January 16, 2013


Dixie's Enemy Within : How the ideology of white supremacy undermined the South's own war effort. (Colin Woodard, January/February 2013, Washington Monthly)

Wars have often unleashed forces the warring parties hadn't expected and couldn't control. The Thirty Years' War began as a struggle between religions but gave birth to the modern system of secular states, while World War I profoundly undermined the legitimacy of the British aristocracy and the stability of that country's global empire.

The U.S. Civil War, University of Illinois historian Bruce Levine argues in his new book, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South, was no exception. Southerners launched the war to preserve slavery, and President Abraham Lincoln responded to save the Union. Ironically, the stresses and necessities of a near-total war quickly began to corrode the Confederate slave system from within and pushed an ambivalent Union to embrace emancipation to ensure victory in the field.

"A war launched to preserve slavery succeeded instead in abolishing that institution more rapidly and more radically than would have occurred otherwise," Levine writes. "[The] ideology of white supremacy, which had always provided critical support for slavery, inhibit[ed] the slaveholders' government from doing what it needed to do to survive." [...]

Levine makes clear both that the South seceded to protect slavery--as anyone who wades into the primary sources knows--and that the Union at large fought to save the Union. That said, he also shows that "a war to save the Union was necessary in 1861 only because a political party that denounced slavery and menaced its future in the Union had won the support of a clear majority of northern voters in 1860. If secession had caused the war, therefore, it was the sharpening conflict over slavery that had caused secession." Nor were "northern" concerns centered only on whether slavery would be allowed to expand to new territories. It had become a threat to democracy throughout the United States. Slaveholders came down hard on any Southern whites who criticized slavery--those who did were driven from pulpits, classrooms, and newsrooms--but they also worked to ban both the distribution of abolitionist materials by the U.S. Postal Service and speaking against slavery in the U.S House. Slavery was coming to threaten liberties of free people in the free states.

Still, federal forces initially had no intention of freeing slaves when they invaded Southern territory, but military expediency pushed many commanders in that direction. Some seized human "property" as contraband, effectively freeing slaves from bondage by declaring them federal property. This drew thousands of slaves to flee to Union lines, weakening Southern production and filling up federal forts and encampments with people often eager to provide intelligence, build fortifications, or even take up arms when allowed to do so. Lincoln pushed back, fearful of upsetting the fragile political coalition of "border state" slaveholders, Yankee abolitionists, and pro-slavery, pro-Union patriots the war effort depended on. But as the war went on, most members of the coalition came to accept what Frederick Douglass had called the "inexorable logic of events." As Union lines expanded southward, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people had tasted freedom. Returning them to bondage would be morally questionable and practically impossible. From 1862, captured and runaway slaves were emancipated and even welcomed into the Union army. [...]

For Confederates, the increasing military burdens tested public commitment to the war. Slaveholders were insulted when the government tried to force them to provide slaves to support the war effort or to join the army even if they felt they had more important things to do. Such policies--which grew more draconian as the South's position deteriorated--"violated political, social, and other cultural imperatives and taboos." This included "keeping government small and weak, extolling local and state sovereignty over that of a national government, and keeping black people firmly subordinated and strictly excluded from many spheres of life." Planters refused to grow food for the army instead of cotton for profit. Critical fortifications were left unfinished because they refused to loan slaves to accomplish the task. Morale in Confederate ranks was eroded when well-connected plantation owners passed laws giving their families special exemptions from conscription.

Posted by at January 16, 2013 1:15 PM

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