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the fall of the house of dixie

10 august 2023

I was reading a lot of American Civil War history in the 2000s. I figured I would read much more during the sesquicentennial years 2011-2015. As it turned out, I all but stopped reading Civil War books. Somehow the War became for me not just the uncomfortable subject it had always been, but actively repellent.

Interesting new perspectives continued to emerge and I just didn't keep up. So I am gathered my strength – awful as it was, the Civil War is essential to understanding America – and I am trying to catch up now. Not by reading battles-and-campaigns histories, but by seeking out books like Bruce Levine's Fall of the House of Dixie (2013), which examines how the War entailed the collapse of a social system in the South.

The Civil War began because white Southerners feared that Abraham Lincoln's anti-slavery government would provoke slave rebellion. Taking arms to protect slavery seemed the strongest recourse. As Levine shows, one consequence was to bring about slave rebellion on a scale that made great risings of the past, like Gabriel's or Denmark Vesey's, seem minor.

A war launched to preserve slavery succeeded instead in abolishing that institution more rapidly and more radically than would have occurred otherwise. (loc. 5973)

It is well-established that neither Lincoln nor most of the people who voted for him initially wanted to destroy slavery. Many wanted to contain slavery, and to roll back the wealth and power of slave-owners. But abolitionists in 1860s were still a small minority in the North and even smaller in Congress.

The story of Lincoln coming round to abolitionism is an old topos in American history. In college I read T. Harry Williams' Lincoln and the Radicals (1960), which aside from being a great name for a band, told the story from the perspective of leaders and elites. A half-century of historiography has expanded the field of reference. Levine draws on it to build a picture of slavery collapsing, from the perspectives of ordinary folks: not just enslaved people themselves, but also white Union troops, free black people, and Unionist southerners.

One problem the Confederacy faced was its radically anti-government approach to nationhood. The whole premise of secession and confederation was to keep the government from interfering with private property (i.e. enslaved people). But this meant that Southerners tended to resist the taxes, requisitions, and especially drafts of slave labor that were needed to fund a war effort to preserve their ownership of those slaves.

The same grim determination to hold on to their slaves that had fueled secession from the Union was now hobbling the proslavery war effort. (loc. 1745)

Slaveholding secessionists liked to assure anyone who'd listen that slaves were naturally docile, loyal, and grateful for their masters' kindness. Early in the War, and far from the front lines, this seemed to prove true. Enslaved people learned quickly about the course of the War and evolving Union aims. But pervasive systems of control still governed their lives. Slaves mouthed their loyalty and professed to despise Yankees, going along to get along. All the while, the Union armies drew nearer. When they came near enough to provide a refuge, enslaved people ran to them by the thousands.

A year before the end of the War, it looked as if Grant could never defeat Lee. A year later, the Confederacy had vanished and chattel slavery along with it. In big-picture terms, the entire Civil War was over in an eyeblink. In Richmond in April 1865

"long lines of negro cavalry" flowed down Broad Street and raised their voices in the ode to John Brown, the man that Robert E. Lee had helped bring to the gallows in that state only six years before. (loc. 5667)
Of course, Levine isn't blind to the fact that racist repression soon revived. He quotes an Alabama leader named D.C. Humphreys, late in the war, realizing that African-Americans would never return to literal slavery, but also that
there is really no difference … whether we hold them as absolute slaves, or obtain their labor by some other method. (loc. 4302)
And yet an absolute liberation from the status of chattel was far from nothing. And it happened just as chattel slavery was starting to seem an eternal Southern verity.

Levine, Bruce. The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the social revolution that transformed the South. New York: Random House, 2013. E 487 .L494. Kindle Edition.