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Civil thoughts

From slavery to Reconstruction, the author looks at the complicated history of the South

What Caused the Civil War?: Reflections on the South and Southern History
By Edward L. Ayers
Norton, 189 pp., $24.95

Anyone opening this book in anticipation of finding a lengthy, analytical answer to one of American history's most challenging questions, boldly stated on the cover, ''What Caused the Civil War?," will likely be disappointed. That specific topic, under that specific chapter heading, is treated in a mere 14 pages -- 14 out of a total of only 189.

The title appears to have been chosen for the well-known pulling power of ''Civil War." Get past that and focus instead on the subtitle, ''Reflections on the South and Southern History," and you will be richly rewarded. Edward L. Ayers is an extremely good writer, and his take on the South and on the writing of Southern history is very well worth reading.

Ayers, Hugh P. Kelly Professor of History at the University of Virginia, has assembled here nine essays for the purpose of explaining that the South ''is much more complicated than either its defenders or detractors think"; that in the South ''old and new, past and future have intertwined" throughout its long history; and, finally, that ''we need fresh ways to think about the South." He pulls together his thoughts on these subjects from previously published chapters and articles, from talks and lectures, and from innovative research projects.

Trying to grapple with Southern history, says Ayers, is an uncertain and slippery business, for there are not as many sure handholds as we might think. The contradictions and misdirections are many. ''The South," he writes, ''contrary to so many words written in defense and in attack, was not a fixed, known, and unified place, but rather a place of constant movement, struggle, and negotiation." The modern-day conflict over the Confederate flag, for example, leaves many Southerners with a kind of incoherent defensiveness. There has to be a value in that symbol if the South's past means anything at all, but how can that value be defined? For many Southerners, he believes, ''the rebel flag stands for the same thing that they imagine it stood for in 1861: Leave Me the Hell Alone."

The chapter ''Worrying About the Civil War" traces in fascinating detail the history of historical writing dealing with this paramount event in the South's long odyssey. It seems that today's dominant consensus about the war, exemplified by James McPherson's best-selling ''Battle Cry of Freedom" and Ken Burns's widely watched TV documentary ''The Civil War," was a long time coming. The halls of academia long echoed with conflicting interpretations of the Confederate experience and of the war's ultimate meaning. (Here, and throughout the book, Ayers focuses on the academy, ignoring any influence on the Civil War-reading general public by such renowned journalists, former journalists, and ''independent historians" as Douglas Southall Freeman, Bruce Catton, Allan Nevins, and Shelby Foote.)

The present historical consensus, writes Ayers, rather neatly parcels out shares from what Robert Penn Warren called the Civil War's ''Treasury of Virtue": ''White Southerners have been permitted limited access to parts of the treasury, handed the keys to the rooms that contain honor, bravery, and even idealism -- though not justice. Black Americans have finally been acknowledged as agents in their own freedom. But it is white Northern men who come off best in these stories, martyrs for union and the liberty of others." Honor, bravery, idealism, but not justice. Three out of four's not bad, a Southerner might say with some satisfaction.

The Reconstruction era reflects the same series of conflicting interpretations. Ayers entered this arena himself with his book ''The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction," and here he devotes a chapter to the self-satisfying task of rebutting what he regards as a misguided reviewer of his book. He wants it understood that in writing ''The Promise of the New South" he set out to correct the utter injustice of ''a South that is easily pegged, easily caricatured, easily explained."

That sort of caricatured picture is the theme, too, of Ayers's chapter that supplies the book's title. He opens with an anecdote from, of all places, ''The Simpsons." One of the show's characters, seeking to become a citizen, responds to the question ''What was the cause of the Civil War?" with a long, complex answer involving abolitionists, economics, and so on, only to be interrupted by an official who says, ''Just say slavery." He does so, and becomes a citizen.

Of course slavery, yet no other word in our historical lexicon stands for a more profoundly complex issue at the heart of the American experience. Ayers finds two kinds of contingency working here: the chain of surface, discrete events -- John Brown's raid, the divided Democratic convention of 1860 -- that lead to the explosion in 1861, and what he terms a deeper contingency involving the basic social and cultural structure of the dividing nation. ''By the time people made up their minds to fight," he writes, ''slavery itself had become obscured. Southern white men did not fight for slavery; they fought for a new nation built on slavery. White Northerners did not fight to end slavery; they fought to defend the integrity of their nation. Yet slavery, as Abraham Lincoln later put it, 'somehow' drove everything."

This highly informative book will not supply all the answers about the Civil War era, but surely it asks most of the right questions.

Stephen W. Sears is the author or editor of 12 books on the Civil War, the most recent being ''Gettysburg."

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