Continuing on with a recent post discussing (in part) contingency and the Civil War, I thought I might offer a few words on Edward L. Ayers’s book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863.
Ayers crafts a narrative claiming to be free from such analytical impediments as simple explanations, stark opposites, and sweeping generalizations. Seeking to clarify how otherwise intricately linked communities – one northern and one southern – wound up on opposing sides of the conflict, Ayers builds a case for “deep contingency.” For Ayers, deep contingency emphasizes “dense and intricate connections in which lives and events are embedded.” Further, it rejects formulations of inevitability, particularly those that pit “progress” against “backwardness” implying an obvious victor. He does so by weaving together national events with sectional, political with cultural. Ayers considers previous analyses of chance, what he refers to as “surface” contingency, flawed. This scholarship, Ayers argues, has only emphasized and dramatized national affirmation and redemption thus obscuring the realities of the period. Arguments boiling down to simple “unfolding inevitabilities,” he claims, “miss the essence of the story.”
Fine. But does observing contingency at a supposedly deeper level represent a significant departure from previous efforts to understand the Civil War era? I am not so sure.
Ayers’s principal objection to James McPherson’s brand of contingency refers to both his Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom and his later publication illuminating the “turning point” at Antietam, Crossroads of Freedom. He acknowledges McPherson’s conclusions regarding battlefield contingency and admits that momentous events on the battlefield had dramatic repercussions for both the Union and Confederate causes. Further, Ayers agrees that events in the war were unpredictable and could have deviated in multiple directions with innumerable potential outcomes. Thus, he similarly emphasizes the so-called turning points of 1862 – the Valley campaign during the summer arresting the Union onslaught in Virginia, and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation following the narrow Union victory at Antietam that autumn. However, while Ayers maintains that prior works concerning these events appropriately underscore the lack of predictability in a war, he concludes that they do not support the notion of deep contingency that frames his book. “We acknowledge contingency,” Ayers suggests, but because contingency eventually led to the end of slavery, we “still feel the pull of the inevitable.”
For Ayers, an understanding of deep contingency helps one read beyond the simplistic formulation of the Civil War as a slave society versus a non-slave society. To avoid “false impressions that we have explained something when we have not,” Ayers insists on gathering as much data as possible concerning the whole society. Only then will the profound web of connections between politics, ideology, culture, and economics be revealed. One can identify sudden historical shifts easily enough, but illustrating the root cause (or causes) is infinitely complex.
Ayers’s reading of Battle Cry and Crossroads suggests that McPherson has made the critical error of illustrating the forces of history working in a predictable and ultimately positive direction, and that McPherson illustrates contingent factors – the chance occurrences on the “surface” – as events further aligning the war toward the known outcome: the prevailing cause of freedom.
Well…maybe so, but I am still puzzled at the need to differentiate between deep and surface contingency. You be the judge – as always, your two cents are more than welcome.