The title of this book is a bit misleading; the subtitle is what this book is really about - a reflection on the history of the South. The Civil War is part of this history, but it is not the centerpiece of this book. Edward Ayers’ reflections on the history of the South mingle with autobiography, starting out with the story of his early days as a kid growing up in Tennessee and visiting family in North Carolina to present different aspects of life in the South in those years. Moving forward to graduate school at Harvard in the 1980s, he researched Southern culture and civilization, returning to the South to examine newspapers, letters, and other archival sources that could help to present Southern culture before, during and after the Civil War.
A vital area of the country before the Civil War, the South was mainly agricultural. Its culture differed from Northern culture, which over time became more industrialized and more populous. Southerners held important positions of power in the Federal government which they used for the benefit of the South, “protecting” the “peculiar institution” of slavery by different means. Sometimes they managed to compromise with their Northern opponents; in other instances, they won concessions outright. Eventually, though, they could not prevent opposition to their way of thinking not only involving slavery but also states’ rights. The differing Southern view on the Constitution and how the central government should work eventually led to the Civil War. The South possessed great military minds, but they lacked the numbers of soldiers and resources of the North. Eventually the North found the right generals who could use their numbers of soldiers and resources to defeat the South.
Ayers explores the tragedy of Reconstruction. Some suspect that if Lincoln had lived, he would have shown more compassion to the South than the so-called Radicals Republicans who wanted both to take advantage of the situation and to punish the South for its rebellion. Ayers points out that the United States has unfortunately used this horrible model of Reconstruction to reconstruct or engage in nation-building of defeated countries like Germany, Japan, and Iraq.
The so-called New South is powerful; a presidential candidate cannot win the White House without winning the South. The two recent presidents have come from the South, an area of rapid population growth. Ayers points out that many African-Americans are moving to the South; many different races now find the South to be a better place to live, and cities in the South are growing. Racial problems still exist in the South, but people are working to improve this. Some problems are economic-class problems rather than issues of race. The South is rising again, but not like what those who support the Lost Cause imagine it would look like.
This book of essays is thought-provoking for academics but might be a bit confusing to the general reader who has to get past the title to realize this book is actually on Southern history.
Edward L. Ayers is a professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Two Communities in the Civil War (2006), co-author of Crucible of the Civil War (2006), co-author of the multi-volume American Passages (2006), author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2004), which won the Bancroft Prize and the Beveridge Prize; he also co-authored The Oxford Book of the American South (1998).