Book Review: In the Presence of Mine Enemies by Edward Ayers

Upon its release in 2003, In the Presence of Mine Enemies was a fresh take on the most written about American history topic: the Civil War.  Even today it stands as a fascinating take on familiar events.  Edward Ayers told the first half of the Civil War through the eyes of those who lived through it, focusing his history on a personal level through newspaper articles and personal letters.  Extensive local history research was done to paint an accurate and compelling vision of the counties these people lived in.  Ayers argued that the Civil War was a deeply personal experience.  Whereas most histories of the war explore the military history of the conflict, or focus on the personal letters of a particular individual, Ayers placed his narrative in the hands of lesser-known individuals from two border counties, one North, one South.  Ayers also explored the way the national attitude evolved during the first half of the war and how local views changed through personal experience in the war.  Ayers showed how attitudes toward North and South, slavery, capitalism and Union all changed over time due to external pressures.  The Civil War, America’s greatest tragedy, becomes the tale of countless personal tragedies in this new take on Civil War history.

An extension of the Valley of the Shadow Project, a collection of primary documents dealing with Virginia and Pennsylvania in the Civil War, In the Presence of Mine Enemies focused on the early war, from the dramatic events of 1859 up until the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863.  Edward Ayers stopped just short of the Battle of Gettysburg, because he considered that battle to be a final turning point of the war in which the defeat of the south was finally determined.  At scattered places throughout the book Ayers injects a traditional narrative (written in italics) to help the reader understand what is happening by keeping everything in context.  There is no omniscient narrator and the reader learns of major battles the same way 19th century Americans did, through newspapers and personal letters.  When the book finally comes to a conclusion as Confederate troops march into Pennsylvania before the Battle of Gettysburg, there is no closure.  What happened next is left hanging in the air.  Many Americans are familiar with the Civil War, but even a student of history will find Ayers’ approach intriguing.  Even those who know what happened next still find themselves caught up in narrative of uncertain outcomes.

Some parts of the nation experienced the war more profoundly than others, and Ayers narrowed his scope to include only Augusta and Franklin counties in Virginia and Pennsylvania, respectively.  These two counties were close to the border and therefore were involved in more fighting, more occupation, and more contact with the opponent than most places.  Their citizens also appear to have left a treasure-trove of documents behind, which Ayers used to further his narrative.  By narrowing his scope to these counties Ayers guarantees the reader will only have access to what those citizens know, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty of the future.  This focus also allowed the Civil War to be told from a different standpoint.  This is a history of the soldier and the home front, not a traditional political or military history of the war.  The book is more of a “bottom-up” history, stories of home life (only relating the war, though), and of life in the Army camps.  The backbone of the book is the primary sources.  Ayers drew from personal letters of soldiers, officers, businessmen, slave-owners, and various other “home front” people.  In addition to the personal letters Ayers used the local newspapers to gauge attitudes toward the war.  For Franklin County the Valley Spirit and the Chambersburg Repository and Transcript gave detailed accounts of how the war touched their community.  For Augusta County in Virginia it was the Spectator and the Augusta Vindicator. All of the newspapers began as Unionists but as the nation slipped to war the Virginia papers became unapologetically secessionist.  In the North, the Valley Spirit continued as a Democratic paper, fiercely anti-Republican and in favor of reunion under the old order—including slavery.   Despite working off of these newspapers In the Presence of Mine Enemies still focused mostly on the southern county. Franklin County served more as an accent to the in-depth narrative of Augusta County and her people.  These counties show just how divided the nation was, even among otherwise similar communities.

The lack of unity in the pre-war United States, largely due to varied individual ideology, hurried America along the path to war.  The “politics of grievance” drew stark lines between Americans in 1859 and 1860.  This type of politics “dwelt, first, on what [the leaders] portrayed as the fundamental differences in the character of the white people of the North and South.”[1] The distrust that was brewing made it easier for relations between North and South to break down.  Americans in one section of the nation increasingly regarded the other section as the enemy instead of as their countrymen.  Inflammatory rhetoric created intense paranoia in the South that the North was out to destroy their way of life.  Ayers used newspaper articles and personal letters to convey this paranoia at several points throughout the book by showing how frequently the North was perceived to be abolitionist.  In reality, only a minority of northern Americans agreed with freeing the slaves.  Even among the new Republican Party there was no agreement on getting rid of slavery.  The South did enjoy a disproportionate amount of national power, which created resentment in the North who also viewed slavery as a threat to free labor.  Decades of compromise had led to no stable peace.  After a few months of war, Americans North and South “learned to hate” quickly, dropping their previous relationship as countrymen as soon as Lincoln called for troops to respond to the takeover of Federal property throughout the South.[2]

This great divide that had formed over the years between regions also led to misconceptions among the population that possibly dragged the war out longer.  The South went to war convinced that the North would be consumed by division and class warfare, bringing the war to a quick and easy end.  In fact, many Americans in both parts of the country “wanted it to come, wanted to prove their patriotism and demonstrate that they held God’s favor.”[3] At the end of 1862 when President Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, many Southerners thought it would end the war and that the American people would turn against the Republicans and refuse to fight a war for the freeing of slaves.  They also blamed Lincoln for trying to ignite a race war, believing that Emancipation was also the point of no return: the South could not negotiate a peace under abolitionist conditions.   Just before the war, Northerners felt that “slaveholders would vote against secession, would resist serving in the army, and would love the Union more than the Confederacy.”[4] Both were wrong and brought to bear enormous armies with terrible destructive power.

A combination of personal beliefs and national politics pushed the nation to civil war, and these conditions evolved during the course of the war as well.  Initially the Civil War was fought to reunify the states, and many Northerners were willing to allow slavery to continue.  There was very little talk of abolition at that time.  But as the war went and the North struggled for recruits and unity, pressure rose to make the war an ideological one.  The South was fighting to defend their “peculiar institution” and to defend their homes since much of the serious fighting was destroying Virginia.  The idea of fighting for freedom was appealing to many Northerners, even if they weren’t abolitionists before the war.  “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862 was the first major turning point of the war, the point where the Confederates avoided defeat and embarrassed the Union.  By winning they prolonged the war, Ayers wrote, essentially making the Union more desperate than ever to win at any cost.  “In retrospect,” he wrote, “perhaps the best thing the Confederate army could have done for Southern slaveholders would have been to have lost in 1862.”[5] That way, slavery could have survived in a reunified America.  How different things would have looked had the war ended that summer.

Other factors contributed to the unfolding drama.  Particularly harsh northern measures when marching through Virginia emboldened the Confederates and brought more converts to their cause.  Escalation by both sides made it possible for the war to take on an even deadlier and hostile nature.  Upon discovering the questionable tactics used by Federal troops in the South, Pennsylvanians in Franklin County even began to feel they deserved whatever the Confederates did to them when their turn came for enemy troops marching down their own streets.  Ayers leaves the reader wondering if perhaps softer tactics could have created an easier path to reunion, instead of cementing stereotypes and hateful feelings for the other side.

Even poverty played a role in shaping events in the South.  Southerners prayed for Democratic victory in the Northern elections in the hopes that the anti-war crowd could bring about an end to the fighting and recognition of the Confederate States as an independent nation.  Joseph Wadell, a man from Augusta County, Virginia, wrote that Confederates had “more to fear from the scarcity of foodstuffs and clothing than from the Yankee armies.”[6] In 1863 poverty was hitting Confederates on the home front hard.  Loss of property, slaves, and devastation of crops and what little industry existed to begin with made many Confederates desperate.  Soldiers began deserting in droves to return home, poverty made Southerners even more resentful of their wealthier enemies.

Throughout the whole war, but especially during early 1863, slaves began fleeing through the Valley to reach freedom in the northern states.  Many women and children were left behind to be abused by Confederate soldiers who engaged in “Negro-hunting.”  This was a massive loss of “property” for the Southerners and a blow to their societal stability.  Some places along the so-called black belt were left untouched by war and continued to use slave labor to bolster the Confederate production levels, but in Virginia the number of slaves was severely depleted.  Once they were able, black men fled north and joined the war effort. “Black men enlisted at a speed and with a spirit that surprised their white neighbors.”[7] People in Franklin County initially had difficulty welcoming the influx of runaway blacks and were skeptical that they would actually fight.  In the South, their conversion to soldiers had whites fearing a race war would erupt.  If the war had not been so harsh on the Virginian economy and agriculture, Ayers would have readers ask themselves, could the war have been brought to an amicable conclusion?  In the Presence of Mine Enemies poses endless questions such as these, all supporting Ayers’ underlying theme about the unpredictability of events.

The issue of religion was also important to the soldiers and even more so to their families on the home front, if the letters Ayers used are any indication.    Soldiers were constantly reassuring their mothers, sisters and wives that they had found God and that their military camps were full of good, God-fearing men.  In uncertain times, Ayers argued, being good Christians could go a long way toward comforting the people back home.  It also gave soldiers solace, and many of the Augusta men fought under “Stonewall” Jackson, a deeply religious man who may have infected his troops with his devoutness.  In many cases “the only consolation was the most important consolation of all:” the declaration of faith that so many soldiers seemed to give once they reached the front.[8] At several points in the book descriptions of prayer meetings were given and as previously noted, care was given to tell the people back home about the level of faith in the camps.  Mothers especially could rest easy knowing that their children were in good, wholesome company.  Some men had more trouble than others in finding faith.  Henry Dedick noted that he had been trying, “but I tell you it is a hard place here in camp.”[9]

In the Presence of Mine Enemies showed that the Civil War experienced shifts in the way Americans viewed each other and how they thought about nationhood. The Virginia newspapers changed from pro-Union to fiercely pro-Confederate as the war began and continued.  Franklin’s Valley Spirit remained a Democratic pro-slavery paper throughout the first years of the war and reflected the division among northerners.  Though ostensibly Unionist, the paper supported Copperhead Democrats whenever it could and condemned nearly every step the Lincoln administration took in prosecuting the war.  The hatred between the North and South only grew as the battles became bloodier and the devastation covered Virginia.  This increase in hatred also led to a dramatic transformation in the perception of slavery.

In the beginning, most northerners were not willing to fight to free the slaves, but many Southerners felt that the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party would try to destroy the institution.  They defended their “peculiar institution” by claiming it was the most beneficial institution for black people and that the role was made for them by Providence.  They had “no doubt, that the worst form of Slavery that can possibly exist may be found among the negroes of Pennsylvania.”[10] Franklin County’s Valley Spirit agreed, citing the example of a traveling band of free blacks they assumed were slaves who returned home to bondage willingly at night.  Over time the attitudes of northerners changed.  Despite support for pro-slavery Democrats in the elections of 1862, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation converted many over to fighting to free the slaves.  Despite a lot of rhetoric claiming that the war effort would collapse if the war was to be fought to free slaves, soldiers’ letters seemed to indicate they agreed with fighting for a high ideal.  Certainly it was a divisive issue, but no longer did the North consider slavery to be the best situation for blacks, especially after Chambersburg in Pennsylvania experienced Confederate invaders hunting down runaway slaves.  Soldiers traveling through plantations and witnessing slavery firsthand turned against slavery as well.  Ayers wrote that “as Union soldiers fought to destroy an enemy which drew its power from slavery they grew to hate slavery itself.”[11] All of these details support Ayers’ argument that the Civil War did not follow a predestined course.  Individual perceptions of their neighbors, the enemy, slavery, politics and religion all affected how the war played out.  There was any number of points when the war could have followed a drastically different course.

Ayers brought home the uncertainty that Americans experienced during the terrible conflict, which is of tremendous value to the field of Civil War study.  Though there have been many instances of books detailing personal letters of soldiers, none have been as effective as In the Presence of Mine Enemies.  Instead of focusing on one single family, Ayers focused on the two border counties places them in the middle of the action and reflects the wide variety of views on the war.  Ayers wrote that the traditional view of Civil War was infused with “an understandable and useful desire to see American history as a path, albeit strewn with challenges, to the realization of our best selves.”[12] Another excellent work that dealt with the uncertainty of the conflict was April 1865 by Jay Winik.  An excellent writer in his own right, Jay Winik’s narrow focus on the tumultuous proceedings of April 1865 pair up well with In the Presence of Mine Enemies. Winik’s work was not based on personal letters, and follows a more traditional view of the Civil War, but by only giving the reader small pieces of information at a time, as Ayers did, he allowed the reader to understand that at any point things could have gone differently.  April 1865 covered the final month of the war, the assassination of Lincoln and the fear of guerrilla warfare.  His cast of characters was vast, including military leaders and political leaders who have a wide range of motives.  The Confederate soldiers who want to take the fighting into the woods, General Lee who wanted the fighting to end, and the Northerners fearing a second Civil War after Lincoln’s assassination all bring the uncertainty of the times to the forefront.

In the Presence of Mine Enemies is a useful book.  Based on personal letters and newspaper accounts Edward Ayers successfully created a new narrative for the Civil War, one that introduces uncertainty and rumor into a historical field that is traditionally based on an idea of historical progress.  Where many historians argue (unintentionally in many cases) that the war could not have ended any other way, that the war was a march toward a brighter future for America, the reality was much different.  In his work Ayers considered the unpredictability of the Civil War as his main point, which he supported by analyzing the personal experiences of the war and the changing views and ideas of those who lived through the conflict.  The work is well researched and by including the traditional narrative style in italics at various points he helped the reader keep everything in context.  By doing so he showed that the war wasn’t just a set of battles that could have turned out differently, but that the personal viewpoints and the experiences of individuals played a large role in creating the nature of the war.  Well written and well researched, there is little to contradict or criticize.  In the Presence of Mine Enemies is a valuable contribution to a field that too

[1] Edward Ayers, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America 1859-1863 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003), 92.

[2] Ayers, 232.

[3] Ibid., 187.

[4] Ibid., 233.

[5] Ayer, 276.

[6] Ibid., 334.

[7] Ayers, 414.

[8] Ibid., 352.

[9] Ibid., 207.

[10] Ibid., 77.

[11] Ibid., 371.

[12] Ayers, xx.