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

Edward L Ayers (Author)


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.

Product Details

$18.95  $17.43
W. W. Norton & Company
Publish Date
October 23, 2018
5.5 X 1.2 X 8.2 inches | 1.05 pounds

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About the Author

Edward Ayers is Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. His major publications include The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction (1992); In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America (2003); and The Thin Light of Freedom: Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (2017). He and Paul Gaston were colleagues on the history faculty at the University of Virginia from 1980 until the latter's retirement in 1997.


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
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
Luminous.... An exemplary contribution to the history of the Civil War and its aftermath.
Superb.... An original contribution of unimpeachable scholarship.
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.
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