by Bruce Levine, author of The Fall of the House of Dixie (Random House, January 2013).
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In a recent national survey, nearly half of all those queried denied that slavery was the main cause of the U.S. Civil War. And that view is gaining, not losing, ground. Among younger people polled (those under 30 years of age), fully 60% responded that way. Many university students share that view. Like so many other modern Americans, they have come to regard the Civil War as a dramatic conflict in military terms, one filled with derring-do and pathos, but one without much larger meaning or import. They are therefore surprised to learn not only that slavery brought on the Civil War but also why and how the defense of the national Union led to slavery’s destruction. As we now observe the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, these questions are in the public view more than at any time in the recent past. I wrote The Fall of the House of Dixie in part to clarify those subjects and to place them where they belong—at the center of the Civil War narrative.
In 1860–61, leaders of both the Union and the Confederacy knew and said that it was precisely the sharpening dispute over slavery’s future that was leading most slave states to try to break from (and so break up) the U.S., initiating the bloodiest war in the nation’s history to accomplish that goal. In his inaugural address, “One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended,” Abraham Lincoln noted, “while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.” The Confederacy’s secretary of state agreed. Southern whites had decided, he wrote, that the swift growth of the anti-slavery Republican Party threatened “to destroy their social system.” “With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled,” Jefferson Davis explained, “the people of the Southern States were driven . . . to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger.” If the preservation of “those interests” and that “social system” required war, Confederates added, so be it.
But that war yielded results drastically different from those its leaders intended. Abraham Lincoln’s Union government initially hoped to quell the rebellion quickly and without laying hands on the institution of slavery. But what the former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass called “the inexorable logic of events” eventually compelled a change of course. The logic of the situation taught Lincoln and his party that military victory required an attack on slavery and the recruitment of former slaves as laborers and then as soldiers in the Union cause. And in the event, as Lincoln noted repeatedly, the active aid of almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors proved crucial to the rebellion’s defeat. The emancipation and recruitment of these people, Lincoln explained, was “the only” policy that could “can or could save the Union. Any substantial departure from it insures the success of the rebellion.”
This war-spawned dynamic ultimately led to the constitutional liberation of all slaves living anywhere in the United States and to the outlawing of slavery per se as an institution. Thus, a conflict that slave owners initiated to preserve slavery ultimately abolished it far earlier and more radically than could have occurred otherwise. That war also wiped out much of the Southern elite’s wealth and broke its once-powerful grip on national government. This fundamental transformation of social and political reality represented (as many at the time recognized) a second American revolution. The story of how that occurred must form a key building block of any real understanding of this country’s history. In that context, I invite you to consider using my book to engage your students as they encounter this defining era.
Bruce Levin is the J. G. Randall Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois. An associate editor of the Civil War magazine North and South, he has published three books on the Civil War era.