In 1991 Edward Ayers, one of our most accomplished historians of the 19th century, got the idea for a different kind of history of the Civil War. Rather than paint a grand tableau of the momentous conflict between the North and the South, he would retell the story on a human scale by focusing on two places, Augusta County in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and Franklin County in Pennsylvania, 200 miles to the north. The white populations of the two counties had a lot in common. They were mostly farmers, with similar religious convictions, ethnic origins and political traditions. The one thing that made the two places fundamentally different was slavery. In 1860 one-fifth of the people of Augusta County were enslaved. By contrast, Pennsylvania’s legislature had been the first in history to pass an abolition statute, way back in 1780.
Ayers began combing through archives, libraries and local historical societies, eventually amassing a rich trove of sources — diaries, letters, small-town newspapers, census and tax records — sources he has generously shared online at a user-friendly website called “The Valley of the Shadow.” He has put these sources to impressive use in a two-volume history of “the war in the heart of America.” His Bancroft Prize-winning “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” appeared in 2003, covering the years from 1859 to 1863. Now comes Volume 2, “The Thin Light of Freedom.” It opens with Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863, takes the story to his eventual surrender at Appomattox in 1865 and continues through Reconstruction all the way up to the opening years of the 20th century.
There are hundreds of books reconstructing the lives of Civil War soldiers, women on the home front and enslaved Americans who took advantage of the war to secure their freedom. But few of them succeed as well as these volumes in capturing the day-to-day experience of the war without losing sight of military operations or the political issues at stake.
One of Ayers’s recurring themes is the terrible contrast between the beauty and agricultural richness of the valley and the violence and bloodshed of the war and its aftermath. His description of the burning of Chambersburg, Pa., by Confederate troops is compelling, chilled by new details he has uncovered. His account of Union Gen. Philip Sheridan’s destructive sweep through the farms and fields of the Shenandoah Valley concludes with the equally chilling observation that, judged by the military objectives Ulysses Grant set for it, the campaign was a failure.