I picked up this book with trepidation, alarmed by the politically correct jargon that oozes from some of the pages like pluff mud. But first glances can be deceiving, especially in books, and that is especially true here.

"Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War" (Alfred A. Knopf, 510 pages, $30), is an important book on a number of levels, not least for the unusually clear, in-depth portrait it gives of a multi-ethnic, economically diverse and genuinely cosmopolitan Southern city swept up in the maelstrom of the Civil War.

But its main claim to your attention is the vibrant mosaic that author Jacqueline Jones provides of the planters, slaves, merchants, free men and women of color, lawyers, immigrants, artisans, shipwrights and the men who sailed the vessels that made Savannah a thriving mercantile hub.

"This book is about the conflict over slavery [and] about the way that struggle shaped the streets and households of Savannah and the rice and cotton fields of lowcountry Georgia," Jones writes. Here you will find the stories of the men and women who carried the astonishingly successful slave economy on their backs, but Jones' treatment is uniquely intimate: We encounter them by name, we learn of their hopes and dreams, and where possible we listen to them in their own words.

The cultivation of rice was intensely laborious and took a fearful toll in exhaustion and disease on the slaves who worked the crop. Jones tells this story with humanity and precision, giving us a finely wrought, multidimensional portrait of a vanished civilization.

Savannah managed to mostly sidestep the war, only falling to Gen. William T. Sherman's forces in December 1864. In the chaos that followed the occupation, the city's black community proved remarkably cohesive, a tribute to the familial and social bonds forged in the slave churches that dotted the lowcountry. But that cohesion would take the suddenly free community only so far, as Jones chronicles. The exuberance of liberation did not last long.

Southern coastal cities on the eve of the Civil War invariably were more diverse -- ethnically, religiously, educationally -- than their Northern counterparts. Among them, Savannah was unique. So is its story.

Michael J. Bonafield is a Star Tribune copy editor.