Book Review: In The Presence Of Mine Enemies

In The Presence Of Mine Enemies:  The Civil War In The Heart Of America:  1869-1863, by Edward L. Ayers

Although I have some questions about the author’s framing of his narrative, which stops abruptly just before the Battle of Gettysburg, overall I would say that this is a very good book.  There is a lot that is notable and worthwhile about this book in terms of the way it looks at the effect of the war on the common people of the United States through a microhistorical look at Augusta County in Virginia (home of Staunton) and Franklin County in Pennsylvania (where Chambersburg is located).  The author has a particular strong view of the hatred that the Civil War inspired between what would have otherwise been fairly close neighbors [1] under normal circumstances.  It just so happens that they were on different sides of a border, and for all of their similarities, the presence or absence of slavery as a key element of their socioeconomic system made a big difference.  The author manages to subtly critique the effects of slavery on the South while also showing himself to be a brave defender of the military prowess of Confederates, especially at the beginning of the war.  This point is worth coming back to.

The book is organized in a very interesting way, with six parts covering the period between 1859 and 1863 with titles taken from the six verses of Psalm 23.  Switching back and forth between the fractious politics of the border North and the border South, in the main the author appears to want to draw parallels between the two sections and to show how both areas were radicalized by the war and its progress, and how both expressed their uncertainty and opposition to what was going on in the national government.  The author shows a deep understanding of the primary documentation of the two counties being investigated, in newspaper editorials and letters and diaries and census data and the like, but sometimes the author appears to get bogged down in the details and is unable to draw wide enough conclusions.  Sometimes he is so intent on showing the specific bits of information that he neglects the importance of looking at the broader scope of the war.  Having a knowledge of the local and narrow history does not deny the existence of broader trends and conclusions, after all.

In reading this book, I was struck by how detailed the book was about the beginning of the Civil War, and how long unionism lasted in Augusta County, for example, and yet how abruptly the book ended between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.  There seems to be a good reason for it, though.  The author is a historian of the New South, and seems to have a certain amount of patriotism for the South.  In his desire to paint Augusta as the equal of Franklin county, despite the fact that it was economically inferior, the author stops at the high point of the Confederacy, not reflecting on the losses that Gettysburg inflicted on the area, and certainly not wanting to continue through the destructive campaign of 1864 and the final defeat of the Confederacy in 1865.  Apparently even 150 years after the end of the Civil War, such matters are too difficult for a patriotic son of the south to squarely face in his own historical writings.  I find this to be of great interest, because it suggests that the author wishes not to expose his own bias or subject his own beloved region to an analysis that would only bring to light its degradation in the light of its folly for rebellion, just as Unionists at the beginning of the Civil War pointed out.  Even when one’s prophecies are right, sometimes it is too difficult for others to admit it.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s