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Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America

By Edward L. Ayers

Illustrated. 576 pp. W. W. Norton. $35.

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.

“The Thin Light of Freedom” — like his 2003 Bancroft Prize-winning “In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863” — is ground-level history, recounting the lives of ordinary men and women. It is based on archival materials from the Valley of the Shadow Project, a vividly detailed digital resource that Ayers co-created at the University of Virginia. The project presents the drama of life in two communities, one Southern and one Northern, from the time of John Brown’s raid through the era of Reconstruction. Virginia’s Augusta County and Pennsylvania’s Franklin County are not far apart in the Great Valley, intersected by the Mason-Dixon line.

After serving as president of the University of Richmond from 2007 to 2015, Ayers has returned with this study to the craft of historian and writer. He avoids traditional surveys, military histories and biographies of central political and military leaders, instead inviting readers into the private lives along a borderland, telling stories in real time through diaries, letters, photographs, military records and newspapers. We follow the ebb and flow of beliefs and emotions, hopes and fears, from the invasion of Confederate forces into Pennsylvania in 1863 through the tumult of Reconstruction.


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Ayers employs both a wide angle and zoom lens, interspersing fascinating individual stories with insightful historical context, which he sets apart in italics. But he clearly prefers the zoom lens since it allows us to experience people’s thoughts and emotions as they changed week by week. Figures like Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, the men who are front and center in most Civil War narratives, are seldom mentioned by Ayers’s subjects.


Many accounts of the war, both in print and film, depict the victory by the North as inevitable, because of its greater military manpower and industrial might. Ayers’s intimate, chronological approach allows him to challenge that thesis. Rather than inevitability, the people of Staunton, Va., and Chambersburg, Pa., demonstrate contingency., set News, Photos, Profile, Video, Artist & Celebrity World complete.

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