Continuing from his 2004 Bancroft Prize winner In the Presence of Mine Enemies, this following volume tells the story of the Civil War's final years in the Great Valley between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains.
[Ayers] 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 … Ayers is not only a seasoned historian, with a lifetime of writing about the American South and the Civil War behind him, he is also a compelling writer. He orchestrates many different voices into a steady rhythm, with a tempo that is fast-paced. He is extraordinarily sensitive when it comes to letting the crescendo of a story speak for itself through a particularly telling sentence from a diary or letter.
...constructs an extended, elegant study of rifts, of chasms, beginning with a spectacular rift in the Earth itself: the Great Appalachian Valley...forming the chasm between the two counties that serve as Ayers' focus in this book, Augusta County in Virginia and Franklin County in Pennsylvania ...wise decision to anchor the sweep of his historical narrative in a small cast of ordinary people trooping in and out of his two counties...book kicks off with that doomed invasion of Pennsylvania and extends through the end of the war and the miseries of Reconstruction to 1870 and the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment ... It's through these individual stories that Ayers's book achieves its most gripping reading stretches... The Thin Light of Freedom gathers the stories of all these different aspects of the war's final years and transmutes them into a dark and oddly uplifting tale of the forging of modern America ...a necessary addition to Civil War libraries.
Edward Ayers’s The Thin Light of Freedom is a kinder, gentler version of Civil War social history ...extends the story from Gettysburg into the Reconstruction era and features many of the individuals whom Mr. Ayers introduced in In the Presence of Mine Enemies...the dominant tone is regret ... Franklin and Augusta counties were active theaters of war, but military events are not Mr. Ayers’s long suit ...is beautifully, even spaciously written and paced at an adagio — an elegy for people trapped in webs of politics and war that they had, for the most part, spun for themselves ...may not quite persuade us that the evaporation of the war’s political and military history is easily acceptable, but does remind us that not everyone who fought or endured the war’s agonizing conflicts was a soldier.