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The Thin Light of Freedom

The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America

Edward L. Ayers (Author, University of Richmond)

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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.

Book Details

  • Hardcover, Rough Front - Edge: Deckle, Feather, Uncut
  • October 2017
  • ISBN 978-0-393-29263-3
  • 6.7 × 9.6 in / 640 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Other Formats

  1. Book CoverThe Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America


Endorsements & Reviews

“Luminous…an exemplary contribution to the history of the Civil War and its aftermath.” — Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“A superb, readable work of history.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

“[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.” — James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom

“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 S. Reynolds, author of John Brown, Abolitionist

“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.” — Alan Taylor, author of American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804

“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.” — David W. Blight, author of a forthcoming biography of Frederick Douglass

Also by Edward L. Ayers All

  1. Book CoverIn the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1864


  2. Book CoverTwo Communities in the Civil War


  3. Book CoverWhat Caused the Civil War?: Reflections on the South and Southern History