites’ discrimination methods, such as segregation.

Ayers’s lecture provided an in-depth look at two counties which, on the surface, seem very similar but were actually radically different. His close analysis of Augusta and Franklin Counties offers a compelling window into the lived realities of the war for two specific communities, while unpacking some of the critical regional complexities that shaped those communities’ differing experiences of and reactions to the war. Additionally, his examination both of the long fight for historical memory and of the differing worldviews and experiences of all those involved in the conflict shows that a multi-faceted view of the war is necessary to fully understand the conflict and its legacies.

The Real 54th Massachusetts: Dr. Douglas Egerton on the Lives of United States Colored Troops in Lincoln Lyceum Lecture

By Nick Tarchis ’18

Two weeks ago, the Gettysburg College community was treated to a lecture by special guest Douglas Egerton, one of the recipients of the 2017 Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize. Dr. Egerton works at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, where he teaches courses on race in 19th century America. Egerton’s most recent book Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America chronicles the lives of ten men from the 54th and 55th Massachusetts United States Colored Troops, documenting their experiences from the pre-war era to their deaths.

Dr. Douglas Egerton. Photo courtesy of

Audience members were most familiar with these regiments because of the 1989 movie “Glory,” which depicts the story of Robert Gould Shaw and the black troops of the 54th, culminating in their famous assault on Fort Wagner. Egerton’s lecture, however, examined the lives of Shaw’s soldiers—rather than Shaw himself—and the country’s attitudes toward United States Colored Troops. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Americans began to ask if black citizens and former slaves would be willing to fight for a country in which many of them felt unwanted. In the South, the Confederate Government was quick to declare that, if captured, black soldiers would be enslaved and officers would be executed. While this policy would change later on, there was still a fair share of worry in the North that black troops would run from the battlefield and abandon their posts because of this Confederate threat. This was the crux of Egerton’s lecture: looking at the how the soldiers were depicted versus how they acted and examining the impact that the 54th and 55th Massachusetts had on public perception.

The history students in the crowd might have recognized Egerton’s work as “history from the bottom up.” Instead of emulating the film “Glory,” which focuses more on Shaw than the black soldiers, Egerton discussed the rank-and-file and told their stories through their own experiences. This confronts a large issue in the history field, in which many choose to study presidents, generals, kings, and other important leaders rather than opt for the harder story to tell: that of the common man. While historians such as James McPherson and Earl Hess have examined why soldiers enlisted, Egerton studies the motivations of a more marginalized group who faced institutional oppression and still chose to fight.

Egerton worked to emphasize that, unlike in the movie “Glory,” not all USCTs were escaped slaves. Those who joined the ranks as freeman—including Frederick Douglass’ sons, Charles and Lewis—saw a palpable public outcry against black troops and sought a way to prove that they would not turn and run in a battle but would fight just as bravely as white troops. This was an opportunity to reunite the nation and make it a better place for themselves and their families. For those who had escaped from bondage, however, the motivation was simple: fight for the families back in the South. Many who escaped had left someone behind, be it a wife, son, or daughter, and they wanted to ensure that they could secure their loved ones’ freedom and build a nation they could call their own.

Print depicting the 54th Massachusetts charging Fort Wagner. Photo via Library of Congress.

Edgerton’s lecture, like his book, had a melancholy ending, as many of the troops who survived the war and served with distinction were not able to achieve the goals they had hoped. Many of them lived long lives and were able to reunite with their families, but while the South was defeated, the nation restored, and the 14th amendment ratified, some troops still faced persecution after the war. Jim Crow soon took the place of slave drivers and catchers. As for their place in memory, the soldiers were quickly forgotten by history. When the United States returned to war in the 1890s, the 1910s, and 1940s, the same issues surfaced again. The public forgot about the heroism of the USCT regiments that fought during the Civil War and again believed that black soldiers would surely run at the first sight of combat and prove to be a liability on the battlefield. “Glory” does not necessarily help combat this image, as a majority of the film is told through Shaw’s perspective and portrays many of the soldiers as runaway slaves with little to no motivation. Thankfully, historians like Dr. Egerton are working to tell these men’s stories and ensure that they will have their rightful place in American memory.

Historicizing the Free Speech Debate: Harold Holzer on Lincoln and Censorship

By Annika Jensen ’18

Before attending Harold Holzer’s Lincoln Lyceum lecture entitled “Lincoln and the Press: Master or Monster?” I really believed that today’s media presence was the craziest this nation had ever seen. Mr. Holzer insisted otherwise.


Harold Holzer spoke on February 23 at Gettysburg College. Photograph by the author.
Harold Holzer spoke on February 23 at Gettysburg College. Photograph by the author.

“I invite you to imagine the press culture of the mid-19th century,” the scholar told his audience, proceeding to illustrate the world of partisan journalism of the Civil War era: newspapers had no shame; they were open about their opinions and their agendas, and every aspect of the news was opinionated. Moreover, they were omnipresent, as nearly every major city had a paper for each political party. In the years preceding the war, the press particularly had fun with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, opposing newspapers disputing whether, when Lincoln was carried away by his supporters after one debate, he was lifted up out of the excitement of his followers or his own exhaustion and defeat.

Before getting into the meat of the lecture, Holzer specified that Congress never made or passed any law during the Civil War that acted against the First Amendment. However, President Lincoln and his administration took considerable measures against anti-war and anti-government newspapers that threatened to incite Americans against Lincoln, measures which are still debated on moral grounds today. Throughout the war, the Lincoln Administration and the Union Army initiated the suppression of about 200 newspapers in the North and in border states. Continue reading “Historicizing the Free Speech Debate: Harold Holzer on Lincoln and Censorship”

Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer Teases His Upcoming Lecture at Gettysburg College

By Alex Andrioli ’17

2016 Lincoln Lyceum speaker Harold Holzer. Photograph courtesy of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities.

Harold Holzerwinner of the 2015 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, will be delivering the 2016 Lincoln Lyceum lecture entitled Lincoln and the Press:  Master or Monster? 

Harold Holzer is one of the country’s leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln and the political culture of the Civil War era. A prolific writer and lecturer, and frequent guest on television and radio, Holzer has authored, co-authored, and edited more than 45 previous books on Lincoln and the Civil War. He recently retired from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where he was senior vice president for public affairs. He joined Roosevelt House in September 2015, where he directs academic programs for Hunter College undergraduates in public policy and human rights, and hosts public programs on history and current events.

The lecture, which is free and open to the public, will be held on February 23, 2016 at 7:30 p.m. in CUB 260 at Gettysburg College. We hope to see you there!

ANDRIOLI:  As you discuss in your prize-winning Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion, Lincoln was not the beloved president that he is today. Many Northerners despised him as much as Southerners did. Based on your research for Lincoln and the Power of the Press, do you think Lincoln really earned the reputation of “Honest Abe”?

HOLZER:  Here is one Lincoln legend that I think is true.  Impressed by stories of George Washington’s unassailable honesty from his own boyhood on, Lincoln really did try to live up to the example so dramatically retold by Parson Weems in his early life of Washington.  Moreover, Lincoln worked off the debt he incurred when that book was damaged while in his possession! And we do have testimony from Lincoln’s early friends, relatives, and neighbors that he too was meticulously, almost obsessively honest—his wife said honesty was almost a “mania” with him (she should know!).  So the young man who always got asked to be the judge at tugs-of-war or wrestling matches, earned his way to the sobriquet that followed him through the 1860 presidential campaign—and while many of his unique traits were criticized during his White House years (including his love of humor and the theater), I don’t think anyone seriously questioned his honesty.  It was a virtue he wore proudly and a mantle he deserved. Continue reading “Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer Teases His Upcoming Lecture at Gettysburg College”

“The Scorpion’s Sting”: Dr. James Oakes and the 2014 Lincoln Lyceum Lecture

By Meg Sutter ’16

The annual Lincoln Lyceum Lecture took place on Thursday, March 27th at 7:30pm in Gettysburg College’s Mara Auditorium. This year’s Lincoln Lyceum guest speaker was Dr. James Oakes, two- time winner of the Lincoln Prize for his books The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass (2008 Prize) and Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics and Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861 -1865 (2013 Prize). He has previously taught at Princeton University and Northwestern University and is currently the Distinguished Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Dr. James Oakes

Continue reading ““The Scorpion’s Sting”: Dr. James Oakes and the 2014 Lincoln Lyceum Lecture”

2013 Lincoln Lyceum Lecture: Dr. William Harris

By Heather Clancy ’15

On February 28 at 7:30pm, Dr. William C. Harris presented the 2013 Lincoln Lyceum lecture to an audience of college staff and students as well as members of the public. The talk, entitled “Lincoln and the Border States: A Test of Presidential Leadership,” took place in the College Union Building of the Gettysburg College Campus. A two-time Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize winner for his books With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union and Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union,1 Harris has published eleven works concerning the American Civil War and Reconstruction and is professor emeritus at North Carolina State University (retired 2004).

058 Continue reading “2013 Lincoln Lyceum Lecture: Dr. William Harris”