What Caused the Civil War?

Historian Edward L. Ayers's compilation explores the essence of the South and its history. The writings in What Caused the Civil War?: Reflections on the South and Southern History feature personal reflections on what it meant to grow up in the south, the nature of the south, and Ayers's computer-related experiences in creating the Valley of the Shadow Project. Other essays grapple with the Civil War and the complexities of its causes as well as Reconstruction.

Readers expecting definitive answers to the book's title question “What caused the Civil War?” will find the collection is not bound by any central theme. Only one or two of the writings address the main question, indicating that the book could be more aptly named. Ayers elaborates on economics, slavery, states rights and the role of newspapers and politicians. He calls attention to how current understanding of the world and the outcome of the war allows people to unwisely assign a moral purpose to the hostilities that only gradually developed during the conflict. He reminds the reader that history is untidy, that the causes of the war are complex, and that no simple answers exist.

The value of the collection lies in its exploration of the culture and identity of the South. Ill-advised perceptions of the South can result in assumptions of causality that may not have existed. For instance, Ayers cites current perceptions of the North of the 1860's as modern and the South as backward and undeveloped, when in fact both were examples of modern industrial and agrarian societies. The difficulties of the South and of defining it hint at the complexity of the causes of the Civil War. Ayers invites the reader to revisit those intricacies and to not lose sight of the war's importance.