THE CIVIL WAR IN THE AMERICAN WEST By Alvin M. Josephy Jr. Knopf. 448 pp. $27.50

THE DESTRUCTIVE WAR William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, And the Americans By Charles Royster Knopf. 523 pp. $30

THE HISTORIAN who decides to write a book about the American Civil War faces difficult choices. Aware of the enormous number of books and articles that have already been published, he often seeks a subject that has been little, or inadequately explored. (The use of the masculine pronoun here is deliberate; few female historians have written about the war.) He may pick a relatively minor figure for reevaluation. Thus William Marvel's recently published Burnside offers a gracefully written and modestly revisionist account of a general remembered, if at all, for his blunders and his bushy whiskers. Or he may select a hitherto little noticed military engagement. Two of the best recent examples of this approach are Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes's The Battle of Belmont and Rod Gragg's Confederate Goliath: The Battle of Fort Fisher.

The Civil War in the American West, by Alvin M. Josephy Jr., follows pretty much the same narrative strategy by dealing with military operations that have, as Josephy says, attracted "comparatively little notice" -- namely, the battles "fought in the huge western reaches of the country . . . from the western fringe of the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific Ocean." The author of The Indian Heritage of America and other books dealing with the West, Josephy is a knowledgeable historian who has done much research in the sources and has also drawn heavily on the numerous excellent published studies of western states and territories. His book is broader in scope than previous monographs like Ray C. Colton's The Civil War in the Western Territories (1959) and Jay Monaghan's Civil War on the Western Border (1955), for it covers the Confederate invasion of New Mexico, the Indian uprisings in Minnesota and the Northern Great Plains, General Banks's Red River expedition against Texas, and guerrilla warfare in Missouri and Kansas, as well as miscellaneous outbreaks of mayhem and violence in California and the mountain territories.

All these matters Josephy handles competently and professionally, and he has provided the best synoptic view of these far-flung campaigns. But doubtless because he needs to cover so much ground, his prose is flat, and there are too many passages like the following: "In the meantime, Taylor had learned that Grover was disembarking and had sent Colonel Reily's 4th Texas north to support Colonel W.G. Vincent's 2nd Louisiana Cavalry and two sections of artillery that were watching Grover's movements. At 9 p.m., Reily reported to Taylor that Grover was moving south and had already forced the Louisianans to pull back below Franklin." Probably only a handful of the most devoted local military historians will be able to assimilate so much detail about campaigns that were, after all, quite minor.

RATHER THAN exploring such forgotten aspects of the Civil War, the historian can try to reinterpret the main issues of that conflict. This is the approach that Charles Royster has followed in The Destructive War, which examines "the paths by which Americans came to seek more destructive war, the diverse results they anticipated from it, and the ways they understood what they had done." Royster's qualifications for this ambitious undertaking are formidable. The T. Harry William Professor of American History at Louisiana State University, he has published first-rate books on the American Revolution and he has a broad knowledge of military history.

Parts of The Destructive War are as good as anything written about the sectional conflict during the last generation. Royster's opening chapter on the destruction of Columbia, S.C., by Sherman's army is a masterful narrative. His moving account of the death of Stonewall Jackson makes it possible to understand how even soldiers in the Union army could simultaneously "rejoice that his death weakened the rebellion" but "could also see his courage and energy as a credit to America, in which they shared."

But, taken as a whole, The Destructive War is disappointing. Part of the problem lies in the writing. Except when dealing with small, discrete units of his story, Royster follows no narrative line, and his longest chapters consist of unstructured ruminations, which range from Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" to Allen Tate's notions about Agrarianism. Pages and pages give no idea of what the author is trying to argue or what he wants to show.

Some of the difficulties with his puzzling book stem from its thesis. Unhappy with the widely held view that the Civil War began as a limited conflict and grew into a total war -- "the first modern war," it has been called -- Royster believes that from the outset many Americans, both North and South favored aggressive warfare that looked to the total destruction of the opposing side. In the North, Sen, Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio spoke, even before the firing on Fort Sumter, of "making the south a desert" and Southerners showed "intense satisfaction" at the prospect of burning and pillaging northern cities. Some leaders on both sides shared these ideas. Among the Confederates, Royster picks Stonewall Jackson as an exemplar, because he "did not go through the Civil War's often-described transition from notions of chivalric gallantry to brutal attrition," but held from the beginning that his army's function was "to wreak destruction." Among the Union commanders his choice is, inevitably, William Tecumseh Sherman, who took savage satisfaction in the destruction his army wrought and announced: "To secure the safety of the navigation of the Mississippi I would slay millions. On that point I am not only insane but mad."

This interesting idea might have formed the basis for a well-crafted essay, but it is hardly substantial enough to be teased out into a 523-page book. There simply were too many other Americans -- one thinks of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee -- who did not believe, either at the outbreak of the war or at its conclusion, in unlimited violence and lethal destruction. Many of those who did use such extravagant language vented their hostility in rhetoric, not action. There is very little evidence to show that Stonewall Jackson, though certainly a believer in aggressive war, was a practitioner of demolition and devastation. As for Sherman, Royster is too good a historian to overstate his case; he shows that Sherman's advocacy of total warfare came belatedly and reluctantly, only after the first two years of the conflict proved that the North could not achieve victory through chivalrous conduct.

Since it is so risky for a historian to offer a fresh interpretation of the Civil War and so hard to pick minor aspects of the war that are of general interest, it may be time to recognize that a different approach is called for. Perhaps the time has come to recognize that there is enormous popular interest in the Civil War -- as the huge audience for Ken Burns's recent television series shows -- but that most readers do not know a great deal about it. The excellent books written about a generation ago -- one thinks of Bruce Catton's Centennial History of the Civil War, of Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative and of Allan Nevins's War for the Union -- are no longer widely read. A present-day audience wants a re-telling of a generally familiar story, in fresh language and with examples and quotations. That is what James M. McPherson did so brilliantly in Battle Cry of Freedom and what Geoffrey C. Ward did so admirably in The Civil War: An Illustrated History. Such books offer better models for other Civil War historians than do those of Josephy or Royster. David Herbert Donald is Charles Warren Professor of American History Emeritus at Harvard University and the author of "Gone for a Soldier," among many other books on the Civil War era.