Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Bruce Levine’s Fall of the House of Dixie

Posted in African Americans, Media, Memory by Andy Hall on January 9, 2013

HouseofDixieBruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War (2007) is probably the best full-length study the contentious debates within the Confederacy over the question of whether to put enslaved men into the ranks of the army, and how to go about doing that. Though such a plan was eventually approved by the Confederate Congress in mid-March 1865 — three weeks before the evacuation of Richmond, and four weeks before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox — it was nonetheless a hard and bitter pill to swallow. Hard-line Confederate ideologues found the very notion an anathema; Howell Cobb famously called the proposal “the beginning of the end of the revolution.” It was, Cobb argued, a “suicidal policy.

Levine’s new book, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South (2013), takes a broader view of the cultural and racial norms of the “peculiar institution,” and how those were upturned by war and Reconstruction. On Monday, Terry Gross interviewed Levine on NPR’s Fresh Air:

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“The black population of the South had been raised on the notion that, among other things, black men could not, of course, be soldiers,” Levine tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross, “that black men were not courageous, black men were not disciplined, black men could not act in response in large numbers to military commands, black men would flee at the first opportunity if faced with battle, and the idea that black men in uniform could exist and … offer them the opportunity to disprove these notions and … more importantly, actively struggle to do away with slavery, was unbelievably attractive to huge numbers of black people.”
 
As its ranks dwindled and in a last gasp, the Confederacy, too, had a plan to recruit black soldiers. In 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis approved a plan to recruit free blacks and slaves into the Confederate army. Quoting Frederick Douglass, Levine calls the logic behind the idea “a species of madness.”
 
One factor that contributed to this madness, he says, “is the drumbeat of self-hypnosis” that told Confederates that “the slaves are loyal, the slaves embrace slavery, the slaves are contented in slavery, the slaves know that black people are inferior and need white people to … oversee their lives. … Black people will defend the South that has been good to them. There are, of course, by [then] very many white Southerners who know this is by no means true, but enough of them do believe it so that they’re willing to give this a chance.”
 
Considering what might have happened had there been no war at all, Levine thinks slavery could well have lasted into the 20th century, and that it was, in fact, the Confederacy that hastened slavery’s end. “In taking what they assumed to be a defensive position in support of slavery,” he says, “the leaders of the Confederacy … radically hastened its eradication.”

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You can listen to the full, 37-minute interview here, or read the transcript here.

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Thanks to Horde member dmf for alerting me to this story.
 
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10 Responses

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  1. Bummer said, on January 10, 2013 at 9:26 am

    Will put this on the “to read list.” So much to study, so little time. Thanks,

    Bummer

  2. Corey Meyer said, on January 10, 2013 at 10:48 am

    Not everyone is onboard with Dr. Levine’s scholarship…but consider the source.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 10, 2013 at 12:37 pm

      I deleted the link to the Southern Nationalist Network — folks can Google it if they so desire. But as you suggest, no surprises there.

  3. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on January 10, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    I have to disagree with Levine’s assertion that “slavery could well have lasted into the 20th century.” It didn’t last anywhere else in the western hemisphere past, I believe, 1888 (in Brazil). The US was, I would have to believe, the most mechanized country in the hemisphere and the world; meaning it would be more likely to embrace technology that would reduce manpower if it was financially advantageous. Field slaves may not have received wages, but they required at least minimum care, i.e. food and board, such as it was, and that required money. Eventually, slavery would have been economically unfeasible. As to when that might have been, I don’t know, but I feel safe in saying it would have been well before sometime “into the 20th century.”

    All in all, though, it looks like an interesting book.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 10, 2013 at 3:34 pm

      I’m not so sure. Cotton harvesting didn’t become widely mechanized until after WWII.

      • Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on January 10, 2013 at 3:49 pm

        You may be right; I’m not familiar enough with the history of farm mechanization to agree or disagree.

        However, given the antics of plantation owners after the war, I could have seen cotton growers simply emancipating their slaves and then paying them dirt wages, rather than providing them with the food, minimal housing and whatnot found on many large properties. It would have been cheaper, and allowed growers to collude on how little they were going to pay blacks. Yes, they would be giving up a valuable commodity (slaves), but given how many growers acted after the war in failing to treat ex-slaves in an equitable fashion, perhaps eventually they would have figured it wasn’t worth the aggravation and cost. All of this is, of course, simple speculation on my part.


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