Who starts a story of the Civil War in the middle? By the time Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia marched up the Shenandoah Valley into Pennsylvania in July of 1863, the war had been going for more than two years. The twin Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg on the 4th of July usually mark the beginning of the end for the South and the two remaining years of conflict move inevitably to Appomattox, full emancipation of enslaved persons, and the reunion of the nation.
Edward Ayers, (the correct answer to the question above) is not having your easy narrative, however. The eminent historian and co-host of the BackStory podcast knows that the Great Dates theory of history is as shaky as the Great Personage theory. Something significant happened in 1863 (and in 1865) but a whole lot was still undetermined and conflict was still going to be necessary to preserve a “thin light of freedom” for those whose sought real racial equality in the United States.
Ayers new book takes its title from this phrase. The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America is the kind of history Ayers has specialized in—extensively researched, sympathetic to its subjects, discontented with simple narratives, progressive, eyes wide to the trauma but ultimately hopeful. This book also throws uncomfortable light on the conflicts of our own age.
In covering the war and its aftermath from 1863 to 1902, Ayers chooses two of his frequent haunts as touchstones for his story—Augusta County, Virginia & Franklin County, Pennsylvania. The two counties, despite being on opposite sides during the Civil War, share a common geography in the long Valley stretching behind the front line of the Appalachians, some common demographics, and a similar agricultural economy. They have also been the focus of a long-term digital archiving project conceived by Ayers—the Valley of the Shadow, which has been collecting diaries, letters, newspapers, Freedmen’s Bureau reports, soldier’s records, and photographs from the period from the 1850s to 1870.
Ayers calls this “history on a human scale” (xx) and he regularly checks in with characters, black and white, who are living through the destruction and disruption caused by the war and then the dangerous uncertainties of Reconstruction.
Twelve-year-old Cate confronts a northern soldier looking beneath the beds of her Augusta County home “for rebels” by telling him “We are all rebels…I am a rebel too & I glory in it.” (171).
A northern Democratic newspaper editorializes vociferously against arming formerly enslaved men: “It was wrong to place ‘these poor devils in the army to be shot down like dogs, knowing that they had neither the physical nor the moral courage requisite to make good soldiers.’” (314)
Meanwhile, Franklin County men write back from their service in the newly-formed US Colored Troops with contradictory evidence: “Mi Dear Jest let Me say to you if it had Not a bean for the Culard trips Wiy this offel Ware Wod last fer ten years to Cum.” (317)
Interspersed with this documentary evidence is Ayers’ interpretative account of what is happening. Military actions are conducted with an eye to northern political struggles. Northern Democrats develop a vicious racial narrative as a strategy to return to national power. Republicans build a quasi-religious language that demands of the defeated Confederates shame, repentance, and moral regeneration. In response, whites in the South retrench and we see in the early post-War years the building blocks of the narrative of the Lost Cause and eventual institutionalized segregation between the races.
As a boy who was raised in a Southern town steeped in the Lost Cause and as a student of Ayers in his teaching days at the University of Virginia, I have had the Civil War period much on my mind as the nation goes through this current period of Great Divide. It’s hard not to be reminded of the political disintegration of the 1850s when the national story broke down and new, rigid narratives developed. There are ominous parallels between our times. Is a crisis similar to the Civil War on the horizon?
In this book, Ayers offers a different lens. By downplaying the myth of the epic moment (Gettysburg, Lincoln’s assassination, 13th Amendment, etc.) he points to a more enduring reality. Political conflict didn’t end with the Civil War. If anything, the political environment of the North was more vicious than before and Lincoln’s achievement in holding even that part of the Union together seems all the more miraculous. The achievements of the Reconstruction period seem similarly improbable given the resistance of northern and southern parties.
“Reconstruction, it turned out, moved by counterpoint and reaction as well as by intention and fulfillment,” Ayers says. “Just as white Southerner’s secession made emancipation possible, so did their resistance to basic civil rights for black people create the possibility for votes and office-holding for black people.” (450)
Ayers is not making the case for continual conflict as an unqualified good, but he has a native confidence in the possibilities that emerge from the clash between mighty forces: “At every step, those who would advance freedom found themselves challenged and defeated. As this history shows, however, black freedom advanced faster and further than its champions had dreamed possible precisely because the opponents of freedom proved so powerful and aggressive.” (xxii)
There are echoes here of Martin Luther King’s famous arc of the moral universe, long but bending toward justice. Ayers lets the question of an invisible hand in history hang in the air. In the meantime he’s going to introduce us to the people who are actually moving though that history as agents of change, however provisional and tragic. People like Serena Carter, a Staunton African-American leader who died in 1898 at the age of twenty-nine. With her spouse, Willis, Carter began a school for black children, worked with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to improve the lives of women and children, and took a leading role in an economic improvement program for the black community. At her death the Staunton newspaper headlined her obituary: “Useful Colored Woman Dead.” (491)
Is hers a story of triumph? Ayers, I believe, would say, ‘yes.’ You just need the right frame. And the chronological frame of a life, like the dates of a war, is just not big enough.
Read my interview with Edward Ayers here.