About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for "The Thin Light of Freedom"

Good afternoon. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and I’m pleased to welcome you to the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives to hear Edward Ayers talk about his new book on the Civil War, The Thin Light of Freedom. Welcome also to those of you joining us through YouTube.

But before we get started, I’d like to tell you about a few programs coming up here in the next few days.

On Tuesday, December 5, at noon, we’ll have a panel discussion titled “Harold Brown: Offsetting the Soviet Military Challenge, 1977–1981.” Author Edward Keefer, former Secretary of Defense Brown, and others will talk about attempts to counter the Soviet Union’s growing military strength during Jimmy Carter’s administration.

Then on Thursday, December 7, at noon, in a program connected to our exhibit, “Remembering Vietnam,” another panel will discuss “Conflict Journalism in South East Asia.” Former anchor of Nightline Ted Koppel and other journalists will look at the role of the television journalist during the Vietnam War, and how it influenced subsequent conflicts.

To learn more about these and all of our public programs and exhibits, consult our monthly Calendar of Events online at Archives.gov. Check our website or sign up to get email updates. You’ll also find information about other National Archives programs and activities.

Another way to get more involved with the National Archives is to become a member of the National Archives Foundation. The Foundation supports the work of the agency, especially its education and outreach programs. Pick up your application for membership in the lobby or become a member online at archivesfoundation.org.

At the National Archives, among our most heavily used records are those relating to America’s Civil War. These holdings are tremendously rich—both in volume and in the stories contained in the records.

Professor Ayers, today’s speaker, has great familiarity with these records and has shared many of them in a digital history project called “The Valley Project.” This online resource gathers material from several institutions to document the Civil War in August County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania. From the National Archives come records of military service and veterans’ claims, the Southern Claims Commission, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the census.

The records in the Valley Project formed the foundation for Ayers’s latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America. This new work follows up his previous book on the war in the Great Valley—In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859–1864.

Steve Donoghue, in a book review for the Christian Science Monitor, writes “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. It's a necessary addition to Civil War libraries.”

And James Oakes, writing in the Washington Post, says “There are hundreds of books reconstructing the lives of Civil War soldiers, women on the home front and enslaved Americans who took advantage of the war to secure their freedom. But few of them succeed as well as these volumes in capturing the day-to-day experience of the war without losing sight of military operations or the political issues at stake.”

The body of scholarly writings about the Civil War is huge, and one may be tempted to ask if there is anything more to be said. But as Professor Ayers shows us, there are always new stories and new ways of looking at things.

Edward Ayers has been named National Professor of the Year, received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama at the White House, won the Bancroft Prize and Beveridge Prize in American history, and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He has collaborated on major digital history projects including the Valley of the Shadow, American Panorama, and Bunk, and is one of the cohosts for BackStory, a popular podcast about American history. He is Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond as well as former Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Edward Ayers.