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Book Review: The Valley of the Shadow: The Eve of War--Two Communities in the American Civil War (by Edward L. Ayers and Anne S. Rubin): CWT

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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The Valley of the Shadow: The Eve of War–Two Communities in the American Civil War, by Edward L. Ayers and Anne S. Rubin, W.W. Norton, 103-page book and CD-ROM, $49.95.

It is called the Great Valley and runs up and down the eastern seaboard from New York to Alabama. The part that stretches from Virginia north to the Potomac River was named the Shenandoah (Daughter of the Stars) Valley by the Indians. On the other side of the Potomac, the section running north to the Susquehanna River is known as the Cumberland Valley, a name given to it by the Scotch-Irish who settled there.

Most of the first European settlers to the region arrived through the port of Philadelphia in the early decades of the 18th century. They first moved west beyond the Susquehanna on the frontier of Pennsylvania and then trekked south across the Potomac into Virginia. First there were the Ulster Scots, a.k.a. the Scotch-Irish. These prototypical American frontiersmen were staunch Presbyterians who believed God was on their side, and who followed their interpretation of the biblical instruction to "smite the heathen [Native American] and take his land." They were followed by the Germans, or Deutsch. These Pennsylvania Deutsch, mostly "church people"–Lutherans and Reformed along with a sprinkling of so called "sect people" (pacifist Mennonites and Dunkers)–soon flooded into the valley and became the region's premier farmers. Together these groups fought Indians and the elements to settle the valley from Pennsylvania to Virginia. A century later they fought each other in this nation's bloodiest war.

During the Civil War, the Shenandoah and Cumberland valleys served as a natural invasion corridor for the opposing armies as they jockeyed for position in many of the conflict's major campaigns. The armies were attracted also by the region's rich agriculture and commerce, which not only provided sustenance but also made the area a target for retribution as the war progressed. From 1861 to 1865 more than three-quarters of a million men in blue and gray camped, marched, and fought up and down this region. Thousands of young men, descendants of the first Scotch-Irish and German settlers, fought and died in the Union and Confederate armies. In many cases, kinship ties existed between Yankee and Rebel. Devastation came to both Union and Confederate sections of the Great Valley, particularly in the war's final year.

Many defining moments of the Civil War era occurred there or were connected in some way to the region. For example, John Brown spent part of the summer of 1859 in the Cumberland Valley at Chambersburg, where he planned the raid on Harpers Ferry. Ironically, less than 20 miles away is Mercersburg, birthplace of President James Buchanan, the man who had the misfortune to occupy the White House at the time of the raid and during much other sectional strife over slavery.

What if a team of historians picked two major communities in this region, say, Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and used them as a microcosmic model to study the war, its causes, and its aftermath? And, what if they gathered a massive data bank of letters, diaries, newspapers, official records, published articles, and books to tell that story? Well, they have. Their efforts are called the Valley of the Shadow Project.

The project dates back to 1991, when the IBM Corporation approached the University of Virginia to develop effective new uses for powerful networked computers. The Valley of the Shadow became one of the pilot projects for this initiative. Since then, Edward Ayers and Anne S. Rubin have coordinated a team of scholars that has gathered thousands of sources from the Civil War era for Augusta County (county seat, Staunton) and Franklin County (county seat, Chambersburg) into a hypermedia archive. In the process they have created a revolution in the way we research history that will set the tone for the future.

The amount of data that is being gathered is mind-boggling. It includes information on more than 15,000 soldiers from these communities, narratives and other information on the 5,000 slaves from Augusta County, hundreds of photographs of people, places, and things, as well as transcriptions of the two major newspapers of both counties, along with letters and diaries. Animated maps allow you to trace the military campaigns of regiments from each county, and raw census data provides a treasure trove of demographic information on each area.

To complement the website where the project data reside, Ayers and Rubin have produced a CD-ROM and 103-page book. This set focuses on the eve of the war and is the first of three scheduled volumes. The next two will cover the war and its aftermath, respectively.

The book provides a useful overview of events and factors that led to the war–a sort of "Causes of the Civil War 101." But the most important aspect of this supplementary product is the CD. It allows readers to view databases containing hundreds of newspaper transcriptions, diaries and letters, enlistment information for 1861, census and tax records, maps and images, and time lines that show events at the national, regional, and local level. Despite the awesome scope, it is extremely user-friendly. County and city maps, for example, are equipped with a grid-search mechanism that makes it easy to locate specific homes and businesses in a given locale. Looking for military records of soldiers from a particular town in Augusta or Franklin? A search will produce a complete information file–termed "dossier" by Ayers and Rubin–on an individual soldier or all men from a designated community who served.

Serious Civil War-history enthusiasts, particularly students of the war in the East, will find this to be a wondrous new research tool. This groundbreaking project is akin to having several major repositories right in your living room. Ayers, Rubin, and company have forever changed the way we approach historical research.

Ted Alexander
Antietam National Battlefield







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