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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. 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. With analysis as powerful as its narrative, here is a landmark history of the Civil War.

Book Details

  • Paperback
  • October 2018
  • ISBN 978-0-393-35643-4
  • 5.5 × 8.2 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

“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.” — Ronald C. White, New York Times Book Review

“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.” — James Oakes, Washington Post

“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.” — Allen C. Guelzo, Wall Street Journal

“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.” — Steve Donoghue, Christian Science Monitor

“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.” — Daniel W. Crofts, Civil War Book Review

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

“Superb.… An original contribution of unimpeachable scholarship.” — Library Journal (starred review)

“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.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“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 Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

“Deftly crossing lines of race, party, and region, Ed 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

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


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