Review by Brian Tanguay
Shortly after the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia fell to Union forces in April 1865, Abraham Lincoln traveled to the city where he was greeted by crowds of jubilant black people. One elderly black man approached the president, removed his hat, and bowed. Lincoln responded by removing his own hat and bowing in return. This simple gesture disgusted a white woman who witnessed the scene. Even after a devastating civil war a white man bowing to a black man upset the forms and customs that had prevailed in the South for centuries.
From the time of its founding until the Civil War, the balance of political power in the American republic heavily favored the southern states. The White House, Congress, and federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court, was dominated by southern representatives who were determined to maintain and expand the source of their power and the foundation of the social hierarchy:
the bonded and perpetual labor of black people. Slavery was the linchpin of the southern economic and social order. In schools and churches, newspaper editorials, and the proclamations of government, southern whites were conditioned to believe that blacks were an inferior and degraded race suited only for hard toil. Some whites even adhered to the idea that slavery was beneficial for black people. In defense of their “peculiar institution” the southern elite, most of whom were large planters and slave owners, exercised their own form of what is known today as “cancel culture.” As historian Bruce Levine writes in his 2014 book, The Fall of the House of Dixie, slave owners and their allies “set out to prevent or punish the open expression of antislavery views by driving dissenters out of southern pulpits, schools, editorial offices, and communities.”
Maintaining strict racial subordination and domination of black people while at the same time blocking antislavery advocates in the North demanded enormous vigilance by southern states. In addition to political, legal and economic mechanisms, the south had to protect the long standing social customs and traditions that justified the total subjugation of black people. This was important because most whites didn’t own slaves and gained no direct benefit from slavery. Many southern whites lived hardscrabble, impoverished lives, but no matter how poor they might be they still believed themselves superior to black people. Secession and the brutal armed conflict that followed not only broke the foundation of the slave system, it also upended southern society, an outcome that Levine refers to as the second American revolution.
Accounts of the Civil War often gloss over the impact on the southern civilian population. Levine digs into the complexity. While most southern whites supported preservation of the racial hierarchy, they could at the same time hold the view that secession and the war was being waged for the benefit of wealthy slave owners. In other words, they saw it as a rich man’s war. Public support held steady in the early months when it appeared the Confederacy might score a quick military victory, but as the war dragged on, and one year became two, and then three, and larger sacrifices were demanded of the civilian population, some of that support waned. When the Confederate government led by Jefferson Davis began, out of necessity, to impress men into the army or demand taxes in kind (livestock, grain, rice and so forth) for the war effort, the reality hit home and many citizens balked. In the latter stages of the war, when the South’s defeat looked inevitable, desertion was such a serious problem that Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia lost three-fifths of its soldiers.
Levine also examines Abraham Lincoln’s grudging acceptance of an idea that had been advanced by Frederick Douglass and many others: recruiting and arming free blacks and escaped slaves. Had there been another way to end the conflict on terms favorable to the Union, Lincoln would have taken it, for he was always reluctant to further antagonize the southern states. Allowing colored troops to serve was as controversial as it was necessary. In fact, colored troops fought with valor and made substantial contributions to the eventual Union victory, earning, at least in the short run, some grudging respect from white officers and soldiers. The Confederacy, on the other hand, steadfastly avoided arming slaves, even toward the end of the war when it was desperate for manpower. For some, arming slaves was simply a bridge too far. Slaves were valuable property and owners refused to relinquish their property without compensation. Others questioned whether slaves would fight to preserve a system that subjugated them. Suppose they turned their rifles on their masters? Arming slaves also contradicted the assumptions and beliefs about black people that the South had worked so hard to inculcate.
Wars are waged for interests, passion, and gain. As the North conquered more territory, including Atlanta, the southern elite saw the writing on the wall and began angling for ways to maintain as much of their power and privilege as possible. They would rejoin the Union, but only with assurances that strict racial subordination of blacks and draconian labor discipline would remain. They demanded immunity and insisted that southern legislators keep their offices. They proposed that citizens of the rebellious states suffer no loss of property or political rights. The chutzpah of the vanquished as they attempted to dictate the terms of their capitulation was breathtaking. Abraham Lincoln wasn’t persuaded. The defeated southern elite had no intention of granting civil, political, or property rights to black people. Four million human beings were freed from bondage and chattel slavery was abolished throughout the republic, but whenever blacks gained a measure of autonomy, property or wealth in the years that followed, whites sought to take it away by all manner of legal and extra-legal measures. White supremacy surged in the war’s aftermath, and ushered in a backlash of violence against the recently emancipated.
The Fall of the House of Dixie is a fascinating account, extensively researched and written in an accessible style. Levine argues persuasively that the Civil War became inevitable because of the sharpening conflict over slavery. Secession may have caused the war, but it was slavery that caused secession. “Winning the war and suppressing secession,” Levine writes in the final chapter, “required emancipating and arming the slaves. Saving the fruits of that victory had made full citizenship for the freedpeople unavoidable.”