The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America
Advance praise for The Thin Light of Freedom:
“Like its predecessor, this book is grounded in the experiences of combatants and citizens alike, enslaved and free, harrowed by bitter war and at the mercy of uncontrollable forces. ... Ayers shares riveting details about average, resilient people trying to survive the devastation around them. ... The result is a superb, readable work of history.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“The renowned historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction continues the story begun in his Bancroft Prize-winning In the Presence of Mine Enemies...[i]n this luminous account. ... An exemplary contribution to the history of the Civil War and its aftermath.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
This book tells the story of the American Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction from Gettysburg through the ratification of the 15th Amendment. It puts the reader in the middle of the action, on the ground and day by day, on the battlefield and on the home front, capturing the suspense and uncertainty of those years.
The narrative focuses on a diverse cast of characters from a Northern community and a Southern community, one in Pennsylvania and one in Virginia, both in the Great Valley that cuts across the Mason Dixon Line. Soldiers from the two counties fought in the defining battles of the Eastern Theater of the war and their homes and farms were burned in raids by invading enemy troops. Though the two communities shared common soil, climate, crops, ethnicities, political cultures, and religious faiths, one fundamental difference divided them: slavery. About a quarter of the Virginia county was enslaved, a proportion characteristic of the Confederacy as a whole, and slavery’s presence shaped all the fundamental decisions made by the white people of the county. African American people’s position and experiences occupy center stage throughout, from enslavement to enlistment, from being property to owning property, from being the object of politics to voting for themselves.
Thanks to a remarkable array of sources gathered in a pioneering digital archive, the Valley of the Shadow, this story can be told with a range, detail, and immediacy seen in no previous book on the Civil War or Reconstruction. The book completes a story begun in In the Presence of Mine Enemies, published by W.W. Norton in 2003, telling the story of the great American crisis from 1859 through 1870.
This book is for people who don’t know they’re interested in the Civil War—and for those who think they know all they need to know about the subject, but will be surprised.