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EDWARD L. AYERS

Author and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
"In the Presence of Mine Enemies"

It began as a flight from ever using a computer again in my life. Back in 1990-91, I was just finishing another book that I had to teach myself to use a mainframe computer and do statistical analysis and all this sort of stuff and I swore I was never I going to do that again. I was trying to think of a way to write sort of what I thought of a hand-made history, a small scale. That last book had covered the entire American South for a half a century and I wanted to get down and really work with my hands with dirty records in county courthouses and try to understand the Civil War in a new way.
Since World War II, really, we’ve had one interpretation of the Civil War. I tried it out yesterday with the Ambassador from China who happened to visiting Carr’s Hill and I was introduced to him and said what I worked on and he says, well, what caused the Civil War and I said, well, if you don’t mind, Mr. Ambassador, let me ask you what do you think caused the Civil War and he gave the answer that most people would give. It was a conflict between an industrial society and an agrarian society. He says at least that's what we’re teaching in China. What’s the truth? I said, well, that’s really what most of our big books and a lot of peoples’ common sense has been saying for a long time. If you get the John Jakes’ novels, they’ve got the pictures of the cotton fields in front with the belching factories of the North in the back, and as people imagine that, the Civil War, they often talk about sort of the heavily industrialized forces of the North of the future, of the modern world against the sort of creaking wooden cart of the antebellum South, and it’s a really compelling vision that’s almost entirely untrue. There’s no reason in the world that an industrial society and agrarian society need to fight one another. A moment's thought would say, boy, I’d bet that’d be pretty convenient having industry in one side and agriculture in the other.


And it’s also the fact that by itself the American South was one of the top four or five most industrialized in modern nations in the world at the time. And that the North was really at the cutting edge of all this, but if you measure it in terms of railroads and telegraphs and cities and white democracy and all those different kinds of measures, the slave South it turns out, was really not out of the mainstream of economic change, at least, and, in fact, the role of the slave South was growing ever more important in American economy. Sixty percent of all our exports at the time of the Civil War were Southern cotton, so cotton was the oil of the mid-19th century United States and so this idea that slavery was doomed anyway is wrong. Slavery had never been stronger than it was in 1860. The idea that the South fought a war because it was desperate, it was falling so far behind economically, there’s no basis for that. And, on the other side, 95% of Northerners were still farmers in 1860, so this idea that it was an industrial behemoth--it’s not true.


What does that mean? What is that we like to think of that? We like it because it says that what the Civil War was all about was the modern world triumphing over the past and its injustices and this is the story that I think that most people have in their heads and that you see in books like Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson or Ken Burns’ TV series or if you go to Barnes & Noble, there’s a book--Everything You Always Wanted to Know About American History and it says so what really caused the Civil War and the answer there is, well, the North was racing toward the present day with banks and factories and the South was pretty much regressing into the past and so therefore there had to be war. Anyway-- it doesn’t really make sense but that’s the story that a lot of us tell to ourselves, and I thought, boy, compared to the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution or any other big event in world history, we really haven’t had a new basic idea about the Civil War in a long time.


I went back and started reading all the literature about the Civil War and it turns out that back in the 1920s and '30s that the dominant view was that the Civil War need not have happened and was probably a tragedy and as a matter of fact, in 1940, the President of the American Historical Association gave a lecture called The Blundering Generation that said that the [causes] of the Civil War is because a bunch of bone-headed politicians messed up and brought war on us. Okay. Well, after 1940, nobody has made an argument like that. Why? Because of things that happened after 1940--World War II and especially the Nazis and their genocidal campaign.


As early as 1946, historian Arthur Schlessinger, Jr., comes out and says some time there is evil in the world that has to be routed out and war is necessary and then people went back and in some ways imagined the Civil War like World War II and we’ve gone back and looked for the ways trying to see when it was that the North decided that slavery was wrong and that slavery had to be brought to an end and it was worth fighting a war to end slavery.


Well, there’s only one problem with that is that the North never decided that before the war and yet slavery did end as a result of the war, so we have this moral problem that you don’t want to just sort of say that’s too bad there was an American Civil War because the result of it was to bring to an instant end the largest and most powerful system of slavery in the modern world. Something that happened nowhere else in the western hemisphere, nowhere else did it end like that, nowhere were slave-holders not compensated, nowhere were formerly enslaved people made citizens that quickly, so I thought, well, how do we make sense of this then. Nobody, no Northerner, certainly not Abraham Lincoln is calling to abolish slavery before the Civil War. Two percent of white Northerners are abolitionists. Okay? And the Republican Party cares about one group of people and that’s white Northerners and they wanted to be able to have an unchecked future in the west and they don’t want the South which has dominated the politics and the government of the United States ever since the founding. All but two American presidents were involved in slavery before the Civil War. The Supreme Court is dominated by Southerners. The Senate is half Southerners and so the North says enough. We’re growing stronger, we’re expanding in population. The South has been dominating us too long. What the Republican Party says is enough of that. Okay? We’re going to stop the spread of the South and its slavery. Okay?


Through some alchemy, slavery ends up being destroyed by this war, but I looked back at this and I said, hmmm, why don’t we have any new ideas about this Civil War. Is it because we already think we know what happened? We already think we have the story in place and we just go back and know it’s inevitable. We know there’s going to be a war. We know the North’s going to win and we know slavery’s going to be destroyed and everybody goes back and traces the thread back to its beginning and says, ah ha, here’s something that looks like it could be the end of slavery. Let’s follow that and see if we can’t get to emancipation.


I said what if we tried something different. What if we looked at all these events from the viewpoint of the people at the time, rather from the God-like view where we have standing over history and seeing the patterns. What if we forgot what we know and put ourselves in the shoes of the people who were living through it at the time. What if we did several things that nobody had tried before? What if we looked at both the Northern and the Southern point of view at the same time? What if we literally got down on the ground and said I’m only going to know what people could’ve known which means that what do know? They knew what their neighbors knew, by and large, and how do they know it? They knew it through reading the newspaper or when a politician came to town. Okay? They weren’t tuning in to CNN or something. That's all they knew. Right?


People in Washington-- No, we’re not looking at them. We’re looking at people in these communities and then I had the idea, okay, I want to be sure that we look at Northerners and Southerners. We want to look at men and women. We want to look at black people and white. We want to look at people who became soldiers and people who resisted it. Okay? So we really don’t want to prejudge the story in any way. What else might we do? Why I don’t I choose two places that were as alike in every way as possible except that one had slavery and joined the Confederacy and one did not and also wouldn’t it be nice if I chose two places that were relatively close to my home because I had young children at the time. I don’t usually admit that, but that was actually part of the-- Because I’d driven 12,000 miles in a $400 Plymouth to do my previous book and lived in Motel 6s all across the South. I decided maybe this time I didn’t want to do that.
So, I chose two places in the Shenandoah Valley, one in Pennsylvania, one in Virginia, and I went over to the library and I studied the big books and I diabolically chose two places whose soldiers confronted each other at every major battle in the Civil War and then I went back and tried to see where those soldiers came from and I had the title of this of The Valley of the Shadow Project very early because the thing that really struck me if there’s a prettier place in America I’ve never seen it and it turns out that it had more devastation than anywhere in the Civil War, probably even more than large parts of Sherman’s march, and that those people in the Valley were famous for being moderate, for being easy to get along with, and for being opposed to the war and yet they both threw themselves into it, so it’s a story of the United States.


I’ll just read you how my book begins. Americans could not have imagined the war they brought on themselves. Though people had long talked of conflict between North and South, no one could have foreseen battlefields stretched across an area the size of continental Europe or the deaths of more than half a million people. That’s equivalent to five million people today, to give you some sense of how many people were killed in the Civil War. No one could have known that the most powerful slave society of the modern world, generations in the making, would be destroyed in a matter of years. No one could have known that a North long complicit in slavery would turn a struggle against disunion into a war against bondage. No one could have known that African Americans could so quickly rise to seize freedom from the turmoil. Today, of course, we do know these things. Looking back to tell the story to ourselves we search for opposites and contrasts to explain this overwhelming war, to set abolitionists against the secessionists, industry against plantations, future against past. We look for impending crises and turning points, for the reassuring patterns that lead to the end of this story we already know. This book tells a different kind of story. It offers a history of the Civil War told from the viewpoints of every-day people who could glimpse only parts of the drama they were living, who did not control the history that shapes their lives, who made decisions of what they know from the local newspapers and from one another. It emphasizes the flux of emotion and belief, the intertwining of reason and feeling, the constant revision of histories people live within history. It sets aside our knowledge of the war’s outcome starting before war could be envisioned and ending with everything in uncertainty.


So we have The Valley of the Shadow, two communities in the Shenandoah Valley, same white ethnicity, same religions, same language, same crops--wheat, corn, same trading centers, everything’s the same except one has slavery and one does not.


1859 when the book begins everything is fine. Franklin County, Pennsylvania displayed itself on the 4th of July. The county enjoyed a gathering of Sunday School classes, a locomotive covered with flags and evergreen, the firing of artillery and ceremonial muskets, the reading of the Declaration of Independence inspiring speeches. The bounty of Franklin’s rich farms spread out on tables hundreds of feet long. What a delightful state of society we Americans enjoy, exulted a local newspaper. In 1859, Franklin served up an especially exciting spectacle for the 4th of July, a balloon ascension from the town square fueled by gas from the new Chambersburg Gas Works. The pilot of the balloon, John Light, a 20-year-old tobacconist displayed the mastery of machinery so admired in 19th century America. The Valley Spirit happily predicted for him a brilliant career as an Aeronaut and when the pilot jettisoned the bags, the ballast’s bloom shot upwards into the regions above in gallant style. Mr. Light stood up in his car and waved his cap and cheered, seemingly as much delighted as any of the spectators below him, who sent up shouts of applause. The paper judged the balloon rose a mile before it disappeared behind the clouds. The young Aeronaut reported what he saw as he floated over the valley. The diversified scenery of green meadows, fertile fields and clustering woods resembled the rich and gaudy coloring of a map while the farmhouses, towns, and villages dotted over the surface of the valley added a deep and enlightening interest to the scene. The view presented a most grand ratifying and gorgeous spectacle possible for the mind to conceive in which it is alone the privilege of the Aeronaut to enjoy 1859--no Civil War, election coming in 1860.
In between, what happens between July of 1859 and the election of 1860. John Brown’s raid staged in a Northern community, conveniently enough, chosen to encapsulate the big national story. He lives there in disguise. Goes down and begins John Brown’s raid. The first militia there coming from my Southern community, so we start the two communities unaware of each other. The stories begin to converge unbeknownst to them and they embody a lot of the national story in them. Then the election of 1860 comes and the Democrats split and Abraham Lincoln’s nominated, but here’s the big challenge we face.


Augusta County, Virginia, 30 miles from here, famous as one of the most Unionist counties in the whole state, and Virginia famous at the most Unionist state in the South, and they say we are for Union. We don’t want to leave the United States. Why? Because of slavery. Slavery is not endangered in the Union. Slavery is safe and I’ll tell you what. These hotheads down in South Carolina keep talking. They’re going to endanger slavery. Okay? And if there’s going to be a conflict between North and South, let’s guess where it’s going to be--South Carolina? No, it’s likely to be here in Virginia, so you had the biggest slaveholders are saying let’s calm down, let’s be for union. That violates our usual idea.
We think of the Shenandoah with Jimmy Stewart against slavery and therefore for the Union. The strange thing here is you could be for the Union and for slavery and in the North, the Democrats--oh God, we’re sorry, let them go, we hate the Republicans. They’re the ones causing all the problems. It’s not the Southerners, so you’ve got Southerners saying it’s South Carolina causing the problems and you’ve got Northerners saying it’s Abraham Lincoln causing the problem and everybody thinks we’ll work it out. We’ll find some way to do it, but you have four presidential candidates and it all splinters, it all breaks apart and they sort of watch it in slow motion. It’s like a car wreck and they can’t stop it, but they had the big parades and Augusta County votes for union and all the young women wave the flags from the windows in the fall of 1860 and they come in. John Bell is the big candidate for Union and they come down from all the hillsides around here. Everybody’s tinkling and clanging bells because they’re for the Union.


And in January of 1860, after Abraham Lincoln has been elected, people in Augusta County say we hate South Carolina and secession is treason. In April of 1861, all but 10 men of the County vote to secede, so between January of 1861 and April 1861, people re-imagine who they are. They decide that, oh, what were we thinking for the last four generations? We’re not Americans; we’re Confederates and what’s the beckoning the new Confederacy holds out? Virginia, you can be the New England of Confederacy; you can be the great industrial center; you can be the capital. Okay? Virginia tries to decide what to do and then they leap, over night. Okay? So it’s not that these unavoidable forces drive the North and South against each other. These people choose and why it is they choose? They talk each other into hating each other. They talk each other into thinking they have to go to war. They draw a line in the sand, both the North and South. Well, if they do this, okay, that’s enough. They resupply that fort; we’re gone. Well, why? Why would that necessarily cause the war? And the Republicans say we’re going to fight a war for democracy by forcing states to stay in the Union that don’t want to. Okay? And you look at and we’ve told ourselves this is all natural, but at the time people really had to really contort all their arguments. Why is that the North could say that?


Abraham Lincoln believes that the great majority of white Southerners had believed what they said over the last 40 years, that they loved the Union, and he thinks that what you have is basically a tyrannical mob that’s dominating the white South and that they don’t speak for the majority and that if you’ll just fight the war, one battle, get rid of the secessionists, the South will want to come back in the Union. It’ll be all over. You decapitate the South. The real spirit of the South will exert itself and they’ll be glad to come back in the Union and the South believes, too, that the North is going to fold after one battle, after they get kicked and that’s going to be end of it, that they both hold each other in contempt and once the war begins, they talk each other into hating each other.


Now, one of the goals of this book all along has been to really show the role of slavery in all of this because, in my opinion, nobody’s really explained how the role of slavery in all this, and one of the goals of the book is for African American people to have as large a role in the story as white people and when you get later into the war, we have the largest single collection of letters from black soldiers happening to come to from my Southern community and it’s an amazing story. But there’s one letter I want to read you that was written from Charlottesville. You have to picture her writing this down next to our courthouse down on Court Square. If you go down there now, you’ll see a little sign that says slave block. You can see it today. It’s right next to the courthouse. Next time you’re there, remember this letter. “Dear Husband, I write you a letter to let you know of my distress my master has sold albert to a trader on Monday court day and myself and other child is for sale also and I want to you let hear from you very soon before next cort if you can I dont know when I dont want you to wait till Christmas I want you to tell dr Hamelton and your master if either will buy me they can attend to it know and then I can go afterwards.
I don’t want a trader to get me they asked me if I had got any person to buy me and I told them no they took me to the court house too they never put me up a man buy the name of brady bought albert and is gone I dont know where they say he lives in Scottseville my things is in several places some is in Staunton and if I should be sold I don't know what will become of them I dont expect to meet with the luck to get that way till I am quite heartsick nothing more I am and ever will be your kind wife Maria Perkins.”

And so try to remember so often the Civil War, our studies of it, are like a football game. You’ve got the blue guys and the grey guys and they’re fighting this battle and we’re into the flanking maneuvers and all that, but what I’m trying to remind us all along the story is what actually was going on underneath the scenes and what it is that people were fighting for, even if they didn’t always necessarily know it in an explicit way. Everything in the South was built on slavery. You go to Augusta County now, the Shenandoah Valley, it’s only about 3% African American and so we forget that at the time of the Civil War, Albemarle County was majority black and Staunton was a quarter African American and every family, white family, who had any money at all, owned black people but we’ve forgotten that and we’ve told ourselves that we don’t even live in the South anymore. We live in the Mid-Atlantic, right, and we forget, gosh, it was the capital of the Confederacy and there were more slaves in Virginia than in any other state in the Union in 1860.


Alexandria, which is now a Ye Olde Candle Shop, was the largest slave port in North America. We forget all this and therefore we think, well, Virginia didn’t secede first because it wasn’t really committed to slavery. No. It didn’t secede first because it was committed to slavery and recognizes that the only way to bring slavery to a sudden end was to have a war and so they go into fighting, so I kind of turn the usual story upside down, but once they begin the war, the North and South are great at fighting each other. They’re great at coming up with every explanation for what they’re doing is right and good and sanctioned by God and it’s very convenient. The opinion just divides right there at Mason Dixon line and they’re both certain. The South says we’re the most Christian nation on the earth because we are taking care of the poor and Christianized the Africans and they believed this and they believed that God must be on our side and so with every trial and failure, both sides says, well, we’re like the chosen people of Israel. Everything is a trial to see how strong we are, so through loss after loss, of all these thousands of men dying in all these battles, they say well, this is the trial, this is the price we’re supposed to pay and they just become more and more certain and the more they fight, the more they hate each other and they more they kill each other, they have to have a reason to hate each other and so the reason it’s called “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” it’s obviously a part of the 23rd Psalm that’s subtitled “A War in the Heart of America” is how did Americans learn to hate each other enough to kill each other to the tune of five million people?
Well, I go through every battle and try to show exactly how it is that armies are mobilized, who is chosen first, who fights first. You can go to the “Valley of the Shadow” website and all the footnotes of this book, every single source that I used are available to you. It links directly into it and we have the footnotes reproduced there and when I say, the Valley Spirit of September 4th, 1861, page 5, column 1, you click on it and you’re on the Valley Spirit and the idea is that a historian is no longer just the person who owns the note cards and I’m going to tell you what they say except what I tell you, but what we really do, in fact, is here, here’s everything that I used and more importantly, everything I didn’t use. See what you think. Did I tell it straight? I’m saying that slavery played a central but oblique role in the Civil War. You don’t like it. Here, you figure it out. Every single person in the census, every single letter and diary, 10,000 pages of newspapers, all those things are there. As a matter of fact, this book, as long as it is, uses about 5% of the “Valley of the Shadow” archive. I’d like to think it is the five best percent, but you never can tell.


And I wrote this just sitting in front of a computer with nothing else and using stuff that anybody else can use, so that’s the kind of…the discipline of the whole thing is to sort of share how a book is written and how it was that I imagined it out of all this.


Now, what’s its argument? Well, I’ll tell you. Here it is. The war spirit that seized the people on both sides of the Mason Dixon line amazed the Reverend Abraham Essick. No one could have imagined that the sober-minded Pennsylvanians could be so aroused. Yet it seems that she is taking the lead in furnishing men and means and all the essentials of war. Such unanimity I never heard of. Conservative men, who did all in their power to avert the collision before our flag was dishonored, are now burning with indignation. I have not heard a dissenting voice.


The Civil War did not approach the border like a slowly building storm. 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." The crisis came in a strange way. It was rehearsed through debate and deliberation, through what Abraham Lincoln called [aerie] and theoretical concerns. People on the border, dedicated to peace and moderation, imagined all the permutations and outcome, calculating carefully what would be won and lost by each strategy. Border unionists gained more momentum after the first secession pulling Virginia and its neighbors towards compromise and reconciliation. Partisans in the border North fought with one another over every petty issue until the day the Confederate troops fired on Ft. Sumter. Then everything changed. Then we fought lots of battles.

The main metaphor that I used for all this I take from Stephen J. Gould who talks about…he’s trying to explain why evolution worked the way that it did and how we go back and look at all these fossil beds. There’s all these animals that we no longer see anymore. How it is that some of them ended up turning out to be the animals and life forms that we have today and others didn’t and he says, well, it’s like the Civil War. He uses the Civil War as an example. He says we know it’s all going to turn out just the way that it did now and it’s inevitable, but if we go back and run the tape backwards, we could see that you change one thing at the beginning and what he calls a cascade of consequences would have been different. Okay? And this is what I call deep contingency is that our own sense of ourselves is changed by public events. Think how all us feel differently about ourselves after 9/11. And imagine that being when the number of people who died in the World Trade Center happens every day for four years to give you a sense of what the Civil War felt like. Okay? That’s what it would have been like and how people’s sense of themselves changed and how a single event in the Shenandoah Valley, say, Stonewall Jackson, say, with the men from Augusta County fighting against these men from the Northern county. Say Stonewall Jackson--Jedidiah Hotchkiss doesn’t tell him to burn the final bridge at Port Republic and the Yankees come across that and Stonewall Jackson is pinned against the Blue Ridge Mountains, they lose that battle that the South very easily could have lost the Civil War right there. What would have happened? That would have best the thing for slaveholders if the Confederacy had lost right then, because at that point, the North would not have destroyed slavery, so what you have is the irony of the Confederacy fighting long enough to make sure that slavery is brought to an end.

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