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War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863
By Edward L. Ayers
2003, W.W. Norton & Co.

Reviewed by Dave Walter
(This book is available in the Chester County Library System)

Looking back on the Civil War from our modern perspective, we find it hard to understand how so many Americans could launch themselves, whole-heartedly, into a fratricidal conflict that would ultimately take more than 625,000 lives. Nor could they have imagined, North or South, that the "peculiar institution" would be totally abolished in four short years. Nor could they understand how events and issues that seemed so clear to them could still be subject of debate today. Well, in fact, the issues and the meaning of events was not at all clear to them in 1860-61 as the secession crisis unrolled. On both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, there were doubts about Union, slavery, States Rights, and on which side God would shed His favor.

Typically, we try to sort through the story of the Civil War by examining the leaders, the battles, the conflicts between abolitionism and the Slave Power, and for "turning points" that changed history. This book tells the story from a different perspective.

Edward L. Ayers is Hugh P. Kelly Professor of History at the Univ. of Virginia. In 1991 he originated the Valley of the Shadow Project, a vast digital archive of primary source materials on the Civil War in the Shenandoah/Cumberland Valley (or Great Valley). Dr. Ayers describes this book as "offer(ing) 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. It emphasizes the flux of emotion and belief, the intertwining of reason and feeling, the constant revision of history as people lived within history. It sets aside our knowledge of the war's outcome, starting before the war could be envisioned and ending with everything in uncertainty."

Dr. Ayers tells the story of the people of Franklin County, Pennsylvania (principal town-Chambersburg) and that of Augusta County, Virginia (principal town-Staunton) that lie just about 150 miles apart with kinship, religious, and commercial ties to each other. The rich farms and towns of this Great Valley found themselves at the center of the Civil War from John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, to Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign to Lee's advance into Maryland in 1862 and the invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863. They contributed more than their fair share of leaders and soldiers to the conflict. Franklin County contributed, on a per capita basis, more troops to the famed 54th Massachusetts than any other county in the North. Augusta's 5th Va. was part of the Stonewall Brigade. The soldiers' letters home to loved ones, along with articles from the competing newspapers in each county, have been expertly woven into the story so the reader gets a true perspective on what the common discussion (and gossip) would have been throughout the period.

The issue that relentlessly made everyone take sides was, of course, slavery. Dr. Ayers deals with the fact that less than 20% of Southerners owned slaves. He shows how non-slaveholders nevertheless had a stake in preserving the slave-driven economy all around them. More than the economics of slavery, the issue for many people was both religious ("God intends white Christians to own Africans, and it is up to God to tell us when, if ever, to free them.") and self-preservating ("if Africans are freed from bondage, they'll be set loose to commit horrors against our wives and children.") Not that Dr. Ayers absolves most Northerners of bigoted views towards blacks; using newspaper reports, he shows how Lincoln, and even many abolitionists, preferred that the United States be cleansed of Africans.

While seeing the centrality of slavery, Dr. Ayers requires that we acknowledge great complexity: "Simple explanations, stark opposites, sweeping generalizations, and unfolding inevitabilities always tempt us, but they miss the essence of the story, an essence found in the deep contingency of history." This means that the story of the Civil War is not easily defined as a modern society in conflict with an archaic one, the shining future in conflict with a "doomed past." We must remember that, "The North and the South, so divided by slavery, also shared a great deal. The South was more economically advanced and the North more racially oppressive than they often seem in retrospect. To many white Southerners slavery seemed safer within the Union than without, so that no simple connection between slaveholding and votes for immediate secession emerged." Ayers continues, "The upper South, so strongly Unionist, quickly became devoted to the Confederate cause; the lower North, often sympathetic to the South before the war, threw its allegiance to the Union cause. Both ... faced desperate internal conflict among their citizens, with the North's dissidents more overt and organized than the South's."

Of particular interest to readers is the "Valley Spirit," the voice of Northern Democrats in Franklin County. If one thinks today's media is intemperate or biased, the press in the 1860's loses nothing by comparison. For example, commenting on the elections of 1862 where Democrats regained a majority of Pennsylvania's congressmen, the "Spirit" editorialized, "Fanaticism, Abolitionism, and N-----ism Repudiated." The Republican paper, the "Transcript" was no less temperate in its words, nor was the Unionist "Staunton Spectator."

Against a background of dueling newspapers, hyperbolic and irrational appeals to defend one's state or the "divinely-inspired Union," to throw the "Yankee scum" back across the border or "teach the rebel traitors a lesson," the average citizens of Augusta and Franklin Counties learn the true meaning of all-out war as invading armies from both sides stack up the bodies and eat out the substance of life. Ayers is correct when he writes, "The Civil War was like all wars in that it elevated the worst human emotions and called them virtues. People let themselves be driven by arrogance and revenge as well as by ideology and principle. People watched themselves descend into rage and numbness, knowing themselves unworthy of their feelings. People invoked the Constitution and Declaration of Independence against enemies invoking the same icons. People enlisted God in their cause and anxiously awaited signs of His approval for the blood they shed."

This excellent book ends with the Franklin County people listening to the guns firing at Gettysburg. Ahead lay nearly two more years of fighting for the sons of Augusta and Franklin County. Ahead lay the burning of Chambersburg and Gen. Sheridan's razing of the Shenandoah Valley. All of which Dr. Ayers promises to cover in another book. If it is anywhere as well written as this one, then it, too, will be well worth reading.