In this major new history of the Civil War, Bruce Levine tells the riveting story of how that conflict upended the economic, political, and social life of the old South, utterly destroying the Confederacy and the society it represented and defended. Told through the words of the people who lived it, The Fall of the House of Dixie illuminates the way a war undertaken to preserve the status quo became a second American Revolution whose impact on the country was as strong and lasting as that of our first.
In 1860 the American South was a vast, wealthy, imposing region where a small minority had amassed great political power and enormous fortunes through a system of forced labor. The South’s large population of slaveless whites almost universally supported the basic interests of plantation owners, despite the huge wealth gap that separated them. By the end of 1865 these structures of wealth and power had been shattered. Millions of black people had gained their freedom, many poorer whites had ceased following their wealthy neighbors, and plantation owners were brought to their knees, losing not only their slaves but their political power, their worldview, their very way of life. This sea change was felt nationwide, as the balance of power in Congress, the judiciary, and the presidency shifted dramatically and lastingly toward the North, and the country embarked on a course toward equal rights.
Levine captures the many-sided human drama of this story using a huge trove of diaries, letters, newspaper articles, government documents, and more. In The Fall of the House of Dixie, the true stakes of the Civil War become clearer than ever before, as slaves battle for their freedom in the face of brutal reprisals; Abraham Lincoln and his party turn what began as a limited war for the Union into a crusade against slavery by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation; poor southern whites grow increasingly disillusioned with fighting what they have come to see as the plantation owners’ war; and the slave owners grow ever more desperate as their beloved social order is destroyed, not just by the Union Army, but also from within. When the smoke clears, not only Dixie but all of American society is changed forever.
Brilliantly argued and engrossing, The Fall of the House of Dixie is a sweeping account of the destruction of the old South during the Civil War, offering a fresh perspective on the most colossal struggle in our history and the new world it brought into being.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, southern writers and politicians boasted often--and with considerable justification--that their states were the richest, most socially stable, and most politically powerful in the United States as a whole. Southern farms and plantations yielded handsome profits to their owners, who were some of the wealthiest people in the country, and the southern elite had also controlled all three branches of the federal government during most of its existence. At the root of this all this economic and political power lay the institution of slavery--an institution which, as the former slave Frederick Douglass would later recall, then “seemed impregnable.” Few could then have imagined, he noted, “that in less than ten years from that time, no master would wield a lash and no slave would clank a chain in the United States.”
But what almost no one foresaw in 1860 is exactly what came to pass. In Mark Twain’s words, the Civil War and its aftermath “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country.” The most important and dramatic of these transformations was the radical destruction of slavery. One out of every three people in the South suddenly emerged from bondage into freedom, a change of such enormous significance and full of so many implications as almost to defy description.
For the South’s ruling families, meanwhile, the war turned the world upside down. It stripped them of their privileged status and their most valuable property. It deprived them of the totalitarian power they had previously wielded over the men, women, and children who produced most of the South’s great wealth. “The events of the last five years,” a Memphis newspaper editor summarized in 1865, “have produced an entire revolution in the entire Southern country. The old arrangement of things is broken up.” The ex-Confederate general Richard Taylor lodged the same complaint that year. “Society has been completely changed by the war,” he wrote. Even the stormy French revolution of the previous century “did not produce a greater change in the ‘Ancien Regime’ than has this in our social life.” Abraham Lincoln applauded this “total revolution of labor” as “a new birth of freedom.” Black South Carolinians cheered this “mighty revolution which must affect the future destiny of the world.”
Even as it upended society in the South, the Civil War era transformed the shape of national politics in the United States as a whole. Beginning with Lincoln’s election in 1860, it finally broke the southern elite’s once-iron grip on the federal government and drove its leaders into the political wilderness. Into the offices that planters and their friends had previously occupied there now stepped northerners with very different values, priorities, and outlooks. These new men used their political might to encourage the growth and development of manufacturing, transportation, finance, and commerce and thereby speed the country’s transformation into the economic colossus familiar to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Under the hands of these same men, meanwhile, the post-Civil War federal government assumed key roles previously assigned to the states, including the power and the responsibility to safeguard the freedom and rights of the nation’s citizens--citizens whose ranks now expanded to include millions of former slaves. Constitutional amendments adopted in the war’s aftermath laid the legal basis for and pointed the way towards transforming the United States into a multi-racial republic.
Relatively few people today are aware of just how all this happened. Although “the military movements connected with the Civil War are well known,” a witness to those events commented decades afterward, “the great mass of American people know but little, and so think less” about the destruction of slavery and all that it entailed. That observation holds true after the passage of another century and more.
The Fall of the House of Dixie was written to help fill that gaping hole in our collective memory. It traces the origins and development of America’s “second revolution,” explaining why it occurred and how it unfolded--especially how this great and terrible war undermined the economic, social, and political foundations of the old South, destroying human bondage and the storied world of the slaveholding elite. In recent years many scholarly books and articles have analyzed the Civil War’s momentous consequences. But bookstore shelves allotted to the Civil War are to this day filled principally with detailed accounts of armies, officers, and the battles they fought, great and small. Nearly every major study of the Civil War as a whole--especially those aimed at a wide audience--continues to take the military story as its organizing principle and narrative spine.
The Fall of the House of Dixie by no means ignores that subject. The slave-based society of the American South required powerful external blows to break it along its lines of internal stress. Union armies delivered those blows—blows that therefore make up a crucial part of the story told in this book. But the chapters that follow focus especially upon the transformation of that war from a conventional military conflict into a revolutionary struggle. And they emphasize the ways in which very different groups of people—slave owners, slaves, the great mass of slaveless southern whites, and soldiers both Union and Confederate, black as well as white—experienced and helped to bring about what one newspaper at the time called "the greatest social and political revolution of the age."
Excerpted from The Fall of the House of Dixie by Bruce Levine. Copyright © 2013 by Bruce Levine. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“This is the Civil War as it is seldom seen…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 [the Civil War]. But…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 Boston Globe
“An absorbing social history…Mr. Levine's book offers fresh insights into the complex reality of what most Northerners thought of as the solid South and the slow evolution of the Union crusade against slavery." --The Wall Street Journal
“A compelling, valuable and eye-opening work [that] will inform and entertain the most discerning student of ‘the second American revolution.’” --The San Antonio Express-News
“In this splendidly colorful account, the author compares the old South’s disintegration to ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ where microscopic cracks in the mansion’s foundation gradually widen until the building implodes. . . . A sensitive, informed rendering of the wrenching reformation of the South [told] with the ease and authority borne of decades of study.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Enlightening . . . a deep, rich, and complex analysis." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Masterful....Levine’s employment of testimonies by slaveholders, slaves, and pro-Union Southerners is effective and often poignant.” --Booklist
“A gripping, lucid grassroots history of the Civil War that declines the strict use of great battles and Big Men as its fulcrum, opting instead for the people . . . In the tradition of James McPherson, Levine has produced a book that is a work of both history and literature.” —Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Beautiful Struggle
“Levine illuminates the experiences of southern men and women—white and black, free and enslaved, civilians and soldiers—with a sure grasp of the historical sources and a deft literary touch. He masterfully recaptures an era of unsurpassed drama and importance.” —Gary W. Gallagher, author of The Confederate War
“More poignantly than any book before, The Fall of the House of Dixie shows how deeply intertwined the Confederacy was with slavery, and how the destruction of both made possible a ‘second American revolution’ as far-reaching as the first.” —David W. Blight, author of American Oracle
“This book limns the relationship between slavery and the rise and fall of the Confederacy more clearly and starkly than any other study. General readers and seasoned scholars alike will find new information and insights in this eye-opening account.” —James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom
“Levine’s engrossing story chronicles the collapse of a doomed republic—the Confederate States of America—built on the unstable sands of delusion, cruelty, and folly.” —Adam Goodheart, author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening
“Bruce Levine vividly traces the origins of the ‘slaveholders’ rebellion’ and its dramatic wartime collapse. With this book, he confirms his standing among the leading Civil War historians of our time.”—James Oakes, author of Freedom National
“Eloquent and illuminating . . . Shifting away from traditional accounts that emphasize generals and campaigns, Levine instead offers a brilliant and provocative analysis of the way in which slaves and non-elite whites transformed the conflict into a second American Revolution.”—Douglas R. Egerton, author of Year of Meteors
“The idea that Southern secession was unconnected to the defense of slavery has a surprising hold on the popular historical imagination, North and South. Levine’s demolition of such a misapprehension profoundly succeeds as both argument and drama.”—David Roediger, coauthor of The Production of Difference
“Thorough, convincing, and, in a word, brilliant. Our understanding of this central event in American history will never be the same.”—Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship
“[The Fall of the House of Dixie] will delight and disturb—and provide much needed clarity as Americans take a fresh look at the meaning of the Civil War.”—Ronald C. White, Jr., author of A. Lincoln
“The story of a war waged off the battlefield, a war of politics and ideology that transformed both Southern and Northern culture unfolds brilliantly in the able hands of this fine historian.”—Carol Berkin, author of Revolutionary Mothers
“Levine offers a fresh perspective on this oft-told story by relying heavily on personal letters, journals and diaries… Brushing aside the notion that slavery was merely one of many issues over which the war was fought, Levine…shows that it was at the center of everything—the economy, culture, social relationships and worldview.”
“Levine’s well-documented study…provides a concise and well-written overview of the conflict and a cogent discussion of…still-polarizing issues.”
--Dallas Morning News