ALL wars are tragic, but there are a few like the American Civil War that transcend the more familiar scrimmages for land, warm seaports, and secure frontiers. The Civil War, fought by moral people for a principle that one side deemed immoral, was a classic tragedy. Brought down by their own tragic flaw, the South lost everything except its courage and its will to build anew. To read the newly published, abridged edition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning ''The Children of Pride'' is to experience again those contradictory emotions that any encounter with the South engenders.
The book, compiled by Prof. Robert Manson Myers, is a selection of the remarkable letters and journal entries of the Rev. Charles Colcock Jones and his family. The Joneses, a close-knit, deeply religious family, owned three large plantations in Liberty County, Ga.: Maybank, an island summer home; the much-beloved Monte Video, ''a happy, happy home''; and Arcadia, farther inland and occupied more frequently in the last years as the North's raids on the coast increased.
On the one hand, one reads with sympathy as the family's peaceful life is first circumscribed and then destroyed forever by the war. And on the other hand , one is appalled that such obviously good and well-intentioned people saw nothing wrong with slavery, felt no queasiness about separating members of slave families, and complacently regarded the destiny of the blacks to be one of continuing inferiority.
When they write confidently about the justice of the Southern cause - ''the righteous conflict which is preferable to submission to Black Republicanism, involving as it would all that is horrible, degrading and ruinous'' - we want to shake them and point out their errors, because we know what lies ahead.
After 1863 this confidence is eroded by defeats, the failure of support from Europe, the high cost of living, and the inroads of Northern detachments into hitherto peaceful areas. The Yankees burned farms, ransacked homes for food and valuables, and wantonly destroyed supplies. And, as Sherman and his Army advanced through the South, refugees fled in search of shelter with friends and relatives more securely situated.
Although the North has never suffered the devastation of a civil war on its own ground, the experiences of the South give the lie to the common European criticism that Americans have no idea of what war in one's own land is like. In the South the old, the infirm, women, and children had to flee with what they could carry, or remain on the plantations, unprotected and subject to raids, searches, and destruction of all they owned. It is hard to convey the fear the women must have felt when group after group of soldiers rode up to their house, slaughtered their animals, rifled their belongings, and threatened to put their house to the torch:
''A squad of Yankees came soon after breakfast. Hearing there was one yoke of oxen left, they rode into the pasture and drove them up, and went into the woods and brought out the horse-wagon, to which they attached the oxen. Needing a chain for the purpose, they went to the well and took it from the well bucket. Mother went out and entreated them not to take it from the well, as it was our means of getting water. They replied: 'You have no right to have even wood or water,' and immediately took it away.''
The Yankee soldiers came again and again until there was nothing left to steal. All the while Mrs. Jones and her pregnant daughter and her young children faced them with dignity and courage.
The family's private tribulations during the years of the war, their frequent confusion about events (rumors tended to travel faster than facts), and their unflagging sense of duty to neighbors and to all those affected by the war give us an insight into the war which one cannot find in those histories that chronicle battles won and lost, like scorekeepers in the NFL. Fortunately, the Jones family had the energy and eloquence to detail the essentially untidy, destructive, sprawling, invasive organism that is the nature of war.
Any book that permits the past to speak to the present clearly and without interference is of inestimable value. Such a book is ''The Children of Pride.''