- What Caused the Civil War? Reflections on the South and Southern History
Edward Ayers's work has been most attuned to the cacophonies of history, and his latest book is no exception. The prose is always clear, but bringing order to the complexities and contradictions of southern history is not part of Ayers's project. He has clearly taken Jacob Burckhardt's classic warning about "terrible simplifiers" to heart.
This collection of essays—that includes generous doses of autobiography—reveals how Ayers came to appreciate his native region's history and then to challenge various pieces of conventional wisdom. Ayers's reflections on writing a history of the New South and on the legacy of C. Vann Woodward are provocative, but readers of this journal will likely be more interested in what has become Ayers's increasing engagement with the Civil War era. In many ways, the creation of the Valley of the Shadow website came as a logical culmination of Ayers's passion for taking into account history's often disparate and discordant voices. Ayers's classic work The Promise of the New South often let readers draw their own conclusions about what both the title and the period meant, but the "Valley of the Shadow" website went an additional step, encouraging people to muck about in an enormous volume of primary materials and essentially become, ala Carl Becker, their own historians. Ayers clearly became enthralled by the technology of the project, and even for readers who lack any technical bent, his essay "A Digital Civil War" nicely conveys the challenges of wrestling with the limits of HTML and other mysterious matters. Cyberspace democratizes scholarship and puts a wide array of primary sources literally at our fingertips, but historians of the Civil War era continue to wrestle with old questions while the public appetite for old and new myths appears to be growing.
Ayers enters scholarly and public debate on the Civil War era but decidedly on his own terms. Not surprisingly he agrees with Abraham Lincoln that somehow the slavery question was at heart of the sectional conflict but refuses to join what [End Page 170] he calls "fundamentalist" historians who would emphasize slavery to the exclusion of almost any other issue. Indeed Ayers finds merit in the interpretations of more recent revisionists such as Michael Holt who have argued that party structure and political miscalculation greatly contributed to the secession crisis and resulting war. This reasonable and capacious approach to historiography leaves room for everything from contingency, to communications, to modernity in analyzing the antebellum era. As for the war, Ayers boldly calls for a new kind of revisionism that would raise questions about a progressive narrative that is especially prominent in the work of James McPherson and Ken Burns. Ayers seeks to rehabilitate (but of course never entirely embrace) Edmund Wilson and Robert Penn Warren's skepticism and even refurbish the economic and blundering generation interpretations. He is especially wary of any analysis that would place too much faith in the power of war to solve political problems. Whether a historian could actually construct an explanatory and interpretative narrative about the coming of the Civil War from such incongruent and contradictory approaches remains the unanswered question, but let's hope that Ayers or some historian of comparable talent makes the attempt.
Not content with raising some sharp questions about Civil War causation and the war itself, Ayers plunges ahead into the tangled thicket of Reconstruction. He boldly suggests that the Reconstruction period can shed light on other efforts by Americans to transform the world by spreading democracy. His provocative essay "Exporting Reconstruction" is a model of comparative history that refuses to draw the kind of superficial analogies that often crop up in highly polarized political debate. Indeed, it is interesting that in the discussions of the Iraq war, Americans have generally not turned to the Civil War and Reconstruction in search of enlightenment—perhaps because the era offers neither simple answers to our agonizing questions...