On May 10, 1865, Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) was captured near Irwinville, Georgia by Union forces. Davis’s apprehension and the surrender of General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) signaled the Confederacy was defeated. The American Civil War had come to a bloody conclusion and marked a turning point in United States history. In the North, the Union victory was a welcome relief but for the South, the defeat was also a social revolution. The way of life Southerners had come to depend on for their livelihoods was no more. That is not to say radical change happened overnight, but the House of Dixie had fallen as author Bruce Levine shows in this phenomenal account of how the Civil War broke the back of the slavery dependent American South.
When I think back to the lessons I received in school regarding the Civil War, I am shocked at what was not taught. The key to understanding the war is undoubtedly the political climate and threat Abraham Lincoln (1808-1865) posed to Southern slaveowners as the new President of the United States. In Lincoln, the Republican party had successful installed its first candidate in the White House and during the time he was in office, the party would evolve into a hotbed of abolitionist figures. But first, Lincoln was forced to confront resentment in the South, and the author captures the buildup as the nation grapples with the issue of human chattel. I am sure we have heard the phrase “Lincoln freed the slaves”. The truth is more complicated and Lincoln himself had his own prejudiced views and sought any way to keep the Union intact. And to provide readers with an idea of his character, Levin explains that,
“None of these promises and cautions signified any decrease in Lincoln’s abhorrence of slavery. He was no abolitionist, he believed in the inherent inequality of blacks and whites, and he doubted that free blacks and free whites could live together in peace and harmony.”
This should not detract from the fact that Lincoln despised slavery and was happy to see its demise. But the question remains, if Lincoln could have prevented war, then why did it happen? The answer lies in what the author refers to as the House of Dixie. Slavery was the economic backbone of the South, and the wealthy were willing to go to any lengths to protect it. This is evident by the secession of several states following Lincoln’s election victory. Slavery had already been abolished in several states in the Union, but the South remained an issue. And as can be seen in the book, the South was not going to comply voluntarily. Eventually the moment we know is coming arrives when Confederate troops open fire at Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina on April 12, 1861. Initially, Confederate forces were confident of victory, but Jefferson Davis makes a surprising comment to his wife that caught me off guard as I read the section in which America passed the point of no return. And it could be said that his prophetic words are an understatement.
After war breaks out, the book changes gear as the battles between Union and Confederate forces heat up. Levine thoroughly analyzes the Confederate war effort focusing on the growing domestic and logistical issues plaguing the region. But the most surprising aspect of the story is the reluctance of both sides to enlist black troops. In the South, recruiting black troops to fight for a system that kept them in subjugation was not ideal, and few blacks wanted to entertain the thought. But even in the North, the movement to use blacks to fight in the Union Army was slow to catch on. The social complexities at play in America during the time are vividly clear and the common belief of black inferiority is on full display. However, those with wisdom on the Union side continued to push for black troops and when they did enter the war, a whole new source of concern for the Confederacy presented itself. The impact of black troops should not be lost, and the comments provided by white soldiers in the book highlight the incredibly hard ground which had to be broken for blacks to serve in the military campaign. But once they did, attitudes towards them were forced to change. Sadly, the belief of black inferiority in the military continued to persist and it was not until 1948 when President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) officially desegregated the Armed Forces.
It is not long after war breaks out that the Confederacy’s issues at home creep up. And this is key to understanding why it collapsed. It is a common story of wealth versus poverty and gives credence to the words of the legendary Marine Smedley Butler (1881-1940) who once remarked “war is a racket”. Putting human labor aside, there were economic forces at play that made Southern secession unacceptable. And despite the image of the anti-slavery North, Southern sympathy could be found in many quarters of the Union as we see in the story. Further, attitudes towards black equality are telling. Slavery was viewed negatively in the North, but that did not mean blacks were to be equal to whites. And here is one of the more bizarre paradoxes of the conflict. However, the Union was a concerted effort, and the mission was to break the back of the South at all costs. The South did its part to help the North as desertion, famine and lack of supplies became crucial weaknesses that no government could overcome. And behind the scenes, slaves following the Union’s successes began to sense a new day in America. The cracks in the base of the South grow larger as slaves become bolder and more determined to be free. And though Jim Crow did rise in later years, the author is correct in that blacks may have taken steps back to slavery like conditions economically after the war, but they would never again be in slavery. Also, Jefferson Davis once again shocks the senses with a suggestion he makes regarding the future of slaves in the South.
I should point out that the Union had its own issues and suffered its share of defeats as explained in the book. And I was stunned at the actions of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) in the wake of Confederate defeats. His actions are so surreal that Union General and future President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) personally intervened. The South was defeated but America still had a long way to go. Republicans were aware of this and acted in the wake of the nightmarish war to pass what became known was the Reconstruction Acts. Their goals were ambitious, yet one hundred more years passed before President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) signed the Civil Rights Act into law. But following the Civil War, the Grand Old Party (“GOP”) was determined to make sure that Lincoln did not die in vain. The assassination is discussed but only briefly, and Levine keeps the focus on the South. Though the fallen president did not live to see Jefferson Davis’s capture, he did live long enough to rest assured that the Union had secured a victory. And everyone knew that America had changed permanently. I cannot recommend this book highly enough; it is a true gem.
“The world has not seen a nobler and grander war,” Frederick Douglass reflected at the time, than the one fought “to put an end to the hell-black cause out of which the Rebellion has risen.”
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