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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Fall of the House of Dixie’

- - Tuesday, July 9, 2013

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF DIXIE: THE CIVIL WAR AND THE SOCIAL REVOLUTION THAT TRANSFORMED THE SOUTH
By Bruce Levine
Random House, $30, 439 pages

A DISEASE IN THE PUBLIC MIND: A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF WHY WE FOUGHT THE CIVIL WAR
By Thomas Fleming
Da Capo Press, $26.99, 354 pages

In a boastful floor speech in 1868, Sen. James Henry Hammond, South Carolina Democrat, warned hostile Northern colleagues of his region's economic prowess. "Look at her," Hammond said of the South. "Eight hundred and fifty thousand square miles. As large as Great Britain, France, Austria, Prussia and Spain combined!" The South was "territory enough to make an empire ... that might rule the world."

Hammond's intent was to refute Northern claims that the South was poor and undeveloped because of slavery. To the contrary, he argued, viewed separately, the South was the fourth-richest country in the world.

But the irrefutable fact was that the South's wealth was derived from slavery. Of the more than 12 million people who lived in what historian Bruce Levine of the University of Illinois terms "The House of Dixie," almost one in three was enslaved. Ridding the nation of this evil required a war that was in essence a second American Revolution.

The strongest section of Mr. Levine's highly readable book deals with the disintegration of the South — militarily and psychologically — during the last months of the war. Desertions were rampant. More than 800 soldiers a week walked away from Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia during February and March 1865. A town in Alabama hosted a dinner honoring 57 deserters; the local constable refused to enforce warrants for their arrest.

"Just as telling as the extent of desertion was the quality of the soldiers now leaving," writes Mr. Levine. "They included men who had previously seemed the most loyal. They would no longer risk their lives in behalf of a cause that seemed already lost." Pickets declared they would no longer shoot down deserters who were leaving camp.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis considered arming blacks to fight off the Yankee army. But plantation owners heatedly opposed releasing their slaves to join the Confederate Army, even as defeat loomed. Not that it mattered. When the guns stilled, the social, political and economic power of rich plantation owners was destroyed.

For a different take on the Civil War and for those of us with a contrarian mindset, Thomas Fleming is a delightful and provocative historian whose specialty is (as he puts it) "a search for new insights into the American past." As one critic said of him, "Fleming gets the story right in ways that generations of historians have missed." Consider the root cause of the Civil War. Mr. Fleming cites something that is overlooked by most historians (or willingly ignored); namely, that the first talk of secession came not in the South, but much earlier in the century, in New England, to protest the "wild destroying rage of the Southern Jacobins," specifically Thomas Jefferson. As Mr. Fleming writes, New Englanders intensely felt "that they were the predestined leaders of an independent America." Thus, Vice President Aaron Burr eagerly entered an intricate plot whereby he would be elected governor of New York and lead the state into a new nation that would call on Great Britain for help. The plot failed.

Mr. Fleming contends that war came because of "diseases in the public mind" in both the North and South. In the North, New England's "envy and hatred of the South became a paranoid loathing of 'Slave Power.'" In the South, the great fear, clearly enunciated by Jefferson, was of a race war.

Occasional slave uprisings, featuring the killings of white families, certainly gave credence to such fears. Southern anxieties were given a further boost by John Brown's 1859 assault on a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, in hopes of seizing munitions that he could use to outfit an army of slaves who would set up a "free republic" in the mountains. Leading abolitionists publicly criticized Brown for his early — and very bloody — attacks on slave-owning settlers in Kansas. Papers found in his headquarters contained evidence that his plot had the financial backing of six prominent Northern abolitionists.

Mr. Fleming uses strong language in describing Brown. He "was not a 'martyr' to a noble cause, but a bloodthirsty terrorist whose goal was to start a race war. His lies convinced leading American thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and thousands of other Northerners that he was a hero."

Both Mr. Levine and Mr. Fleming denounce the evils of slavery and agree that the time had come to purge it from American life. But could the horrors of a civil war have been averted? Given the depth of passions on both sides, I doubt it.

Joseph Goulden, the author of "The Dictionary of Espionage" (Dover), has written 18 nonfiction books.