As usual, our traditional Civil War histories tell us assuring story of the victory, in an unavoidable fight, of the dynamic, free from slavery North over the traditional, enslaved South, demonstrating the freedom norms rooted in the nation’s heart. The Civil War was a complicated event in our history. Therefore historians often tried to describe it through broad outlines, battle reports and biographies of commanders, forgetting about the stories of ordinary people.
On the contrary, U. Va. history professor Edward L. Ayers has concentrated on events in a single Virginia society and another two hundred miles away in Pennsylvania to write a story that presents some popular views concerning the Civil War and history itself. Edward L. Ayers presented an unusual Civil War, based on an intrinsic scale. The project itself is outstanding, and the book has become an invaluable online source, but Ayers took a step further. He himself made the collection and dug through it. The author used selected resources to describe a history that draws a parallel between the counties.
His descriptions sometimes are typical and correspond with the stereotypes for each country, but in the other cases they are simply astounding. But that was just the beginning. The archives became a website, part of the website became a CD-ROM, and now the entire project has become a book. In this respect, the book is a logical outcome of the Valley project, but it is also unique in several ways. Most obviously, it is the first important historical book to be spawned by a website. This offers a fascinating commentary on postmodern historical research and writing.
Not that the Valley of the Shadow will become the norm anytime soon, but it is hard to dodge the implications and consequences of the project. Ayers might even have published the book online, a la Stephen King and some scholarly journals. As things are, it is also the first book to compare comprehensively the wartime experiences of a northern and a southern community. Like all such local studies, In the Presence of Mine Enemies reduces the war to human dimensions by yanking it out of the stratosphere, but it then goes a step further by dramatizing the national schism through the microcosm.
Finally, the book is unique in that it is based on a single, readily accessible cache of source material. All the information is available to any casual web-surfer. Of course, that description understates Ayers’s achievement to a ridiculous degree, for the webmaster-turned-author has done something more than pick, choose, and cobble together documents. Yet the information is right there, in the electronic ether, and remains so for anyone who wishes to pursue an idea, event, or person introduced by the book (most of this material is available at a Web site, http://valley. cdh. virginia. edu). This impressive book deserves attention as much for what it represents as for what it tells us about the Civil War. In the Presence of Mine Enemies is the culmination of a cottage industry known as the Valley of the Shadow. Anyone who keeps pace with research in Civil War history is aware of this project, launched at the University of Virginia in 1991. Its creators – Edward L. Ayers foremost – wished to compile a comprehensive digital archive of primary sources that would tell the story of the war in two communities, one northern and one southern.
They also wished to select communities in relatively close proximity to each other, the better to compare their experiences. Settling on Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania, nestled about two hundred miles apart in the “Great Valley” formed by the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, the project’s crew proceeded to collect copies of every letter, diary, newspaper, government document, or bit of census data that recorded the lives of those communities during the 1850s and 1860s.
Both Virginia and Pennsylvania shared many features: the fertility of their native land, the harvest they reaped, the traditions of their white community. But at the peaceful time, on the frontiers of these counties, no one expected the beginning of war, and no one could say how it would end. The people did not expect that any war between the states would take place in their fields and streets. People who lived on the edge between North and South mourned for the growing region polarization that cleaved the nation in 1861.
With coming of war, both counties raised more than some of men and reserve to go to war. The white people who lived in Augusta and Franklin counties were both comparatively moderate and Unionist in feeling before the war. Mainly, they did not want to hold with the abolitionists or the scrappers. Ayers also says, “When the war came, they gave themselves to it with a startling passion. ” What a reader can notice in the end of the book is that the two communities both became almost absolutely faithful to the part they were fighting for. The only thing these communities did not share was servitude.
Edward Ayers suggests this as the difference in this perfect story of these two counties, beginning from John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid in 1859 and to the start of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. About one-quarter of population in Augusta County was enslaved. Notwithstanding, Augusta sent Unionist representatives to Virginia’s meeting in 1861. But after the Confederate States sent the gauntlet at Fort Sumter, and Lincoln arrested it and called for police to stop revolt, these delegates decided to vote for Virginia’s separation, and Augusta County’s voters affirmed it by an account of 3,120 to 10.
Ayers’ interlacing of history and explanation is in fact quite traditional and is splendidly done to the exclusion of a few lapses. The passages are smooth between two counties and between the rear and the battle fronts where warriors from the two parts fought. The citizens of these counties met war more than once. Confederate invaders thrice occupied Chambersburg. Ayers indicates painfully clear that during the Gettysburg campaign, the Confederates surrounded two hundred free blacks and took them from Franklin County back to Virginia for hard work. Augusta County has 50 percent more coverage in the story.
But such allocation of space is evidently justified, for in 1863 Augusta raised somewhat more soldiery for the Confederate States than Franklin mobilized for the Union, and the Virginia soldiers had four times more fight losses. We can see some bewildering mistakes and inconsistencies in the parts of this otherwise clear story, particularly concerning the North’s increasing commitment to liberation as a war policy. Ayers writes about the article of war, which the U. S. Congress passed in 1862, as preventing “army officers from giving sanctuary to slaves who escaped to the Union army”.
In fact it declared exactly the opposite: It prohibited officers at the risk of court-martial from returning slaves to their old masters. This mistake leads Ayers to decide that congressional Republicans tried to hinder the intention to prohibit slavery. Actually this article of war was part of an advance towards a liberation policy. Ayers writes that “Alexander McClure’s statement on October 11, 1862 supported Lincoln’s recent Emancipation Proclamation” (p. 325). But later McClure quotes three pages (also in October) to declare that he was “very positive in opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation. Ayers also describes the U. S. congressional elections of 1862, where Democrats got thirty-five seats in the House.
About this event the author writes as a “stunning” misfortune for the Republicans and for liberation. But he forgot to say that in fact the Republicans made a net profit of five seats in the Senate and had the minimum net loss in the House in two decades. Really, it was only in those twenty years that the party in power kept control over the House after elections. Ultimately, there is the controversy that “the Civil War was disproportionately a poor man’s fight. Households in the lower rank of property sent a larger number of men into the war than households in top ranks. This information is delusive because in Augusta County third part of the soldiers in 1861 (and a higher amount later) was themselves leaders of households. The only factor in property disparity was age. Men who grew older got more property while most volunteers were at the age of twenty or early thirty and had low property-holding status because of corresponding youth. The same was in Franklin County, though the percentage of head-of-household volunteers was apparently smaller there.
However, in spite of these lapses, this is a significant and richly textured book that makes deeper our knowledge about the Civil War. Not to be forgotten in all these attendant issues is the fact that Ayers has written a very good book, a winner, in fact, of one of this year’s Bancroft Prizes. His skillful weaving of the stories of Augusta and Franklin Counties makes In the Presence of Mine Enemies both unique and a notable achievement in the written history of the war. Nor does Ayers feel constrained by geographical boundaries.
Once the shooting starts – about a quarter of the way into the book – he often breaks away from the home front to follow the soldiers from his counties on campaign and into battle. He also pauses periodically to reflect on the wider conflict. The resulting narrative is thus more complex than one might anticipate, and Ayers demands the reader’s attention as he shifts from one county to the other, then to the national scene, and back again to local events. However, the result is a thoughtful story that quite defies traditional notions of local history.
Lest these multiple levels become ungainly, Ayers uses the currently popular theme of contingency – or “deep contingency,” as he phrases it – to focus the reader’s attention (p. 19). Simply put, he stresses that the outcomes of large historical events – say, the Civil War -depend on the outcomes of smaller events. Change any one or two of those smaller episodes, and the whole story may be altered. In other words, the Civil War could have turned out differently, and certainly people at the time, living hour by hour and day by day, had no idea how, when, or under what circumstances the conflict would conclude.
Ayers reminds readers of this by way of examples in his national overviews. The fact that most of the story is told from the vantage point of Augusta and Franklin Counties naturally reinforces the point. Neither community, on its own, could have had much impact on the war, but their very participation in the struggle allowed people in both places to play contributing roles. Unlike McPherson, Ayres more then once describes slavery as “the great engine of power and suffering that drove the war” – as the characteristic feature of Southern life.
Together, he rejects any idea that the war, in its beginning, was started by Northerners to stop slavery. In fact, the Southern decision to maintain slavery is to Ayres more important than Northern abolitionists, chiefly inhabiting out of Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Ayres considers that the elimination of slavery is just an unintentional benefit and should not serve as justification for a war started for other purposes (however, in his book, Ayres had not addressed this intriguing philosophical and historical question clearly. )
More staggering to Ayres than idealism, on the contrary, is the “tribal belonging” that appeared during war on both sides, the nationalist slogans that elevate “the worst human emotions” and to “call them virtues. ” Like many contemporary European historians, Ayres wants readers to think about the losses of war before celebrating its achievements, to remember the murder of the innocent people along with the overcoming of the evil. In the story, Ayers created a planned sequel that will fallow the citizens of Franklin and Augusta counties through the war, the elimination of slavery, and Reconstruction.
Having created this book, Ayres showed his ability to meet both narrative and moral purpose. What did Ayers emphasize, and what did he omit? It all fits together rather neatly – sometimes too neatly, for Ayers’s understanding of how history works and his gift as a storyteller obscure some problems inherent in his approach. Parts of the war’s story simply cannot be told effectively at the community level. For instance, in discussing army desertion, Ayers never quite nails the issue of motivation. We get bits and pieces and some informed speculation, but the pool of information for either county is too small to provide satisfactory answers.
Similarly, Ayers tells us what he can about the free black and slave populations of the counties, but there must necessarily be gaps in any wartime story of African Americans, especially slaves. Consequently, more caution is warranted than Ayers sometimes allows when he shifts to the national scene. His observations about the big picture, while never false, do not always mirror events in Augusta and Franklin Counties, and he occasionally attributes a fuller understanding of events to the participants than they could have had at the time.
Then again, such seemingly unresolved issues and apparent speculation may yet be justified. In the Presence of Mine Enemies stops at June 1863, and Ayers has promised to finish his tale in a second volume. In the Presence of Mine Enemies is a remarkable work of exiting historical narrative and profound scholarship. It showed us the Civil War on an innermost scale, as a description of lives of individuals and families, slaves, free blacks and whites, soldiers and civilians, women, children, and men. It absolutely changed our standard view of the Civil War.
By taking a basic view of the war, Edward L. Ayers indicates that this was not an unavoidable fight that lasted for four years and took hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. The assuring narrative of national consolidation and the elimination of slavery does not justify the losses and experiences of the people who went through the Civil War. In gathering the experiences of the people after the Civil War, Ayers recovers the shades to events, the feelings, partial knowledge, and thought on which communities acted.
In the Presence of Mine Enemies offers two fresh approaches to realize our history. It is accurately the story of oppositions of everyday life. Ayers has created the book that with success uses micro-history to tell the reader about individual lives and events while providing the wider context and meaning to the Civil War time as a whole. With In the Presence of Mine Enemies Ayers has made an invaluable and everlasting contribution to Civil War learning.
- Ayers, Edward L. In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.