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The Thin Light of Freedom

The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America


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Amid the devastation of war rise the first stirrings of freedom in this absorbing, ground-level narrative by an acclaimed historian.

Virginia’s Great Valley, prosperous in peace, invited destruction in war. Voracious Union and Confederate armies ground up the valley, consuming crops, livestock, fences and human life. Pitched battles at Gettysburg, Lynchburg and Cedar Creek punctuated a cycle of vicious attacks and reprisals in which armies burned whole towns for retribution.

North of the Mason-Dixon line, free black families sent husbands and sons to fight with the US Colored Troops. In letters home, even as Lincoln commemorated the dead at Gettysburg, they spoke movingly of a war for emancipation. As defeat and the end of slavery descended on Virginia, with the drama of Reconstruction unfolding in Washington, the classrooms of the Freedmen’s Bureau schools spoke of a new society struggling to emerge. Here is history at its best: powerful, insightful and grounded in human detail.


Winner — Lincoln Prize, 2018

Shortlisted — Mark Lynton History Prize, 2018

Also By: Edward L. Ayers View all by author...