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In The Presence Of Mine Enemies
New Book Takes An Eye-Level View Of Civil War To Present A More Accurate Picture

September 16, 2003 -- 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, University of Virginia 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, U.Va. dean of the College of Arts and 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That interactive project, “The Valley of the Shadow” ( offers the raw historical documents about Augusta and Franklin counties for anyone to read. A well-known example of the Internet’s promise for scholarship, it is one of the most heavily used Civil War sites on the Web.

Instead of simply contrasting the forces of abolitionists against secessionists and the industrial North and 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 pre-war 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. Ayers shows them as part of the same tapestry that includes Jackson and Lee, Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and John Brown.

Many popular histories, like the widely viewed television documentary by Ken Burns, portray the war as an unavoidable conflict to end slavery. But people of the 1850s and 1860s 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.”

“Nations need, and crave, such encouraging histories, films and novels,” he writes. “But nations also need other kinds of stories if they are to use history wisely, if they are to learn all they can from their past.” The familiar story of national reunification and redemption doesn’t do full justice to what people actually experienced, he said. “The stories we tell ourselves about war always gives it a narrative shape. But war always surprises us.”

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,” he says.

“In the Presence of Mine Enemies” gives the views of farmers, merchants, ministers and politicians and of whites and blacks, women and men. Newspapers and letters describe their ways of life and their feelings about the strong opinions coming from far places.

“The Civil War did not approach the border like a slowly building storm,” Ayers writes. “It came like an earthquake, with uneven and unpredictable periods of quiet between abrupt seismic shifts that shook the entire landscape. It came by sudden realignments, its tremors giving no indication of the scale of violence that would soon follow. People changed their minds overnight, reversing what they had said and done for years.”

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (434) 924-6856

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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