A first-rate study of the origins and early years of the Civil War, focusing on neighboring communities North and South.
Drawing on a trove of documentary materials rich enough to make an annaliste swoon, Ayers (History/Univ. of Virginia; The Promise of the New South, 1992) delivers a unique portrait of two towns in the great valley that stretches “from Vermont all the way into Tennessee” that were, as those who lived there recognized, alike in many ways—yet crucially different in others. On the southern side stands Staunton, Virginia, a handsome agricultural town whose slave population was only beginning to grow in 1859, slaves having hitherto been important mostly to the lowland economy; on the northern side stands Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, not far from Staunton as the crow flies—and, in 1859, not far apart in other ways, notably its inhabitants’ opposition to abolitionism. Yet, as Ayers carefully documents, for whatever misgivings they may have had about the conflict between the two regions, both towns threw their all into the war between North and South; by the end both had been bled dry, but even in the early days of the war, boys and young men from Staunton and Chambersburg saw hard combat. Ayers explores a number of fascinating avenues, each of which would sustain a doctoral thesis or two: the reaction of Chambersburg’s African-American population to news of the Emancipation Proclamation, after which many went to Massachusetts to enlist in the famed, ill-fated 54th Regiment; the role of northern transplants such as the schoolmaster Jed Hotchkiss in settling western Virginia and defending it against other northerners (“[Stonewall] Jackson and Robert E. Lee soon came to trust Hotchkiss completely and rely on his maps, knowledge, energy, and advice”); the complicated politics of abolition in the north and the widespread dislike of Lincoln on free soil, with many northerners fearing that Lincoln’s policies would only “unite and exasperate the whites of the South in their resistance to the National Government, and to make the war still more prolonged, bloody and bitter”; and the day-to-day conduct of the war in the Great Valley and its effects on its residents.
Top-drawer American history, especially for Civil War buffs.