Ayers will read from and answer questions about In The
Presence of Mine Enemies on Oct. 28 at 6 p.m. in the
In the Presence offers
new look at Civil War
By Robert Brickhouse
the Civil War was such a complex event, historians have often
approached it through broad outlines, battle accounts and biographies
of generals, tucking the stories of ordinary people into convenient
contrast, U.Va. history professor Edward L. Ayers has focused
on life in a single Virginia community and another 200 miles away
in Pennsylvania to tell a story that challenges some popular views
about the Civil War and about history itself.
a newly published book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies:
War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863 (W.W. Norton), Ayers
recounts the everyday life and views of white and black residents
of Augusta County, Va., and Franklin County, Pa., farming communities
in the fertile Great Valley separated by the Mason-Dixon line.
His research, drawing on a computerized archive of virtually every
known Civil War-era document about the two localities, shows the
white citizenry in both communities to be patriotic about the
Union and debating the claims of anti-slavery and pro-slavery
forces right to the start of the war, and shows how the hopes
of black people on both sides were a major force for change.
dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, whose 1992 book The
Promise of the New South was a finalist for the Pulitzer
Prize and National Book Award, offers two fresh approaches to
understanding history. He argues that it doesnt follow the
clear path it seems to in retrospect, but is more accurately the
story of the unpredictable chaos and contradictions of everyday
life. Further, he provides the full text of all his original sources
in the award-winning Web archive that he, U.Va. students and colleagues
have built over the past decade with support from the National
Endowment for the Humanities.
interactive project, The Valley of the Shadow (http://valley.vcdh.virginia.edu/),
offers the raw historical documents about Augusta and Franklin
counties for anyone to read. It is one of the most heavily used
Civil War sites on the Web.
a Master at Juggling Tasks
few weeks after Edward Ayers became dean of Arts & Sciences
two years ago, the award-winning Southern historian was
given the news that the state and University faced one of
the severest budget crises in decades. His new job at times
seemed to be trying to keep everybodys faith
in the place, a sense of collective hope. Something
must have worked: The University was recently cited again
as the countrys leading public institution of higher
learning. What we are doing with our resources is
virtually a miracle, Ayers says.
himself could be cited as a good example. While traveling
about 50 days a year on fund-raising and academic missions,
attending on-Grounds functions an average of three nights
a week, and starting each day around 7 a.m. answering a
barrage of administrative e-mail, he continues to teach
at least one class per semester. This fall he has 150 undergraduates
in The Rise and Fall of the Slave South.
also advises a dozen doctoral students doing high-level
work in what has become a leading center for Southern history.
Meanwhile he has continued to write and publish books, including
a recent influential American history textbook and a new
volume of essays about the South, due out next year. He
also serves on national academic boards, including as a
presidential appointee to the National Endowment for the
Humanities, and is a leading proponent of computer and Internet
innovations in humanities scholarship.
fall and winter promise to be even busier than usual for
Ayers. He has been invited to lecture at the Smithsonian
Institution, Louisiana State University, the Huntington
Library in Los Angeles, Harvard University and elsewhere
on the themes of In the Presence of Mine Enemies:
War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863.
somehow managed to finish the book, the first volume of
a two-part project, while serving as dean. A lot of it was
written in occasional free moments before 9:30 a.m.,
on weekends, and in hotels and airports and on airplanes.
this year, while teaching, advising, fund raising, lecturing
and overseeing such challenges as reshaping the curriculum
and advancing major new Arts & Sciences building projects,
he plans to start writing volume two.
of simply contrasting the forces of abolitionists against secessionists
and the industrial North against the plantation South, Ayers said
he wants to show a history of the Civil War told from the
viewpoints of everyday people who could glimpse only parts of
the drama they were living, who did not control the history that
shaped their lives, who made decisions based on what they could
know from local newspapers and from one another. To present
day-to-day life on a human scale, he methodically went through
the online archives thousands of letters, journals, military
records, newspapers and other sources.
the Presence of Mine Enemies describes how the people of
two localities experienced the tense prewar period, the secession
of the Southern states, and then the first part of the war itself.
The many flesh-and-blood figures he uncovered include Jed Hotchkiss,
a Northerner and Unionist who became a mapmaker for Stonewall
Jackson and Robert E. Lee; Maria Perkins, a slave facing the impending
sale of her son; and John Imboden, an Augusta politician who took
command of Confederate guerilla forces in the mountains.
popular histories portray the war as an unavoidable conflict to
end slavery. But people of the time didnt see the issues
leading up to the war so clearly, Ayers said. Their views werent
hardened, they didnt know the Civil War
to diaries, newspapers and other records, many Northerners of
the period expressed sympathy for slavery, and many on both sides
longed for a compromise. Many white Southerners thought life seemed
safer with the Union than without.
white North didnt go to war to destroy slavery, but to deny
the right of the South to leave the Union, Ayers writes. Emancipation
was partly brought about by the efforts of African Americans themselves,
and it eventually became clear that the Union couldnt be
saved without their help.
brought war and its own destruction precisely because of these
complications, because the war was not a simple and straightforward