- The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America by Edward L. Ayers
It has taken more than a dozen years for Edward L. Ayers to produce the follow-up volume to his Bancroft Prize–winning In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859–1864 (New York, 2003). That first book told the stories of Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania, between 1859 and mid-1863, from the massive research Ayers and his team at the University of Virginia compiled for the pioneering digital project In the Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War (1993–2007, http://valley.lib.virginia.edu). To be fair, Ayers has been busy as a dean and as a university president, and the wait has been worth it. This volume begins on the eve of the Gettysburg campaign, and Franklin County (whose county seat is Chambersburg) was right in the middle of it. Augusta County (whose county seat is Staunton), which had been at the center of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign, again [End Page 185] faced conflict in 1864 and 1865. The table of contents states that the story goes to 1902, but it really ends in the 1870s, as Reconstruction met an early demise in Virginia. Here, then, lies the basis of the title phrase "thin light of freedom," in that Ayers shows clearly that meanings and concepts of freedom after the Union victory varied widely but ultimately fell far short of the ideal.
Opinions about freedom varied, too, during the tumultuous period of the Gettysburg campaign. Augusta County Confederates saw the effort as a chance to win their freedom from the United States. The reality of the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania meant something very different to the Pennsylvanians who saw their property stolen and destroyed. Ayers's excellent description and analysis of the raids on Chambersburg highlight that the northern home front could suffer the same as the South when it came to total war. Far worse was the experience of some black Pennsylvanians who faced the horror of capture, removal, and reenslavement in the wake of the Confederate army appearing in their communities. Some of the formerly enslaved and freeborn people of color in Franklin County who avoided being kidnapped took up arms in the Union army to fight for the emancipation of all African Americans. Forty-five Franklin Countians, for example, joined the famous Fifty-fourth Massachusetts regiment. Ayers lets us hear the voices of some of these soldiers through their letters. They were crystal clear on what the war was about and what it would take to win it. David Demus, a twenty-five-year-old farm laborer, wrote his wife that the conflict would be won when the Union's arms "'may thunder the Last rebel into hell'" (p. 94).
For all the talk of liberty and independence among Augusta County Confederates, they remained obsessed with control of their enslaved population. Though slavery was less important in this Shenandoah Valley county than in areas such as the Piedmont and the Tidewater, slave owners still sought and managed to keep strong control of most of their "property." They complained about Confederate impressment of their slaves into fortification work and about Union army raids that liberated some of them, but despite these issues, the enslaved population of the county only declined by two hundred between 1860 and 1863, indicating the strong police powers retained on the Confederate home front. It took the relentless campaign of Union general Philip H. Sheridan in 1864 and 1865 in the Shenandoah to truly undermine the institution in Augusta County.
One might criticize these local stories from the "heart of America" as too unique to have much resonance beyond their specific locations. Such criticism would be unfair because...