A bravura cinema portrayal of Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Day Lewis. Museum exhibits in Washington and around the country. Scores of commemorative books on dozens of aspects of the conflict. With all of that surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, should we pay any mind to a scholarly book with 70 pages of footnotes and a bibliography that runs another 38 pages written by a professor with an endowed chair at the University of Illinois?
The question is prompted by the appearance this month of “The Fall of the House of Dixie’’ by Bruce Levine, and the answer is an emphatic yes. In these pages are few of the signature Lincoln quotes, none of the popular vignettes, and very little of the cloying key-of-D “Ashokan Farewell’’ melodrama that we have come to associate with a war that, along with the American Revolution, defined the nation. But in these pages there is drama enough — and a portrait of a country in transition, especially the South, as vivid as any that has been written in this season of commemoration or at any time.
The Civil War was an earthquake in the nation’s story, and by the time it was over the complacent gentry of the South had been beaten into penury, the enslaved freed, and national politics transformed. Dixie no longer held sway over the American ship of state; the federal government that struggled to survive became stronger than ever; a white nation became legally multicultural — forces set in motion in 1865 and lapping against our shores to this day.
The pre-war South was an impressive collection of people (12 million), resources (remarkably fertile farms that supported huge crops of sugar, hemp and tobacco), land (850,000 square miles, as large as Great Britain, France, Austria, Prussia and Spain combined), economic impact (its cotton accounted for half the nation’s exports), and wealth (the nation’s dozen richest counties per capita were all southern) — a region formidable enough, South Carolina planter James Henry Hammond would say, “to make an empire’’ that might “rule the world.’’
This was a collection of financial and political power that rivals any of our own day, when complaints about the influence of the “one percent’’ are rife. The 50 leading Southern planters each owned more than 500 other human beings. They lived what Gertrude Thomas, a North Carolina plantation mistress, called the “life of luxury and ease.’’
Consider this: Eight presidents owned slaves. About half the state legislators in most of the Confederacy were slaveowners.
But not all Southerners owned slaves
Shrewdly, perhaps cynically, they adapted their message for a mass audience: “Secession advocates,’’ Levine argues, “mobilized sections of the white South’s slaveless majority by presenting their cause less as a defense of slavery than as a defense of the South’s prerogatives, honor, mores, and right to govern itself.’’
As the war wore on, the slave culture disintegrated, with some reaching the Union army and thus freedom, for, as a Wisconsin soldier Levine quotes remarked, “where the army of the Union goes, there slavery ceases forever. ’’ Not that that was the initial Union goal of the war. At the start, the North, concerned about postwar reconciliation, made special efforts not to alienate Southern whites. Lincoln’s rhetoric matched this impulse; he deemphasized slavery, arguing that it was a state, not a federal, issue.
That view would change, of course, as Lincoln recognized that, as Levine puts it, “[t]he need to weaken the enemy and to add a crucial labor resource to the U.S. war effort had made a declaration of emancipation’’ necessary. Thus the war was transformed into a struggle to end slavery — and as it was, the character of the Lincoln political coalition was transformed as well, now relying on blacks and abolitionists rather than on Northern conservatives.
Eventually the relationship between blacks and the Southern land they had labored, without compensation, to render valuable was transformed as well. So, too, were their lives: No more whippings. No more disruptions of family life. No more restrictions on movement.
Meanwhile, battlefield losses and domestic food shortages produced a Southern war-weariness that resulted in mass desertions and growing resentment against the planter elites that had started and prosecuted the war. And it became clear that the methods these Southern aristocrats had employed to preserve their way of life — first secession, then war — were in fact fatally undermining that way of life.
“The fierce, sanguinary, and protracted war,’’ Levine writes, “had shaken the masters’ world to its foundations.’’
The weakness of the South’s moral system is clear to us all. But the weakness of its strategy in 1861-1865 is left to Levine to explain: It was “ ‘a rich man’s war’ . . . waged principally by poorer men and sustained by the privation of their families.’’ This is the Civil War as it is seldom seen. The conflict left more than 600,000 dead — and a region and country utterly changed forever.David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at email@example.com.