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In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America,… (2003)

de Edward L. Ayers

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272277,189 (3.88)6
Our standard Civil War histories tell a reassuring story of the triumph, in an inevitable conflict, of the dynamic, free-labor North over the traditional, slave-based South, vindicating the freedom principles built into the nation's foundations. But at the time, on the borderlands of Pennsylvania and Virginia, no one expected war, and no one knew how it would turn out. The one certainty was that any war between the states would be fought in their fields and streets. Edward L. Ayers gives us a different Civil War, built on an intimate scale. He charts the descent into war in the Great Valley spanning Pennsylvania and Virginia. Connected by strong ties of every kind, including the tendrils of slavery, the people of this borderland sought alternatives to secession and war. When none remained, they took up war with startling intensity. As this book relays with a vivid immediacy, it came to their doorsteps in hunger, disease, and measureless death. Ayers's Civil War emerges from the lives of everyday people as well as those who helped shape history—John Brown and Frederick Douglass, Lincoln, Jackson, and Lee. His story ends with the valley ravaged, Lincoln's support fragmenting, and Confederate forces massing for a battle at Gettysburg.… (mais)
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"In the Presence of Mine Enemies" is a landmark work of stirring historical narrative and deep scholarship. It gives us the Civil War on an intimate scale, as a story of individuals and families, civilians and soldiers, slaves, free blacks and whites, women and men. It upends what has become the standard view of the Civil War. By taking a ground-level view of the Civil War, Edward I. Ayers shows that his was not an inevitable clash destined to rage for four years at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. The reassuring story of national unification and the destruction of slavery that we have come to embrace does not do justice to the experiences of the people who lived the Civil War. ( )
  Jules362 | Apr 27, 2013 |
In the Presence of Mine Enemies is the first of a projected two volume history of the impact of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley. This volume begins with John Brown’s raid on Harpers ferry and ends with the first battle of Gettysburg. The central materials on which Ayers bases his account are drawn out of the extensive collection of primary source documents from Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania. These materials are available in full online at the University of Virginia’s Valley of Shadow Project, http://valley.vcdh.virginia.edu. There is also a companion volume and CD-ROM titled The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War.
Men and women from the highlighted counties participated in some of the major events of the approach to war and the campaign in the eastern theater, including: the planning of John Brown’s raid in Franklin, PA, the Republican campaign for Lincoln, the Virginia Secession convention (which although initially reluctant in the end helped to unite the south) and Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Jeddidiah Hotchkiss, Jackson’s surveyor, and John Imboden, who led the South’s guerilla campaigns, were from Augusta and Franklin County sent a disproportionate share of its black residents to the initial Negro regiments. But more than the story of the participants, Ayers’ account is a record of the reactions to the war of those who remained at home. Joseph Ellis sums up the author’s aims aptly, if somewhat floridly, on the back cover, “Ayers gives us a raw slice of the Civil War that defies all magisterial and moralistic renditions. Here is what it looked, felt, and smelled like in one bloody corridor of the struggle, before the messy confusion that is war had congealed into more coherent and comfortable categories.”
The material for this “raw slice of the civil war” is drawn primarily from letters, diaries, local newspaper accounts written by residents of the two counties. The story is well carried and the primary materials do provide new insights and a richer texture than is found in the typical survey. For an experienced reader there is some drag as well warn material is rehearsed, but this ensures that the novice student will not be lost. After the introduction to the region, there is a clear bias in favor of the South in the depth and breadth of source materials covered. A large part of the Northern story is drawn from the competing local newspapers of the Democratic and Republican parties which were bound to over-represent the polemical. Ayers has significantly less material from diaries and letters for the North as for the South. Not that Ayers is by any means a Confederate sympathizer, he simply seems somewhat more interested in the continuities and contradictions in the Southern experience of the war.
Ayers’ primary conclusions are as follows. In the border North, Lincoln may have won, and opposition to slavery was real but there were few true abolitionists and a large share of the population were Democrats who had no qualms with slavery as long as it stayed down south. However, once the issue was forced by the Secessionists at Fort Sumter, a strong Northern national feeling developed and there was widespread agreement on the need to defeat the rebels. The Democrats did keep up a raucous political debate, but the primary claim was that they would do a better job of winning the war than the Republicans (shades of the current conflict in Iraq). They also strenuously opposed linking the war to abolition as that would prevent any reconciliation with the south and hordes of unskilled, unwashed ex-slaves would stream into the north disrupting white life and livelihood. In other words, Northern racism was unmistakable.
As the conflict neared in the South, Virginians were strongly unionist, the Augusta representatives voicing some of the strongest union support in the initial stages of the Virginia convention. Once again however, once the die was cast at Fort Sumter (from the South’s perspective it was, of course, Lincoln’s doing). The Virginians too lined up their full support behind the Confederate national cause. Ayers is adamant in pointing out that the initial unionism of the Virginians in no way indicated opposition to slavery. Rather they argued that conflict with the North was the greatest threat to their peculiar institution, a position proved right in the end. The South was far more uniform in their public support for the Confederate administration, but in private many Virginians resented their burden as the fighting ground of the war when the deep south leaders would be prime beneficiaries of a victory.
Probably most interesting in Ayers’ account is the speed with which passionate nationalism developed on each side as soon as hostilities broke out. Although no one wanted to be the cause of a battle in which the outcome was so uncertain, once begun there was almost a sense of relief at the chance to settle a conflict which had been brewing for so long. I am reminded of the passion of the young men of Europe marching off to the trenches of WWI. And though in both cases passion soon turned to horror, once begun no one knew how to stop except through total victory.
But are these conclusions really so new? Ayers’ main target as a “magisterial and moralistic rendition” is James McPherson’s classic work, The Battle Cry of Freedom. And although Ayers’ more detailed review of the source material provides a greater sense of the uncertainty of living through the war, the general conclusions outlined above are little different from those in McPherson’s account.
I do plan to read the second volume when it appears and together these books could make an interesting centerpiece for a college level class on the Civil War, especially considering the pedagogical value of the associated Valley of Shadow Project. However, this is not quite the grand retelling of the Civil War that was advertised. ( )
  eromsted | Sep 25, 2006 |
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Our standard Civil War histories tell a reassuring story of the triumph, in an inevitable conflict, of the dynamic, free-labor North over the traditional, slave-based South, vindicating the freedom principles built into the nation's foundations. But at the time, on the borderlands of Pennsylvania and Virginia, no one expected war, and no one knew how it would turn out. The one certainty was that any war between the states would be fought in their fields and streets. Edward L. Ayers gives us a different Civil War, built on an intimate scale. He charts the descent into war in the Great Valley spanning Pennsylvania and Virginia. Connected by strong ties of every kind, including the tendrils of slavery, the people of this borderland sought alternatives to secession and war. When none remained, they took up war with startling intensity. As this book relays with a vivid immediacy, it came to their doorsteps in hunger, disease, and measureless death. Ayers's Civil War emerges from the lives of everyday people as well as those who helped shape history—John Brown and Frederick Douglass, Lincoln, Jackson, and Lee. His story ends with the valley ravaged, Lincoln's support fragmenting, and Confederate forces massing for a battle at Gettysburg.

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