The Thin Light of Freedom

This book by Professor Edward Ayers completes the series of two books began with his In the Presence of Mine Enemies. Both books are outgrowths of the “Valley of the Shadow Project” from the University of Virginia, a digital history project which maintains an archive of primary sources dealing with two counties only 200 miles apart in the Great Valley, Franklin County, PA and Augusta County, VA. Professor Ayers tells us, “The narrative draws on a digital archive called the Valley of the Shadow, which gathers and transcribes the historical record for Augusta and Franklin from the late 1850s to 1870. The archive holds the diaries and letters, newspapers and census returns, soldiers’ records and Freedman’s Bureau reports, memoirs and photographs from which the story builds. The archive enables us to see connections across time, across borders, and across the lives of many kinds of people. The history in this book attempts to recapture the perspectives of these people and to show events in forward motion, as they were lived, not reassembled as a path to the present.” [pp. xx-xxi]

The book takes off where the first volume left off, with the beginning of the Gettysburg campaign, and ends after Reconstruction. “The geographic and chronological focus of the story helps us see that the remarkable advances of emancipation and Reconstruction were not the inevitable victories of a modern economy, the overwhelming might of the North, or the intrinsic justice of the national cause. In fact, the full consequences of the Civil War remained in doubt far into the conflict and through its prolonged aftermath. Even though abolitionists fought for black freedom and citizenship for decades before the war, and though Republicans sought to stop the spread of slavery in the 1850s so that it would die of its own self-inflicted wounds, few people in 1860 dared imagine that slavery would be destroyed by 1865 and replaced with the rights of citizenship for formerly enslaved people by 1868. Freedom had to be secured on every front after the war ended. Freedpeople searched for children and parents lost in slavery and war, affirmed marriages and established churches. Formerly enslaved people of all ages streamed into schools taught at first by devoted teachers from the North and then from among the freedpeople’s own community. Isolated agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau labored to establish economic and criminal justice. Eloquent black leaders emerged as soon as the political system opened to them. Republicans in the North worked to sustain freedom and opportunity by changing fundamental laws of the nation. At every step, those who would advance freedom found themselves challenged and sometimes defeated. As this history shows, however, black freedom advanced faster and further than its champions had dreamed possible precisely because the opponents of freedom proved so powerful and aggressive. Without secession and the significant victories of the armies of the Confederacy, there would have been no full-scale emancipation in the 1860s. Without defiant former Confederates, an intransigent president of the United States, and Northern votes against African-American rights, there would have been no military reoccupation, Radical Reconstruction, and the most important amendments ever made to the United States Constitution. The enemies of emancipation and Reconstruction drove the revolution forward by their bitter resistance, making the collective accomplishment of black freedom even more compelling for being won against such odds.” [pp. xxi-xxiii]

Both counties had sacrificed during the first half of the war. “Augusta had contributed 2,761 men to the Confederacy, Franklin 2,661 to the United States. Because Franklin’s white population was almost twice as large as Augusta’s, that meant that the Southern county had mobilized 75 percent of its men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five for the Confederacy and the Northern county had sent 40 percent to the Union army. … Combined, Augusta County had already lost over a thousand men, about 40 percent of those who had left for the Confederate army. Franklin had lost 13 percent of the 2,500 men who had fought in the war from Tennessee to Virginia. The losses on both sides had devastated hundreds of families, leaving widows and orphans and grieving parents in every community in both counties.” [p. 14]

Only Augusta County, of the two, had enslaved people. “Augusta County possessed the same percentage of enslaved people as the Confederacy as a whole in 1860, about a quarter of its population. About a third of slave-owning families claimed only one enslaved person, but more than two dozen slaveholders held more than twenty people each, and a few even held forty. Slave prices had risen in the 1850s and remained high during the war, driven by the demand of the booming cotton plantations to the south and a slave trade that shipped people away from Augusta and their families every year. The average adult slave cost about 1,200 dollars in 1860, the equivalent to about 24,000 dollars today, so the 5,500 enslaved people of Augusta were worth over 6 million dollars to their owners, equal to 120 million dollars today.” [p. 15]

The book then traces the war as it affected those two counties, as well as the war as a whole.  Along the way, he demolishes some of the myths that have grown up around the war, such as the myth of the confederacy being a paradise of decentralized government. “Almost as soon as the seceding states created their new Confederacy they began ceding power, authority, and resources to their new central government to a degree unimaginable, and unacceptable, before secession. Whether it was the draft of soldiers, demands for the labor of enslaved people, impressment of food and animals, heavy taxation, or control of the money supply, white Southerners watched as their new central government reached into every aspect of their lives. So long as it was understood that this sacrifice was for the armies and its men, people accepted the toll with resignation and even gratitude for the greater sacrifice offered by the men in the field. Communities in Virginia, the state in the Confederacy ravaged by the war for the longest time, gave more than mot and offered less resistance than many. States farther from the fighting–and thus farther from the danger of the United States troops–aggressively resisted their new national government. Georgia and North Carolina, in particular, chafed at the demands from Richmond. The depth and speed of the Confederate government’s growth was possible only because the Confederacy had been born in war and would live or die by war. People expected to sacrifice in wartime, especially when, as the Confederates saw it, they were fighting for their very survival as a people and a social order based on slavery.” [p. 109]

The war disrupted slavery to an extent unimagined by those who started the war in order to protect slavery. One of the reasons they failed to imagine how it would be disrupted was their own self-delusion. “David Strother noted what he considered self-delusion among the slaveholders of the Valley. As the Federal troops marched from Staunton, he observed, ‘we saw a great deal of smoke in the mountains eastward and were told it came from the camps of the refugees who were hiding from us with their Negroes and cattle.’ Strother was struck by the misplaced confidence of the slaveholders when they followed such strategies. ‘The satisfaction of these people in regard to their Negroes is surprising. They seem to believe firmly that their Negroes are so much attache to the that they will not leave them on any terms. Thus when running off their cattle, horses, and the goods into the mountains, they take their Negroes with them.’ Strother had seen, though, that ‘the Negroes take the first opportunity they find of running into our lines and giving information as to where their masters are hidden and conduct our foragers to their retreats. In this way our supply of cattle has been kept up.’ Beyond that, ‘Negroes were continually running to us with information of all kinds and they are the only persons upon whose correct truth we can rely.’ ” [p. 181]

Part of the destruction of slavery was recruiting and enlisting soldiers into the United States Army. The use of United States Colored Troops against the confederates led to war crimes by the confederates, such as at Saltville, Virginia. “The Confederates, enraged after discovering that they were fighting against black men, killed the wounded African-American soldiers left behind after the failed Union attack. … Fog covered the site of the battle the next morning. A Confederate officer was puzzled to hear gunfire: ‘a shot then another and another until the firing swelled to the volume of a skirmish line.’ Riding to the sound, he found Confederate soldiers ‘killing negroes.’ Cautiously proceeding, he saw ‘a squad of Tennesseans, mad and excited to the highest degree. They were shooting every wounded negro they could find. Hearing firing on other parts of the field, I knew the same awful work was going on all about me.’ Another Confederate noted in his diary that scouts ‘went all over the field and the continued sing of the rifle, sung the death knell of many a poor negro who was unfortunate enough not to be killed yesterday. Our men took no negro prisoners. Great numbers of them were killed yesterday and today.’ A Union officer said that the men doing the killing ‘all appeared to be commanding themselves.’ The line between regular and irregular soldiers had been lost in appearance and behavior. When John Breckinridge arrived at the site, ‘with blazing eyes and murderous tones,’ a Confederate observed, he ‘ordered that the massacre should be stopped. He rode away and–the shooting went on. The men could not be restrained.’ The murder continued for six more days, culminating with guerrillas forcing their way into a makeshift hospital at Emory & Henry College and shooting men, black and white, in their beds.” [pp. 242-243]

The book takes us into Reconstruction after the Civil War. Professor Ayers writes about the challenges African Americans and white Republicans faced in Augusta County and the reactions to events in the South in Franklin County. He also writes about some of the victories. “The Virginia Constitutional Convention met in December 1867. The thirty-six Conservatives were generally young and relatively prosperous, often college-educated. … The twenty-three white Radicals (‘carpetbaggers’), like their counterparts across the South, had often settled in Virginia before or soon after the war, when no prospect of black voting could have beckoned. They were men of middling property, several of them college-educated. The twenty-one native white Republicans (‘scalawags’) were generally quiet men from Unionist backgrounds without much political experience. Of the twenty-four African-American delegates, at least nineteen were literate. About half of the were of mixed racial background, three ties the proportion in Virginia. More than half of the had been free before the war or had escaped slavery in Virginia and lived in the North until after slavery’s demise. They represented districts, either urban or in the east, with heavy black majorities.” [pp. 444-445] This group produced the Reconstruction Constitution of Virginia.  “By April 15, 1868, the body produced a progressive document. It created Virginia’s first system of public education. In the political sphere, the constitution established universal manhood suffrage and shortened residency requirements for voting. In the judicial sphere, it prohibited discrimination in jury selection and shielded debtors from unjust treatment. After months of attack, some white Virginians sheepishly admitted that most of the constitution was a reasonable document. … But Conservatives protested that the proposed constitution would disenfranchise all men who had held any civil or military office in the Confederacy by requiring an ‘Ironclad Oath’ that the taker had never supported secession or the Confederacy. Advocates of the rigorous oath knew that in a majority-white state the Republicans could only retain power by keeping established white leaders out of contention for office.” [p. 446] There were victories in the North as well, as Republicans were able to successfully define Democrats, who aligned with white southerners, to their own advantage. “In short, the Democratic party had become ‘a common sewer’ for ‘every element of treason North and South.’ The Republican message worked. In October elections for state offices, the Republicans won Pennsylvania in the largest vote ever cast in the state. Two weeks later, Grant carried Pennsylvania and twenty-three of the other thirty-four states in the Union, winning 53 percent of the total vote and a more impressive victory in the Electoral College–214 votes to 80. While he did well across the country, the high turnout of votes of African-American men casting their first ballots in the reconstruction states secured those states for the Republicans.” [pp. 448-449]

Both these excellent books are well worth the time to read. They give us not only the micro look at two specific communities, but they also connect those communities to the wider events in the country as a whole.

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