American Civil War historian Edward Ayers, in his new book The Thin Light of Freedom: Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, constructs an extended, elegant study of rifts, of chasms, beginning with a spectacular rift in the Earth itself: the Great Appalachian Valley, which stretches from Quebec to Alabama in a 1,200-mile gouge along the Appalachian Mountains and crosses the Mason-Dixon Line at the border of Pennsylvania, forming the chasm between the two counties that serve as Ayers’ focus in this book, Augusta County in Virginia and Franklin County in Pennsylvania.
Even before war erupted in 1860, these counties and their people had been pitted against each other by rising tensions over the question of slavery, with the Fugitive Slave Law compelling Northerners to capture and return slaves who had escaped to their territory. Some of these escaped slaves were among Franklin County’s 1,800 African-Americans, and the thorny issue of their fate divided communities and even families. “Some white people in Franklin County sympathized with the slaveholders who lived just across the border and even captured escaped slaves for those slaveholders,” Ayers writes. “On the other hand, white and black abolitionists in the county …
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