Oct. 10-23, 2003
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Digest — U.Va. News Daily

Headlines @ U.Va.
‘In the Presence’ offers new look at Civil War
Music graduate students reach out to peers
16th annual Virginia Film Festival will show you the Money
Board opens housing discussion
New health plan offers options
Faculty Actions from the October BOV meeting
Faculty Actions from the October BOV meeting
U.Va. endowment performance second in nation
Werhane to receive Women’s Center Zintl Award
Board approves moving Varsity Hall
International scholars to discuss religion, justice and violence
Civil Rights leader Dorothy Height to Speak Oct. 10
From reading to painting, volunteers reach out during Day of Caring
“In The Presence of Mine Enemies”
Edward Ayers will read from and answer questions about “In The Presence of Mine Enemies” on Oct. 28 at 6 p.m. in the U.Va. Bookstore.

‘In the Presence’ offers new look at Civil War

By Robert Brickhouse

Because 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 pigeonholes.

By 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.

In 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.

Ayers, 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 doesn’t 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.

That 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.

Ayers a Master at Juggling Tasks

Ed AyersA 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 everybody’s faith in the place, a sense of collective hope.” Something must have worked: The University was recently cited again as the country’s leading public institution of higher learning. “What we are doing with our resources is virtually a miracle,” Ayers says.

He 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.”

Ayers 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.

This 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.”

Ayers 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.”

Later 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.

— Robert Brickhouse

Instead 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 archive’s thousands of letters, journals, military records, newspapers and other sources.

“In 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.

Many popular histories portray the war as an unavoidable conflict to end slavery. But people of the time didn’t see the issues leading up to the war so clearly, Ayers said. Their views weren’t hardened, “they didn’t know ‘the Civil War’ was coming.”

According 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.

The white North didn’t 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 couldn’t be saved without their help.

“Slavery brought war and its own destruction precisely because of these complications, because the war was not a simple and straightforward conflict.”


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