If Herman Melville’s writings can be used as evidence, the trend began almost before the last shot was fired. Eager for reconciliation with their erstwhile enemies, Northern commentators on the Civil War frequently hastened to gloss over the treasonous aspects of secession and to divert attention toward more admirable features of the South’s rebellion—namely, the quality of its military leadership and the tenacity of its soldiers under fire. In the prose supplement to Battle-Pieces, his 1866 book of war poems, Melville professed no wish to prolong “the bitterness which every sensible American must wish at an end.”
Declining to condemn secession, the author of Moby-Dick and “Benito Cereno” ascribed it to a “most sensitive love of liberty” excited by the belief that “certain estimable rights guaranteed by the Constitution were directly menaced.” Only as an afterthought did he concede that the chief right in question was the right to hold slaves. Melville preferred to emphasize the South’s “signal military virtues and achievements,” which had “conferred upon the Confederate arms historic fame.” He even predicted, “Posterity, sympathizing with our convictions, but removed from our passions, may perhaps go farther” in its praise of the rebels. In this, Melville saw accurately.
The history taught in schools was chiefly the military history. Countless descendants of Union soldiers grew to imagine the slaveholding South with dewy-eyed nostalgia. The popular narrative, later reinforced by films like Gone with the Wind and The Song of the South, became markedly pro-Southern, and it seems likely that the culture’s reluctance to criticize the Confederacy tacitly encouraged a century of civil rights abuses. Not until the social movements of the 60’s did the pendulum of history swing powerfully in the opposite direction.
The errors of generations past have seldom been amended with greater grace or stronger persuasiveness than in Professor Bruce Levine’s deft study of Confederate society, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South. Early in his study, Levine exposes the vast inequality of wealth that had emerged in the South before the war. He then argues that class conflicts and other flaws in the region’s social structure, easy to conceal in prosperous times, dramatically and fatally widened as the war made resources scant and the privileges of the few openly contended with the needs of the many.
Levine further maintains that giddy with their freedom from the supposed tyranny of Washington, a host of southerners refused to submit to the demand for discipline and unity that the Confederate government found necessary to win the war. Professor Levine finds the resistance to shared sacrifice especially strong among the upper echelons. While the wealthiest slaveholders remained committed to the war in principle, they passed laws allowing men to purchase exemptions from military service. They also frequently balked when called upon to hand over slaves even temporarily to work for the army. Deeming such requisitions “odious” and “oppressive,” more than one slaveholder indignantly refused to part with even “a single hand.”
Professor Levine’s arguments will not strike enthusiasts as startlingly new, though one may excuse this fact when an author’s subject has been so minutely scrutinized for generations. What makes Professor Levine’s work so very much worth reading is that it tells the tale with great vividness and clarity. Levine covers much ground in his brisk 300 pages, but his arguments are strongly supported throughout. The prose is also enlivened by well-chosen quotations from southern citizens, some of whom emerge as strong characters in their own right. Especially captivating are the female diarists—not only the famous Mary Chesnut but also Louisiana’s enticing Katherine Stone and North Carolina’s headstrong Catherine Edmonston.
Levine’s analysis may also be read for its pertinent commentary on our own times. The war he depicts is a war of the 1 percent, sustained by policies formed by an insulated elite who thought more in terms of short-term profits than the long-term stability of their society. Levine observes that the southern aristocrats were at least willing to send their sons to the battlefield; one seldom observes the same willingness among our modern wielders of influence. When Levine quotes disaffected southerners who perceive the conflict as a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight, one hears frustrations akin to those that spawned “Occupy Wall Street.” Conversely, in the complaints of southerners who demanded freedom from the tyranny of government but refused to make the basic personal sacrifices needed to allow the government to adequately perform its functions, one recognizes the grumbling ancestors of the Tea Party.
Quite consciously, Levine has devoted himself to writing an alternative history of the war, and he typically supplies only enough of the military history to keep his story coherent. The resulting eccentricity of this approach can make for strange omissions. It is a rare account of the war, for instance, that narrates the Confederate disaster on the third day at Gettysburg but leaves out even the name of General Pickett. Pickett finally wanders onto Levine’s stage five months later, but then only to complain about the number of slaves fleeing into enemy hands. The author’s refusal to engage more steadily with the war’s conventional narrative makes this book a niche player among Civil War histories; the reader who desires only one book about the war would be wise to choose another. However, if that reader wants a half-dozen volumes on the subject, The Fall of the House of Dixie would be a clever choice indeed.