Seeing the Civil War From the Ground Up


Again and again, Ayers will bracket a poignant passage from a diary or letter with the phrase “at the time,” to set up contrasts with standard interpretations. Thus, “at the time” of the Union victory at Gettysburg, the individuals whose letters and diaries are quoted here did not understand the battle to be a decisive turning point in the war. Again, for residents of Augusta County, Philip Sheridan’s attacks in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 did not “at the time” feel like the total destruction described by later accounts.

Slavery is a central thread that connects both of Ayers’s books. In this one, he portrays the courageous determination of African-Americans after emancipation trying to take control of their own destinies. Their hopes are contrasted with the condescending racist attitudes of whites, not simply in Virginia, but also in Pennsylvania. A new word, “miscegenation,” conjured up a new threat, the fear of the mixing of the races.

Women emerge as central actors in this volume, too. With men either away fighting, or fleeing in the face of invasions in both Virginia and Pennsylvania, wives, mothers and daughters stood up and spoke out against the occupying armies. Staunton experienced invasion in both June and September 1864; letters and diaries reveal women’s outrage directed not at the destruction of railroads and warehouses, but at the violation of the private spaces of their homes.

Amid increasing suffering in the last years of the war, Ayers says, religion was the “only solace.” Thirty-one-year-old John Dull, serving with Lee’s troops at Petersburg, wrote to his wife, Genny, that “perhaps we have bin too mutch attacthed” to the world and the war “is intended to show us how transitory it is.”

Ayers is not only a seasoned historian, with a lifetime of writing about the American South and the Civil War behind him, he is also a compelling writer. He orchestrates many different voices into a steady rhythm, with a tempo that is fast-paced. He is extraordinarily sensitive when it comes to letting the crescendo of a story speak for itself through a particularly telling sentence from a diary or letter. Thanks to his careful work, we have the opportunity to hear the people in Augusta and Franklin counties in their own words, as they demonstrate both courage and cowardice in the face of a war more horrible than they could ever have imagined.

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