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What Caused the Civil War?: Reflections on the South and Southern History Hardcover – June 1, 2005


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Hardcover, June 1, 2005
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 222 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (June 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393059472
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393059472
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.8 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 2.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,975,543 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Bancroft Prize winner Ayers (In the Presence of Mine Enemies) offers a unique collection of deeply compelling and at times deeply personal essays in which he ponders the South, Southern identity and culture. In fact, only one of these essays deals head-on with the book's title question. In this paper, Ayers makes clear that no one neat answer—economics, the peculiar institution of slavery, or states rights—will do. A subtle combination of all these factors plus regional pride, agrarian idealism and a strong dose of Jeffersonian suspicion of federalism created the schism that led to the Civil War. Other essays take on such topics as Southern wannabes in Northern industrial centers, Reconstruction, a modern definition of the South and the "New South." Several key points run through these essays. Intent on creating a historiography with contemporary value, Ayers insists (with some reason) that the culture—both white and black—of the South has telegraphed itself in vital ways across the national landscape, pervading our roadsides, television screens, radio airwaves and computers. Southern rock is a dominant force: Elvis rules. So do Nascar, John Grisham and Civil War reenactment games for Macintosh and PC computers. Ayers, the spiritual and intellectual heir of C. Vann Woodward, takes in all of this engagingly and eloquently. (June 20)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

Essays by a Southern historian reflecting on what makes his region distinctive. Ayers (History/Univ. of Virginia; In the Presence of Mine Enemies, 2003) begins with an autobiographical essay about growing up in the South and coming to understand its effect on his life. In fact, it wasn't until grad school-at Yale-that the author began to recognize himself as somehow different from his fellow students. A second essay attempts to clarify the region's distinctive character, at the same time emphasizing a theme that recurs throughout: the great complexity of the South and of its history. Even slavery, usually cited as the defining issue of the region, was far more complex than many historians recognize. Enthusiasm for secession didn't correlate with local patterns of slave-owning, nor did ending slavery emerge as the main justification for the Civil War until late in the conflict. Civil War historians have argued back and forth about the causes of the conflict. The dominant school long argued that economic issues such as tariffs and industrialism were more critical in causing the war than the slavery issue-and that the conflict might well have been avoided. More recently, the focus on slavery in such works as Ken Burns's Civil War documentary and James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom has presented the image of a tragic and inevitable-but finally cleansing-conflict. The truth, Ayers argues, embodies some of both viewpoints and resists "bumper-sticker" answers. An essay on Reconstruction compares the Southern experience to America's attempts over the last century to rebuild other conquered nations and suggests that important lessons for the Iraq invasion and similar future ventures might arise from it. A final essay pays homage to C. Vann Woodward, the great chronicler of the New South. Thoughtful, balanced, well-written American history. (Kirkus Reviews) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

I admit the beginning of the book was intriguing and made me keep reading for a while.
TAP
The book offers some interesting moments and some of it seems worthwhile, but this is not a serious work of either scholarship or popular history on the civil war.
Douglas E. Terry
At a mere 192 pages, this book lacks depth and focus, failing to maintain the interest of the reader despite its relative accessibility.
N. Lamb

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Lehigh History Student VINE VOICE on December 13, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This book is interesting for academics only. It is a good discussion as to where civil war literature needs to go in the future. It is a reflection on why the southern perspective in the war has not been undertaken and it outlines Ayers efforts to develop this history further. The title DOES NOT REFELCT what is in the book. Overall though for academics of the civil war this really is a must read.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By steefin on March 5, 2007
Format: Paperback
A few years ago I read Ayers' book, "In the Presence of Mine Enemies," and was deeply impressed by his learned refusal to bow to the prevailing orthodoxy of what this war was about. "What Caused the Civil War?" takes up that theme again, though in more compressed essays. In the one on "Worrying " about the War, Ayers takes us off the grand boulevard of easy explanation, and shows us the little side roads, crooked lanes and byways that we hadn't glimpsed before. Some of the reviewers complain that the title is misleading. It is, but only if you're looking for a ready-to-wear answer. If you're looking for something more intricate, that gets you actually thinking and appreciating how difficult the question really is, you could do far, far worse. Judged by that standard, the book earns 5 stars.
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15 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Douglas E. Terry on February 25, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I am sorry to say, but the title of this book is misleading and, on the whole, the book is a dishonest effort to pass off a series of lectures as a careful consideration of the civil war and its causes. It is not that. Instead, it comes off, at times, almost as the series of random thoughts of a scholar on the south and the war. Mind you, these essays are worth reading, the thoughts are clear and deep, but in no way will the reader come away with a greater understanding, profound or otherwise, about the causes of the great "unpleasantness". In fact, Ayers barely addresses the causes of the war and even states conflicting conclusions on at least one occasion, in regard to major points. There's a lot of personal material dealing with how he got to be serious scholar despite an early adult life indicating he would be anything but one, but I didn't buy a biography, did I? The book offers some interesting moments and some of it seems worthwhile, but this is not a serious work of either scholarship or popular history on the civil war. As I say at terryreport.com, don't buy this book expecting anything other than a meandering, genial journey through Ayers life and randoming ruminations about the cause of the war. To title such a book "What Caused the Civil War?" is not just misleading, it is downright dishonest. I enjoyed the book at many points, but I put it down angry, feeling the publisher was just trying to cash in on whatever popularity Ayer's other works have brought.
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17 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Lynn G. Foster on August 2, 2005
Format: Hardcover
If you read it you will come away with insights on Reconstruction and the impossible century plus arrogance of our Northern friends.

Dr. Ayers touches on some verboten topics, way out of the mainstream of standard knee jerk explanations for the Civil War. He doesn't hit you over the head with it, but it's there.

As for the admittedly tedious essay on his digital endeavors, don't read it if you aren't interested in computers. Historians in the future will read it and understand Dr. Ayers as one of the pioneers in digitizing historical source documents.

(PS - For what it is worth, my name is Ned Foster. My wife Lynn, who has the log-in/password info., has nothing to do with this short post).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Glasgow Reader on September 21, 2008
Format: Paperback
The title of the book is misleading, as it is not devoted to causes of the civil war. It is instead a collection of interesting and thought-provoking essays on various topics relating to Southern history. Ayers' writing is measured and thoughtful, and each essay is well-written; if only all historians had such easy-to-read prose styles. The book is easy and quick to read, and will undoubtedly set you off exploring new avenues of Southern history. It has encouraged me to read more of the works of Mr Ayers and of C. Vann Woodward.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful By HCM on November 30, 2009
Format: Paperback
I found this small book disappointing at best.

Overly large portions of this book are devoted to the personal recollections of the author which do so little to enhance or provide any meaningful perspective on the rest of the book that one suspects they were added only to fill out sufficient length to permit the book to be sold as a book rather than an article. If you are looking to understand anything about why the south took the course it did in the time period leading up to the civil war or subsequently, I expect almost any other book will provide more bang for the buck.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on October 14, 2006
Format: Paperback
Historian Edward Ayers explores the South past and present in essays that blend his personal relationship to the South with a history of its culture and concerns. Don't expect a military history alone in WHAT CAUSED THE CIVIL WAR? REFLECTIONS ON THE SOUTH AND SOUTHERN HISTORY: chapters explore sentiments about the South both within and outside of it, argue its biggest problems are misconceptions held on all sides, and provide an excellent survey.

Diane C. Donovan

California Bookwatch
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By TAP on June 19, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The title should have been something along the lines of; "how I (Ed Ayers) lived my life in preparation of writing this book". Seriously, this is more like an autobiography of Ayers and his experiences leading up to writing this book.

I admit the beginning of the book was intriguing and made me keep reading for a while. But later I realized it was all a con job. There's no real analysis of the root causes i.e. what was cause and what was effect, what could have been true vs. what couldn't possibly be true etc. In other words, no real historical scholarship.

The author at one point as much as admitted that this book and other works (such as the Ken Burn's PBS Civil War series and the Battle Cry of Freedom by McPherson, heavily used by Burns) was about not letting any dissenting views creep into the narrative that academia/news/entertainment institutions have foisted on this nation about the motives of North/South. The paradigm of North = oh-so-noble intentions and South = oh-so-evil intentions is alive and well in this book.

No mention of the ludicrousness of the oft repeated idea that the Confederate soldiers fought mainly, or even entirely, to continue slavery; no mentioning this would have to mean that the vast majority of Confederate soldiers, who did not/could not/desired not own blacks as slaves, were willing to suffer horrendous casualty rates and suffer tremendous material (food/clothing) privation, all so some rich dudes (plantation owners) could continue to live a life (Greek revival mansions, extra slaves as house servants, large county wide social parties to show off the wealth etc) far above what the rich dude needed to be comfortable . And on top of all that, exempt the same rich dude from military service (at least front line service).
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