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

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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)
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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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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: 2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #748,035 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 9 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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9 of 11 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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3 of 3 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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18 of 25 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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15 of 22 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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By DWD's Reviews VINE VOICE on February 23, 2015
Format: Paperback
This wonderful set of nine essays is just about as complete of a discussion of the South, the Civil War, Reconstruction, family, home, historical research and some practical applications of the lessons of the Civil War for us today as I have read.

It seems to me that most of these essays have been published somewhere else first. That being said, Ayers has arranged them in a rough chronological order based not on the historical topic of the essay but on Ayers's own life. He starts with his own childhood in Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina and his own growing understand of what it means to be a Southerner. As the essays go along, Ayers goes to college, travels the world a bit and eventually returns to the South to do research and eventually teach at the University of Virginia.

As Ayers moves through his education and his career he develops a perspective on the Civil War and that perspective changes as he grows in his research.

The best essay was the title essay. Ayers has a surprisingly simple yet nuanced tale of the causes of the war. I have read plenty of books on the war (easily 100 non-fiction books and at least 20 fiction books) and Ayers provided a thoughtful look at this topic.

In short, he argues that it was slavery, of course, and a complete failure of the politics of the day to deal with changing public attitudes. The Whigs, one of the two major political parties, died by fracturing over slavery in 1840s and 1850s. The reactionary anti-immigrant Know-Nothings and the Republicans replaced the Whigs. The Know-Nothings caused a lot of noise and chaos but had no staying power. The Republicans adopted a mild anti-slavery platform (basically, no new slave states) and this caused the Democrats to fracture into multiple parties.
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