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Two intriguing views of the West's role in the Civil War

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War, By Leonard L. Richards, Knopf, 290 pp., illustrated $25

West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War, By Heather Cox Richardson, Yale University Press, 396 pp., illustrated $30

The authoritative "Civil War Battlefield Guide" lists no less than 21 sites in the western states, most involving clashes with Indians, but several between Union and Confederate forces, including the very last battle of the war, at Palmito Ranch in Texas.

While those battles in the West were sideshows to the major campaigns of the war, two new books bracket the Civil War between events in the West which, in one account, helped set the stage for the war, and in the other, was a major factor in the postwar Reconstruction.

Both authors , by coincidence, are historians at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

In Leonard L. Richards's brisk account, "The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War , " the political intrigue began with the discovery of gold in 1848. As prospectors flooded into the territory, the question of statehood became one of national concern: Would the new state be free, or slave -- or would the territory be split between a free state and a slave state to preserve the political balance of power in Congress. When California was admitted as a free state in 1850, Richards writes, there were "storms of protest across the Deep South." But when its two senators took their seats in 1852, both, ironically, were pro-South.

However, California gold bolstered the North's war effort, with General Ulysses S. Grant noting, "I do not know what we would do in this great national emergency were it not for the gold sent from California."

In "West from Appomattox," Heather Cox Richardson, Richards's colleague, is working on a broader canvas. She argues, lucidly and persuasively, that events in the West shaped the direction of the postwar Reconstruction .

After the Civil War, it was not just that the social and political structure of the South had to be "reconstructed," but "the estranged sections of the country would have to begin to build a new postwar nation , " she writes. " The South, devastated and despairing, the North, bustling and proud, and the West, rich in resources but deeply embattled in a war between Native Americans and eastern settlers, somehow would have to create a unified America."

Skillfully weaving in events back East to provide political and economic context, Richardson finds that it was the West, with its lure for both war-devastated Southerners and opportunity-seeking Easterners, that was the key to Reconstruction. As Richardson remarks at one point, "the West offered a new national culture distanced from the tensions between the North and South," Richardson's cogent analysis is enlivened by accounts of such quintessential characters as Charles Goodnight, the former member of the Confederate's Frontier Regiment, who led the first cattle drive in late 1865, and Nat Love, an ex-slave who, in 1867 "turned his back on the struggling Southern economy" and headed West to try his hand as a cowboy.

And it is Theodore Roosevelt, the eastern "dude" who goes West, who "brought the western image to the national government," in his first message to Congress talking both of a world in which the energy and resolution of individuals "determined the welfare of each citizen" and proposing government regulation of business and labor to give "that individualism [its] fullest scope."

For Richardson, those "broader patterns of reconstruction echo down to our own time," to be found in the "dislike" of special interests that swings between opposition to business control of government and antagonism to minority groups seeking government protection. And even, she suggests, in the current "red-state/blue-state" political divide.