The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South by Bruce Levine. Random House, 2013. Cloth, ISBN: 1400067030. $30.00.
In The Fall of the House of Dixie, Bruce Levine sets out to reintroduce the Civil War to the American public not as a series of battles but as a second American revolution that “undermined the economic, social, and political foundations of the Old South, destroying human bondage and the storied world of the slaveholding elite” (xviii). Levine acknowledges the voluminous scholarly literature on the destruction of slavery, but argues that it has not reached a wide audience, leaving a “gaping hole” in Americans’ collective memory.
What follows is therefore a crisp and captivating narrative of slavery’s demise, which does not break much new ground for scholars familiar with the last generation of writing on the Civil War. Nevertheless, even specialists will find interest in this book both as a useful synthesis and as an attempt to write a history of emancipation that reveals the process in all of its complexity and brings in all parties involved: slaves and masters, Northerners and Southerners, soldiers and civilians, leaders and common folk. The Fall of the House of Dixie proves that the field has been able to move beyond the once-bitter debate over “who freed the slaves” and integrate the literature on the politics of emancipation with the writing on slavery’s collapse on the ground.
Levine’s treatment of the Confederate side of the story is careful and evenhanded. He stresses the absolute centrality of the slaveholding class to secession and the total commitment of Confederates to white supremacy. Yet he eschews a monolithic image of white society, laying out the internal divisions, conflicts and inconsistencies rife among Confederates. Levine is particularly strong when dwelling on the tension many felt between loyalty to the cause and resentment of the sacrifices it demanded. In a similar vein, his exploration of the slaves’ actions to bring their own liberation highlights the gradual, uneven pace of slavery’s disintegration and the diversity of risks and opportunities African-Americans faced at different times and different places. As in much of the recent literature, emancipation appears here as a tentative, halting, and dangerous process, in which black people played a major part but which was nevertheless very much dependent on the pace and scope of military operations.
Moving north to Washington, Levine’s take on Union policy falls in line with much of the literature about Lincoln, the Republican Party, and the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1861, Levine argues, Lincoln saw slavery as a cancer, but he “did not view the war that the slaveholders had forced upon him as the proper scalpel with which to perform the needed surgery” (109). Trying at first to restore the Union by conventional and moderate means, he gradually came to support confiscation policies, which hit the rebels where it hurt most. Republicans, from Lincoln down, came to support immediate and uncompensated emancipation only when they realized that it would be impossible to win the war without it. Yet with time, as the “inexorable logic” of revolutionran its course, as it became clear that “to achieve one goal, it proved necessary to aim for a higher one” (297), the idea of emancipation as a military necessity gave way to the idea of emancipation as a moral necessity. In the course of this process, Lincoln, much of his party, and large swaths of the Northern public, evolved from moderate opponents of slavery into ardent abolitionists.
Levine’s focus on gradual change mirrors similar interpretations by James M. McPherson, David Herbert Donald, and Eric Foner. Yet it differs markedly from another major study of emancipation that came out almost simultaneously, James Oakes’s Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865. Oakes argues that the Republican Party came into power intending to use the war as a means for the destruction of slavery. In his analysis, Republicans executed their abolitionist vision consistently and faithfully through a series of legal, military, and rhetorical measures. Levine, on the other hand, sees a great deal of hesitation and moderation in Republicans’ approach to slavery, and more internal divisions between the party’s moderate and radical wings. He is also highly critical of Lincoln’s land and labor policies in the occupied South, accusing him of pandering to slaveholders and knowingly leaving the liberated slaves dispossessed. “To bring the war swiftly to an end, he sought to make rejoining the Union as palatable as possible to members of the southern elite” (189).
Yet Levine also sees emancipation, ultimately, as a huge breakthrough for African Americans. While some of the recent literature emphasizes the tragedies and limitations of freedom, The Fall of the House of Dixie concludes by asserting that that the post-emancipation oppression of black Americans “never equaled in severity and brutality the work regime of the prewar South” (298). No great morality tale, the Civil War nevertheless ended with a new beginning for the freed slaves.
The Fall of the House of Dixie succeeds in retelling the story of the Civil War with slavery as its organizing theme, thus serving as a useful bridge between the scholarly community and a broader readership. In that sense, it is a highly useful addition to the vast literature about the Civil War, and hopefully to the shelves of trade bookstores too.
Yael A. Sternhell is an Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Tel Aviv University and the author of Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South (2012).