In his new book The Thin Light of Freedom: Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, Ed Ayers, historian and president emeritus of the University of Richmond, continues the saga he began in his 2003 prize-winning book In the Presence of Mine Enemies, about the wartime experiences of soldiers and their families in Augusta County, Va., and Franklin County, Pa. Drawing on personal stories, he follows the two counties through the Confederate invasion of Gettysburg to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the contentious struggles that followed to cross “the boundary between the war and Reconstruction.”
CWT: How did you choose these two counties as your research focus?
EA: I had the idea that I would look into the Shenandoah Valley, north and south, as a prism to see the war. I looked for a Pennsylvania county and a Virginia county that had newspapers all the way through and that were involved in all the major battles of the Eastern Theater. I came up with Augusta and Franklin. It turned out that the largest collection of letters of USCT troops are from Franklin County, and the diaries of a couple, the Cormanys, go all through the war. And Franklin County voted for Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election in the same percentage as the North as a whole. I chose Augusta County because it had the same percentage of enslaved people as the South as a whole. I could also pull from sources like the diary of editor, judge, and legislator Joseph Waddell and the letters of Confederate mapmaker Jedediah Hotchkiss. They had never been transcribed. They were hiding in plain sight.
CWT: What happened to Augusta County by the end of the war?
EA: It was decimated. This is a county that voted for Union all the way through the secession convention. What is so amazing is this county, which had resisted secession, had thrown itself so completely into the war and ended up suffering so much. They were able to convert all their loyalty and their Christian beliefs intact from the U.S. to the Confederacy—same beliefs, but attached to a different nation. Augusta men were part of the Stonewall Brigade, and they were losing soldiers in major battles from Manassas to Appomattox. The Confederacy was as fully mobilized for war as they could have been.
CWT: What about Franklin County?
EA: Only 44 percent of Franklin men end up fighting, compared to 69 percent of the Augusta men, and Franklin County’s casualty rate is much lower (7 percent vs. 34 percent), even though they are decimated at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg. I try to take it down to the individual level. I get chills every time I read about Sylvester McElheney, who gets shot at Fort Stedman in 1865 and dies in a Philadelphia hospital. The chaplain writes to his wife and says he’s looking for you. And it happened that she had been nearby at the time.
CWT: Virginia has to make a new constitution at war’s end. What happens?
EA: Reconstruction did not begin until two years after the war. Then Virginia is required to hold a new constitutional convention, to let black men vote and be delegates. On one hand white Virginians deny the legitimacy of that entirely. On the other hand, they want to be able to vote and hold office as former Confederates. The question is: Should former Confederates be disfranchised? And if they’re not, how do the people of the North guarantee that what was just won at enormous cost is not nullified?
CWT: What do the records show?
EA: They have the public meetings in Staunton, and the black men—who have been completely invisible in the court record before—stand up and give eloquent speeches and argue with Confederate generals, making fun and saying “You claim you’re our best friend, what took you so long?” What you see is how Virginia ends up making the same bargain the whole South makes, which is “OK, we won’t resist the legal rights of black men to vote if we can vote, because we know that we have so many different ways to control the election. We’ll threaten our employees; we’ll use violence, fraud, whatever it takes to restore true order of justice, which is white people.”
We have domesticated the Civil War
CWT: Why did the United States have to lose so many lives to end slavery?
EA: We ended slavery much more rapidly than anywhere else, with no compensation for slaveholders, and we did it with greater rights for the formerly enslaved people. But by the end of the war, both sides are just sick of war. They realize they spent more money than it would have cost to have bought every enslaved person, and you’ve lost 800,000 people. If you look at the rest of the Western Hemisphere, no other slave society was as powerful as the South. Everywhere else they were just a subset of a larger population. But here you had a geographically contained area that imagined itself as a new nation that would perpetuate slavery.
CWT: What kind of questions do you get about the book?
EA: I was speaking at the Civil War Roundtable in Atlanta and a woman came up and said, “I’ve been here 20 years and you’re the first person who has ever mentioned Reconstruction.” What I’m trying to show is that you can’t understand the war without understanding its consequences, and you can’t understand Reconstruction without understanding the war. A large part of this entire project is to see the Civil War more profoundly than we do. And that’s why I go to so much trouble to give us those brief moments of heartbreak, because we have domesticated the Civil War.
CWT: Why is your book different?
EA: It crosses the boundary between the war and Reconstruction, the boundary between North and South, and the boundary between white and black. We’re accustomed to thinking of the Civil War as two sides. But it’s really three. African Americans are trying to navigate their way between white Southerners and white Northerners, and find out how they could make new lives out of this chaos.
CWT: What was Augusta County like for freedpeople just after the war?
EA: One of the things that touched me the most were the 600 couples that go to the Freedmen’s Bureau to declare themselves married in the eyes of the Commonwealth of Virginia, even though they‘ve been married in their own eyes or the eyes of God for decades. All these families line up at the Freedmen’s Bureau to register their names, their number of children, but also to go to the Freedmen’s Bureau to help them find their children, who are scattered from Texas to Florida.
CWT: What is the takeaway?
EA: The book ends with the story of a young black man who was able to take the schooling and some of the political clout during Reconstruction and make a new life in the new South. If we understand that Reconstruction is not just a political story but an opening, however small, for black people to make lives for themselves, then Reconstruction looks different. I’m interested in finding stories and voices that otherwise have not been heard. The Civil War is the time where we have more of those than anything. Without losing sight of military battles and strategy, we can also understand the place of women and of white people and the politics. This is not a dilution of the military history, this is an expansion of it. ✯
Interview conducted by Senior Editor Sarah Richardson