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  • The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America by Edward L. Ayers
  • Christopher Phillips (bio)
The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America. By Edward L. Ayers. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017. Pp. xxiii, 576. $18.95 cloth)

During the 1960s, sentimentalized centennial celebrations of the American Civil War overlapped with the highwater mark of the Civil Rights Movement. "Post-revisionist" historians scuttled "revisionist" interpretations that lamented the "needless" Civil War. Insisting that slavery was the essential catalyst for the war and emancipation its paramount consequence, they heralded the war as a "new birth of freedom."

By the war's sesquicentennial, this view of the Civil War no longer seemed as compelling. Following the Vietnam War and 9/11, the relentless spiral of foreign conflicts, currently centered in the Islamic world and despite long military occupations, has failed to bring stability or security. Brutality and atrocity appear the new normal for warfare. Ongoing struggles for equal rights and racial equality marred the tenure of the nation's first African American president, Illinoisan Barack Obama, who championed Lincoln's legacy. Renewed division, recriminations, and debates about enduring Confederate symbols culminated in white nationalist violence at Charlottesville, Virginia, clouding a reinvigorated national conversation over the Civil War's outcomes, memory, and meanings.

Edward L. Ayers's Lincoln Prize-winning book, The Thin Light of Freedom, is in the vanguard of a "new revisionism" in Civil War scholarship that portrays the conflict more darkly than previous generations of historians. The companion volume to In the Presence of Mine Enemies, which received the 2004 Bancroft Prize for History, this book chronicles the wartime and postwar experiences of two counties, Augusta in Virginia, and Franklin in Pennsylvania, lying on either side of the famed Mason-Dixon line in the "Great Valley" slicing through the Appalachian mountains. Ayers picks up his story with Robert E. Lee's fateful invasion of Pennsylvania in the summer of [End Page 395] 1863, continues to the surrender at Appomattox in 1865, then pushes through Reconstruction to the early years of the twentieth century.

Beyond elegant writing and superb storytelling, Ayers offers readers a meaningful lens into the conflict. With enviable ease, he offers readers superbly interpretive, broad-stroke narratives of the familiar military and political history of the war and its aftermath, interspersed with biographies of even more familiar political and military leaders (such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson) and events. But his greater gift to readers is his fine grain narrative of the experiences of civilians and lesser knowns, white and black, men and women, Unionists and Confederates, and those caught between on this borderland of the war. This allows him to confront the Civil War's inconvenient truths: its brutality escalated after emancipation, manifested as mounting battlefield casualties as well as pervasive retaliatory and guerrilla warfare, summary executions of African American soldiers (notably at Saltville, Virginia), shocking physical destruction such as Confederate burnings of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and federals of the upper Shenandoah Valley during Philip Sheridan's campaign in 1864, and a Confederate Congress that refused Robert E. Lee's desperate call to emancipate slaves who might fight to save the southern nation. Much of this coincided with Lincoln's reelection run-up, an election that Ayers contends was "a mandate on emancipation" (p. 285). But it well captures the war's hard turn, and the wide suffering inflicted by it.

Readers looking for moral clarity, whether about the war or its aftermath, will be disappointed. As Ayers wrote in a seminal 1998 essay, "Worrying About the Civil War," the "new Civil War revisionism . . . [comes] without a comforting story already in hand." Slavery certainly would not have died but for the war, but freedom's bright wartime promise for African Americans was impeded as "[t]he ambitions, hatreds, and conflicts of war transgressed the boundaries between war and peace, reverberating deep into the postwar years" (p. 20). The ambivalence or contempt of many whites, including some Republicans, to African American citizenship paired with recalcitrant [End Page 396] slaveowners who rejected the Thirteenth Amendment until its ratification then sought actively...


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