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Crossing Boundaries

The Civil War

By Edward L. Ayers | HUMANITIES, July/August 1999 | Volume 20, Number 4

When American historians speak of “region”, we have generally talked of the big regions: New England, Midwest, and Mid- Atlantic; South, West, and Far West. We have talked of Frederick Jackson Turner and Sinclair Lewis, W.J. Cash and Nathaniel Hawthorne. We have fiercely argued for the cohesiveness of particular regions even as we have insisted on their internal diversity and heterogeneity. Because we see regions as necessarily big, we see them as lumbering and awkward, endangered like the dinosaurs.

But maybe we have been thinking of regions in unnecessarily brittle ways. Maybe we should think of regions less as sheer geographic areas and more as systems of widely varying extent, reach, power, and density. Those networks can be natural (such as the Shenandoah and Cumberland rivers, or the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains); they can be cultural (such as the Scotch- Irish or the Germans or Igbo); they can be commercial (such as the hinterlands of Baltimore, Harrisburg, or Richmond): they can be political (such as the Republican or Constitutional Union party). There can even be transient regions, such as those created by the presence of nearby armies. Some of those networks matter more in some times than they do in others and it is not always clear which network is going to matter when.

Rather than trying to aggregate American life into as few regions as possible, we might instead multiply boundaries to embrace more of the complexity, even allowing boundaries to overlap and cross. I would like to try out such an argument in an apparently unlikely time and place: the Mason-Dixon line and the Civil War. I would think that American regional identity has never mattered more than in 1861 and than along this border.

Partly to explore ideas about regions, I have been working with a group of dedicated people at the University of Virginia over the last few years to create a large digital archive devoted to understanding the Civil War years. We call this archive The Valley of the Shadow Project. Our researchers have transcribed and indexed hundreds of pages of newspapers so they can be searched for any individual or subject. They have entered tens of thousands of names from census records. They have gathered wills, diaries, letters, and church records. They have created detailed maps of farms, hamlets, and towns.

In the Valley Project we follow Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania, resting about two hundred miles apart in the Great Valley of the Shenandoah and the Cumberland. The farmers who dominated both counties shared a common climate and raised the same crops. Both places turned around small towns—Staunton and Chambersburg—that served as the county seats, both of which in turn published two newspapers and anchored two political parties. Both counties contained rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and native. Both harbored many Protestant churches. Both divided among themselves on all the great questions of the day, right up through the election of 1860 and the firing on Fort Sumter. Then, however, they both marched into the war, their men enlisting in enormous numbers at the first opportunity and dying for the next four years, their women sustaining the cause in every way open to them until the very end, the war enveloping their farms and towns.

The Great Valley of the eastern United States was at least two kinds of regions in and of itself. It was obviously a physical region, watered by a common series of rivers, bounded by a common set of mountains, nurtured by a common soil type and climate. It was also a cultural region. As David Hackett Fischer has shown us in Albion Seed, the Valley was settled by people from the borderlands between England and Scotland. The Germans who came to the Valley also settled up and down its length, tying it together and separating it from places over the mountains. African Americans, too, lived in the Valley, making their own impress upon it. Those people filled the Valley quickly within a few decades in the mid-and late-eighteenth century, imparting to it a rich but coherent combination of architectural styles, religious denominations, language patterns, and foodways.

So the Great Valley fits, almost classically, two of the basic ways that we think of region: physical space and settlement culture. And yet those deep and real similarities fell in conflict with the political boundary of slavery. The Mason-Dixon line had cut right across the Valley; it came to define the difference between free society and slave society, between “North” and “South.”

Reading the newspapers of the two places, it is often difficult to tell whether one is in the North or the South. The Democratic paper of Franklin County dripped with a contempt for African Americans displayed by neither of the newspapers in the slaveholding county. The papers of the Virginia county are filled with enthusiasm for railroads, business, and economic development of every sort, enthusiasm usually thought characteristic of Yankees. People in both places worried about the same social problems: delinquent youngsters, crime in the back alleys, flirtatious beaux, unscrupulous politicians, drinking, fires and floods, and moral decay brought on by prosperity.

Yet Augusta County, despite its location outside the plantation districts of the South, despite its embrace of the modern life of the 1850s, was very much a slave society.

Dozens of slaveholders owned ten or twenty people, and a few owned more than forty, placing them among the top few percent of slaveholders in the entire South. Just as important, more than six hundred slaveholders owned one or two slaves, showing the eagerness with which white people of average means bought into the institution even in non-plantation areas. Slaves worked in an array of jobs, stacking wheat and picking apples, building railroads and laboring in shops.

Franklin County’s southern border lay only five miles away from the Virginia line, a narrow strip of Maryland intervening. White Pennsylvanians willingly dealt with slaveholders every day, yet slaves escaped through and to Franklin, using networks of black freedom fighters and white allies. Frederick Douglas visited the country in the late 1850s, attracting a large and largely black audience and some grudging respect from the white newspapers. Antislavery opinion grew in Franklin County because people could see slavery at first hand. Yet proslavery opinion flourished as well, with anti-abolitionists sneering at black people and any whites who sympathized with them. The free blacks of Franklin were no better off than the free blacks of Augusta. Like their counterparts throughout the North, they owned less property than did Southern free blacks. They were even more physically segregated than their Southern counterparts, relegated to places such as the Toads Island slum of Chambersburg.

When the most profound regional crisis in American history began, the whites of Augusta Country and did not know whether their American or their Southern networks of association and identity would matter most. In the first secession election, all but ten men voted against leaving the union; a few months later, all but ten voted for it. Did their regional identity change in that time? Most certainly, yes: they became Confederates. And most certainly no: they remained residents of Augusta County, the Valley, and Virginia. The same was true in different ways hundreds of miles to the south, in the mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, where loyalty to the Union warred with loyalty to place. The same was true again a thousand miles to the west, in New Orleans and Natchez, and hundreds of miles north of there, in Missouri and Kentucky. In a sense, white Southerners and black Southerners lived in different regions during the Civil War, one repelling the North, the other pulling toward the North with every enslaved person who rushed to the Union ranks at the first change.

Modern nations, of which the Confederacy surely imagined itself an example, took shape around the printed and disseminated word. Print, especially in the form of newspapers, permitted people to cast their imaginations and loyalties beyond the boundaries of their localities, to identify with people they had never met, to see themselves in abstract causes. Although Bleeding Kansas was far removed from the East and John Brown’s raid freed no slaves, these events gained critical significance because they were amplified and distorted by newspapers. The Confederacy existed through print before it existed through blood.

Networks—whether of newspapers or political parties, the domestic slave trade or trade across the border of slavery, novels or sermons—competed for primacy. People’s regional identity switched allegiance among networks of identity and interest. Differentiated economic regions, political regions, cultural regions, and geophysical regions explain more than a more generalized “region” that often ends up being only a lowest common denominator. The larger the generalization about a region the less it accords with the experience of actual people. It may be good for quick sketches of identity, good for stereotyping, but it is not good for actually explaining why people do the things they do. For that, we need explanations closer to the bone. We need tighter standards of experience and self- definition.

Those of us who are historians of particular regions tend to think mainly about that region, flattening and caricaturing the others to portray our own with greater certainty, clarity, and difference. We would do better, it seems, to wrestle with the tangled relationships among regions, the conflicting and overlapping boundaries between them. The Valley Project is designed to let us trace as many connections as possible in as many directions and dimensions as possible. It permits us to see how people were, at the same time, members of households, churches, parties, lineages, neighborhoods, counties, states, and nations. It shows us that culture matters but so does politics, that landscape matters but so does economic life, that memory matters but so do hope and fear focused on the future. The key is to see how these things interacted in time.

Too often, it seems, region is used as a way simply to ignore large parts of the country. But things are changing: just as we are seeing that white people, too, have race and men have gender, so we are beginning to see that all places have region. By thinking of regions as overlapping and intertwined we might be able to see the nation that is made up of those regions in a more integrated, dynamic, and illuminating way. In such a conception, borders and boundaries may be especially useful. Standing there, we can see what lies on either side and what stretches across them.

About the Author

Edward L. Ayers is Hugh P. Kelly Professor in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Funding Information

This article is adapted from a talk presented at the American Historical Association’s 1999 conference by Edward L. Ayers, Hugh P. Kelly Professor in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

The Valley of the Shadow Project, which has received $249,925 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, can be found at