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  • The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South by Bruce Levine
  • William A. Link (bio)
The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South. By Bruce Levine. (New York: Random House, 2013. Pp. 439. Cloth, $30.00.)

In this engagingly written volume, Bruce Levine provides a new narrative of the origins and consequences of the Civil War. Focusing on how the war fueled a revolution that upended the American South, he charts the collapse of what he calls the “House of Dixie”—the social, economic, cultural, and political system rooted in African American slavery. Borrowing the image from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Levine depicts a way of life that was constructed on human bondage. The richest of southern slaveholders controlled the reins of national wealth, generating capital for the entire American economy, while they also dominated the political power structure at the local, state, and even federal levels. By 1861, the North American slavocracy of the South had become the most powerful, and perhaps impregnable, slave regime in the world. Yet the Civil War, as Levine shows, set in motion a series of events that eventually led to its demise.

At once a survey of the Civil War and an interpretation of a key moment in southern history, Levine’s account begins with an analysis of [End Page 604] the slaveholder regime—one of the best sketches of the southern political power structure available. The slavocracy, he writes, proved both politically powerful and economically dynamic, able to adapt to changing circumstances. During the first part of the nineteenth century, slavery rapidly expanded, and it continued to grow up to the eve of the war. The acquisition of new territory permitting slaves spurred growth, resulting in the massive transfer of hundreds of thousands of enslaved African Americans who were forcibly removed to satisfy the labor requirements of the booming Cotton South. The greatest slaveholders became fantastically wealthy, but their wealth depended on a system that rested on a veneer of law, backed up by brutality and sheer force. Slaveholder paternalism masked their reliance on whippings and beatings as a regular method of work discipline. More than a third of the southern population by 1860 was enslaved, with a net value of over $3 billion. In terms of pure value, this human property constituted the greatest capital resource of the American economy. Slaveholders lived in a social hierarchy defined by the numbers of slaves they owned, with status and political power defined by slavery. With only a little exaggeration did the foes of slavery describe a slave power whose tentacles extended to the national reaches of the political system.

This slaveholder regime took the South into the secession crisis and the disaster of the Civil War. Perhaps most white southerners, whether they owned slaves or not, saw their survival—and the survival of their world—attached to the continued vitality of slavery. Especially after the election of Abraham Lincoln and the rise of the Republican Party, however, slavery faced an uncertain future. Republicans were determined to limit the further growth of slavery; slaveholders feared that the institution would be gradually strangled, dying a slow death because of the surrounding hostile political power. Yet the slaveholding class included a diversity of views about the Union’s sanctity. Levine misses some of the subtlety of secession in his account, as his treatment minimizes the ambiguity and confusion of the larger number of slaveholders who, in 1860–61, feared disunion more than remaining in the Union. Levine also underestimates the persisting power of partisanship, both in enflaming fire-eaters and in braking the rush to secession in the Upper South.

Despite these divisions, with the onset of a shooting war after the attack on Fort Sumter, most conditional Unionists opposing immediate secession became avid Confederates. Other white southerners, and especially slaveholders, rallied around the Confederate military. “Throughout the length and breadth of the land,” said one contemporary, “the trumpet of war is sounding, and from every hamlet and village, from city and country, [End Page 605] men...


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