The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America

The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America

by Edward L. Ayers

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Winner of the Lincoln Prize

A landmark Civil War history told from a fresh, deeply researched ground-level perspective.

At the crux of America’s history stand two astounding events: the immediate and complete destruction of the most powerful system of slavery in the modern world, followed by a political reconstruction in which new constitutions established the fundamental rights of citizens for formerly enslaved people. Few people living in 1860 would have dared imagine either event, and yet, in retrospect, both seem to have been inevitable.

In a beautifully crafted narrative, Edward L. Ayers restores the drama of the unexpected to the history of the Civil War. He does this by setting up at ground level in the Great Valley counties of Augusta, Virginia, and Franklin, Pennsylvania, communities that shared a prosperous landscape but were divided by the Mason-Dixon Line. From the same vantage point occupied by his unforgettable characters, Ayers captures the strategic savvy of Lee and his local lieutenants, and the clear vision of equal rights animating black troops from Pennsylvania. We see the war itself become a scourge to the Valley, its pitched battles punctuating a cycle of vicious attack and reprisal in which armies burned whole towns for retribution. In the weeks and months after emancipation, from the streets of Staunton, Virginia, we see black and white residents testing the limits of freedom as political leaders negotiate the terms of readmission to the Union.

Ayers deftly shows throughout how the dynamics of political opposition drove these momentous events, transforming once unimaginable outcomes into fact. With analysis as powerful as its narrative, here is a landmark history of the Civil War.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Ronald C. White

Despite all the talk today about the divisions between red and blue states, the Civil War remains the most divisive moment in our history. Yet in Edward L. Ayers's splendid book we are introduced to remarkably common emotions felt by the people of blue and gray states…Ayers employs both a wide angle and zoom lens, interspersing fascinating individual stories with insightful historical context…But he clearly prefers the zoom lens since it allows us to experience people's thoughts and emotions as they changed week by week…Ayers is not only a seasoned historian, with a lifetime of writing about the American South and the Civil War behind him, he is also a compelling writer. He orchestrates many different voices into a steady rhythm, with a tempo that is fast-paced. He is extraordinarily sensitive when it comes to letting the crescendo of a story speak for itself through a particularly telling sentence from a diary or letter. Thanks to his careful work, we have the opportunity to hear the people in Augusta and Franklin counties in their own words, as they demonstrate both courage and cowardice in the face of a war more horrible than they could ever have imagined.

Publishers Weekly

★ 07/31/2017
Ayers, president emeritus of the University of Richmond, follows his 2004 Bancroft Prize winner, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, by telling the story of the final years of the Civil War in the Great Valley between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains. Both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the valley was the scene of brutal fighting. Like its predecessor, this book is grounded in the experiences of combatants and civilians alike, enslaved and free, harrowed by bitter war and at the mercy of uncontrollable forces. Rather than centering the story on leading figures, politics, and military strategy, Ayers shares riveting details about average, resilient people trying to survive the devastation around them. He describes, for instance, the deadly violence perpetrated by marauding cavalry forces in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and the total destruction of the northern town of Chambersburg, Pa., by fire. Readers looking for a conventional history of the Civil War or a fresh interpretation of it will find neither here. They’ll instead discover on-the-ground, local history of ravaged communities and besieged Americans struggling through a terrible war and the vexations of Reconstruction. Ayers focuses on the thoughts, fears, and hopes of normal people struggling to stay alive and make sense of the murderous events taking place around them. The result is a superb, readable work of history. (Oct.)

James M. McPherson

[An] elegant book. With great skill, Edward Ayers weaves the stories of these Virginia and Pennsylvania counties together with events in the rest of the nation into a seamless whole that offers important new insights.

David S. Reynolds

A stellar feat of historical scholarship and storytelling. Ayers offers a masterful, engaging narrative that makes the second half of the war and its immediate aftermath seem vividly fresh.

David W. Blight

Edward Ayers masters a unique combination of detailed, granular, profoundly human social history with an extraordinary skill at narrative and a rare humility. This is the brilliant, long-awaited exclamation mark for the Valley of the Shadow.

Alan Taylor

Deftly crossing lines of race, party, and region, Edward Ayers embeds the Civil War and Reconstruction in social settings enriched by individual stories of freedom and slavery, suffering and loss, heroism and desperation. Eloquent, vivid, insightful, and powerful, The Thin Light of Freedom exposes racial and cultural fault lines of enduring relevance.

Library Journal

★ 09/15/2017
Ayers's superb new Civil War history, which began with In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2003), is set in Virginia's Great Valley and traces the stories of Augusta, VA, and Franklin, PA, counties from abolitionist John Brown's raid in 1859 to the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. The work begins with Confederate troops invading Pennsylvania and two years of conflict, followed by the social and political chaos of Reconstruction and the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. Ayers notes that many Americans on both sides of the war did not anticipate the unconditional surrender of the South, the end of institutional slavery, and the reconstruction of the country based on fundamental human rights for all. Paradoxically, Ayers concludes that without secession, the mobilization of huge countervailing armies and the threat from initial military successes by the Rebels, there would likely have been no early postwar attempt at emancipation for African Americans. The author finds that "Americans made each others' history, often in ways they did not foresee or intend." VERDICT An original contribution of unimpeachable scholarship. Highly recommended for Civil War and regional historians, military theorists, and all readers.—John Carver Edwards, formerly with Univ. of Georgia Libs.

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2017-08-07
The renowned historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction continues the story begun in his Bancroft Prize-winning In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2003), recounting those events as they played out beyond the Blue Ridge.The Civil War was fought on many fronts but perhaps none more malleable than that in the Great Valley, which runs from Pennsylvania through Maryland and into Virginia. There, writes University of Richmond president emeritus Ayers (What Caused the Civil War?: Reflections on the South and Southern History, 2005, etc.) in this luminous account, Union armies threatened the Confederacy with near impunity, while Rebel forces attempted to do the same, as at Monocacy, Chambersburg, and other northward forays. As the author chronicles, these movements were calculated as much to prolong the war in the hope of costing Abraham Lincoln the 1864 election as to achieve any lasting military victory, reason enough for Robert E. Lee to raid into Pennsylvania, thus "making Northerners feel what it meant to live in an occupied land." Along the Pennsylvania border of this heartland, communities of emancipated African-Americans, who contributed many troops to the Union cause, suffered raids that returned prisoners to slavery—even as, late in the war, Lee endorsed using black troops in the Confederate ranks. More than any other place, Ayers argues persuasively, the valley had special reason to fear the resumption of campaigning in the spring of 1864, when it "could come under assault from north and south, east and west, inside and outside." It was no less contested during Reconstruction, when voting laws were engineered to displace former rebels and impose rule by so-called carpetbaggers, an early instance of gerrymandering. As elsewhere in the South, the narrative on the war and its causes diverged from that favored in the North, building a lasting division even as the Supreme Court tolerated and even encouraged "complete legal segregation, disenfranchisement, and subjugation of black Southerners." An exemplary contribution to the history of the Civil War and its aftermath.

James Oakes - Washington Post

Ayers set out to re-create the lived experience of the Civil War—for Northerners and Southerners, blacks and whites, men and women, soldiers and civilians—without losing sight of the political turmoil and destructive violence that affected all of them. In that he has succeeded brilliantly.

Allen C. Guelzo - Wall Street Journal

Beautifully, even spaciously, written,… [The Thin Light of Freedom is] an elegy for people trapped in webs of politics and war that they had, for the most part, spun for themselves.

Ronald C. White - New York Times Book Review

Ayers’s splendid book… employs both a wide angle and zoom lens, interspersing fascinating individual stories with insightful historical context.… A seasoned historian… [and] a compelling writer. [Ayers] orchestrates many different voices into a steady rhythm, with a tempo that is fast-paced.

Steve Donoghue - Christian Science Monitor

It’s through these individual stories that Ayers’s book achieves its most gripping reading stretches, dramatizing as few recent books have done the dual, entwined wars taking place in the years it chronicles—one a war of soldiers and battlefields, the other a war of social justice and the fight to enlarge the promise of liberty.… The Thin Light of Freedom gathers the stories of all these different aspects of the war’s final years and transmutes them into a dark and oddly uplifting tale of the forging of modern America.

Daniel W. Crofts - Civil War Book Review

Ayers tells multiple stories in The Thin Light of Freedom. Painting with a broad brush, he sketches a vast canvas—the bloodiest conflict in the Western world between 1815 and 1914. But the two localities in the Great Valley remain his principal focus.… Featured individuals carry Ayers’ narrative.… Soldiers and civilians, men and women, free and slave, white and black, the prominent and the obscure—all found themselves caught in an extraordinary, dangerous, and unpredictable maelstrom. Edward Ayers displays a… keen eye for moral complexity. His achievement will endure.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393292633
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/24/2017
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 800,696
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)

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