AS Interviews Historian Bruce Levine

In the latest in a series of interviews with prominent scholars of US slave emancipation, Brian Kelly of the After Slavery Project interviewed historian Bruce Levine about his most recent book, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South (Random House, 2013).  Levine is a prolific and wide-ranging scholar whose books include The Spirit of 1848: German Immigrants, Labor Conflict, and the Coming of the Civil War (1992), Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War (1992), and Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War (2007), which was awarded the Peter Seaborg Prize for Civil War Scholarship and was a finalist for the Jefferson Davis Award.

Dixie Book

BK: I’m struck by two main trends in recent scholarship on the American Civil War. On the one hand if we look at writing on the war since, say, the publication of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom in 1988, there seems to be a deliberate turn away from the kind of organic integration of social and military history that he attempted and a return to a more exclusive focus on the logistics of war-making. So much of the recent debate centers on the military history of the conflict, and on the ways in which the North’s conduct of the war reflected a commitment or an indifference to emancipation: Gary Gallagher’s The Union War pushes this in a quite provocative way. Alongside this we see an emerging consensus (Yael Sternhell calls it the “new revisionism”) that the war was “unnecessary”—in one rendering “America’s greatest failure.” [1] In both of these approaches slave emancipation is almost left to one side, as an incidental outcome of the war.

Fall of the House of Dixie seems to cut against these trends. While you pay close attention to military developments, the focus of the study is elsewhere—on the transformative social and political effects of the war, the diverse array of actors that effected that transformation, and the revolutionary effects of the destruction of slavery. It seems quite clearly attuned to the ‘neo-abolitionist’ impulse sidelined in other recent scholarship. Can you explain the reasoning behind your approach and tell us—from your own perspective—what distinguishes it from other recent work?

BL: Scholarship on the Civil War since Battle Cry of Freedom looks more variegated to me than I guess it does to you. There is, of course, still a great deal of military history being produced; I think much of that is quite valuable. But a lot of social and cultural history has been and is being done, too.

I certainly agree with your observation, however, that there’s been a striking increase lately in “new revisionist” or “neo-revisionist” writing about the era. These essays and books revive some views once widespread but then challenged and eventually widely discredited by the fine work of a generation of historians (many of them sensitized by the civil rights movement) including Kenneth Stampp, John Hope Franklin, Leon Litwack, Lawanda Cox, and Eugene Genovese, Eric Foner, and James McPherson. Now the clock is being turned back to the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s, and we are hearing once again that the Civil War could and should have been avoided because real differences between North and South were supposedly not big enough to warrant such a costly and sanguinary conflict; that the differences that did exist could and should have been resolved peacefully, through compromise; that the needed compromise didn’t materialize because of ignorance, paranoia, hysteria, political incompetence, careerism and mis-leadership, regional-cultural animosity, or all of the above.

What’s behind this trend? I think both academic-intellectual habits and current political sentiments have played roles here. The profession as a whole has for some time been placing a tremendous (I believe, an exaggerated) emphasis on “contingency” generally. That emphasis received a great boost with the rise of post-modernism and post-structuralism, with their disdain—as Gary Wilder put it—for “the study of long-term and large-scale historical processes. In the name of contingency, particularity, and difference, structural analysis and societal explanation were increasingly discouraged.”[2] In studies of the Civil War, its origins, and its outcome, this preoccupation with contingency probably helped revive the view that the war arose not from fundamental societal differences in the North and South but because of events or developments that were more smaller in scale, less deeply rooted, more ephemeral or accidental – and, therefore, that the war could have been avoided if only one or more links in the actual chain of events had been fortuitously absent.

Modern doubts about the Civil War’s necessity have probably (in some cases, Levine Photoobviously) been nourished by political developments in our own time. These include alarm at the polarization of politics, the sharpening and coarsening of public political discourse, the two major parties’ much-decried “failure to compromise,” and an increasingly skeptical attitude toward all wars stimulated by disillusion with the current US campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. These modern-day sentiments and values then lead (in my opinion, mislead) some scholars toward a neo-revisionist reevaluation of the most important conflict in the nation’s history.

My own book argues, in contrast, that the outbreak of the American Civil War was anything but accidental. Far from being the product of chance occurrences, political malpractice, or misplaced popular passions, it arose from basic trends and long-growing conflicts within U. S. society — from the growth and development of economies, perceived interests, values, assumptions, and norms premised on very different kinds of labor systems.

The first few chapters of The Fall of the House of Dixie advance and document that argument. The rest of the book undertakes a project I’ve looked forward to undertaking for many years — showing just how that war produced a massive social revolution, one that fundamentally transformed the South, and how different parts of the southern population experienced and participated in that social cataclysm. Central to that story, of course, is the interaction between the course and logic of that war and specific nature of the South’s social structure, especially chattel slavery.

Impressing-Negroes_Fitch-Sepia500
“Impressing Negroes to Work on the Nashville Fortifications,”
Annuals of the Army of the Cumberland: John Fitch, 1864

BK: Let’s talk about the process by which the Confederate war effort began to falter, and then ultimately to fail. At the outset of hostilities, you suggest, the ‘House of Dixie’ was a fairly impressive structure: among other things, secessionists seemed to have succeeded in uniting a fairly diverse southern white population behind their project. Elite whites even boasted that their slaves, and the small population of free blacks in cities like Charleston and New Orleans—would remain loyal in the looming confrontation with the Union. But by the fall of 1862 the foundations of that structure are beginning to show cracks, and—as the war continues—to heave and ultimately to collapse. What happened to the seemingly impregnable South?

BL: The white population of the South was, of course, socially heterogeneous. Only a minority owned slaves, and only an even smaller minority owned enough people to afford themselves lives of genuine luxury. In peacetime, much of the non-slaveholding majority remained tied to the planter elite by bonds of convenience (including the perceived material benefits of slavery even to the slave-less) and white-supremacist ideology. And at the war’s outset, those bonds remained strong in most of the South. But as the war continued, its costs in blood and treasure mounted, and these bore down very unevenly on the white population. Non-slaveholders, who had the smallest palpable stake in the Confederacy’s survival, found themselves making the greatest sacrifices in its behalf. It was they who were serving and dying in the greatest numbers; wartime shortages and taxes affected them most severely.

After a few years of this, common whites asked themselves in steadily growing numbers just how much of this they were prepared to tolerate for the sake of slavery and southern national independence. Laws that explicitly discriminated against them (most obviously, the “20-negro” exemption from the draft) or placed a disproportionate share of the war efforts costs on their shoulders (impressment and the tax in kind, for example) only increased resentment of what increasingly seemed to many “a rich man’s war” being waged mostly by poorer families. Masters who placed the preservation of their personal property above the needs of a war that they had themselves brought into being — and such masters included some prominent members of the Confederate elite — fanned the flames of such resentment.

691px-Conf_dead_chancellorsville_edit1
Confederate dead at Chancellorsville, May 1863

Subjected to stresses like these, the bonds holding the white South together began to fray. In some cases, they snapped. In some cases, indeed, they snapped quite early, as in the four so-called loyal border states as well as western Virginia and eastern Tennessee. Elsewhere, disaffection and demands that the Confederate government find a way to bring the war to an end became widespread by the end of 1862, elsewhere during 1863 and afterward. Desertion increased, and armed bands of deserters and draft resisters formed in a number of states.

Military successes, especially in the eastern war theater, could bolster morale and (by making a Confederate victory seem imminent) limit such discontent. But Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga dealt severe blows to such rosy expectations. By the end of 1864, the handwriting was pretty clear on the wall. Lincoln had been re-elected handily, Lee was besieged in Petersburg and Richmond, Sherman had taken Atlanta and was cutting roughly through Georgia on his way to the coast. Even many who remained attached in their hearts to the Confederacy and all it stood for found it hard to continue fighting and dying as hopes of somehow achieving victory winked out.

I’d like to add something here, if I may. As you know, a debate has been raging for years among historians about whether the South lost the war for “internal” reasons (because it lacked unity and morale) or “external” reasons (because of battlefield losses that were caused by other factors and that eroded the Confederacy’s political cohesion and sapped its fighting spirit). Although some reviewers perceive my book as a battery in support of the “internal” argument, I didn’t intend it to be that. As I said above (and tried to make clear in the book), the heavy blows that the Union army dealt to southern society, directly and indirectly, were crucial to the growth of discontent within the Confederacy.

BK: One of the obvious changes in the way historians understand the war in recent years has been the fundamental reappraisal of the slaves’ role in undermining the Confederacy. We’ve come a long way from William E. Woodward’s declaration, in 1925, that African Americans were “the only people in the history of the world…that ever became free without any effort of their own.” Today I suspect it would be difficult to find a college history classroom where the central role of the slaves in linking the war with their own emancipation is not openly acknowledged, and some scholars go quite a bit further. Your own account dismisses Woodward’s fable about “happy, contented Negroes,” but it also suggests we need to qualify the assumption that slaves across the South jumped at the first opportunity to desert their masters or throw in their allegiance with the Union. Can you elaborate?

BL: Much work about enslaved peoples (and, indeed, other oppressed and exploited groups) seems defined by a struggle between an often over-eager search for “agency” and a mounting over-reaction against such a search. I am trying to make a realistic appraisal of what American slaves wished to do, hoped to do, and were actually in a position to do. Only in San Domingue was any population of slaves able to destroy slavery by their own efforts alone. For a whole range of reasons, slaves in the U.S. were not in a position to do that prior to 1861. It took what both David Walker and John Quincy Adams anticipated decades earlier — the eruption of full-scale war between North and South — to allow thousands and thousands of slaves to act effectively in ways that helped directly to break the system down. The trickle of successful antebellum escapes from slavery could now swell into a flood, a hundreds of thousands of recently-enslaved men (and, of course, already-free black men) could actually serve and fight in the armies that destroyed the slaveholders’ state. But whether any given person would or could join in that process was shaped by a number of factors, including that individual’s personal qualities (including courage/audacity and desperation), his or her understanding of what the Civil War was about and who was likely to win it, and the proximity of Union armies. On the last score, Susan O’Donovan’s fine book, Becoming Free in the Cotton South, reminds us how limited was the agency of slaves during the war in places far from Union lines — and, for that matter, how that kind of wartime experience limited what was likely after the war as well.

BK: There is a long-running debate over the effects of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: some argue that since it freed only those slaves under Confederate jurisdiction, it was virtually meaningless as a practical measure. Your study suggests that the effects were far more profound: that the measure had a tangible effect even in territory that the Union had not yet conquered, and that by late 1863 and 1864, slavery as an institution was finished, or at least seriously crippled.

BL: There are widespread misunderstandings of many aspects of wartime emancipation. A number of authors will tell you, for example, that the Second Confiscation Act (1862) freed virtually no slaves. That assertion is wildly off-base. It arises, I think, from confusing two distinct provisions of the law, one dealing with confiscating slaves and another with confiscating non-human forms of property. The second part did indeed have limited effect for various reasons. But the first part certainly did facilitate the confiscation and emancipation of many Confederate slaves during the second half of 1862.

A similar claim that the Emancipation Proclamation was toothless has far less support among modern scholars but a good deal more in parts of the general public. That claim arose during the war years, when both Confederates and northern Democrats deliberately misrepresented the proclamation’s significance in order to demean its issuance as supposedly hypocritical. Here is Lincoln, they said, leaving those slaves living in the Union still in chains while declaring free precisely those slaves in the Confederacy over which he actually has no control.

It is of course true that — primarily for legal/constitutional reasons — the proclamation applied directly only to slaves living in as-yet unoccupied parts of the Confederacy and not to the four slave states still in the Union. But its issuance nonetheless had very real consequences for Confederate slaves. It meant, for one thing, that, thereafter, whenever Union armies advanced further into the Confederacy, they would bring freedom to all the slaves they encountered there. And—as indignant slaveowners in Missouri, Maryland, Kentucky, and even Delaware well understood—any blow directed at slavery within the Confederacy also indirectly undermined slavery within the so-called loyal slave states. The proclamation also encouraged Union officials, their radical-minded supporters within those states, and the slaves themselves to begin directly to dismantle slavery there, too.

As a result, about half a million slaves were free by the end of the war, and many who were still formally enslaved in the defeated states had by then begun to use the palpably weakened wartime position of their masters to increase their own freedom of action. Starting in late 1863, some individual Confederate masters and their political representatives began concluding that the blows by then already dealt to slavery had effectively destroyed it as an institution, no matter how the war ended. This was certainly the thinking behind Patrick Cleburne’s proposal in December 1863-January 1864 to offer freedom to male slaves who would fight for the Confederacy. And the same prognosis lay behind Jefferson Davis’s eleventh-hour decisions to adopt the Cleburne idea and even to offer initiating some form of gradual emancipation if only Britain and France would give him some kind of wartime assistance.

Were Confederates who judged slavery already dead by 1864 right? It’s hard to say. Had the Confederacy won the war, it would likely have begun trying to strengthen the bonds of slavery within its borders (unless, again, France and Britain had accepted Davis’s offer). How effective Confederate forces would have been in such a campaign is also difficult to guess.

BK: Let’s return to some of the issues raised at the outset of the interview. It must be a common experience for those who teach this period to come to the end of a semester, having discussed the collapse of Reconstruction and the harsh regime that later took hold, to find students concluding that despite the huge costs of the war, nothing fundamental had changed—that emancipation had delivered very little for freedpeople. And as we noted this is reflected in much of the recent historiography on the Civil War. You end your book with an acknowledgement that white elites were able to “avoid a radical alteration in southern society” but nevertheless insist that the war was “a worthwhile, necessary, and even glorious one.” How do you reconcile these two assertions?

BL: As a result of the Civil War and its aftermath, slavery’s destruction remained a central fact of postwar life. It’s certainly true that black field laborers found themselves saddled with a sharecropping system that exploited and oppressed them and kept most of them trapped in poverty. But that system never compared in severity and brutality with the work regime of the pre-war South. The southern elite never managed to effect a complete counter-revolution in the sense of restoring the status quo ante bellum. It would have liked to restore slavery but couldn’t. Which meant that millions of black Americans could not again be bought and sold like furniture or cattle. And that white landowners could never re-assert the degree of day-to-day control over black people that slavery had given them.

Rice Raft CroppedNor did those ex-masters ever succeed in reintroducing the kind of global controls embodied in the Black Codes promulgated during presidential reconstruction. In other words, they could not strip black people—even in the nadir of the Jim Crow era—of the greater freedom of action that accompanied emancipation. That fact had weighty consequences for the plantation system. Black field hands now successfully refused to work with the old intensity; they fought the return of gang labor, and they retained far more of the fruits of their own labors than was ever possible under slavery. In the process, they appreciably raised their living standards compared to antebellum times.

Just as (if not more) important, the rights—de facto as well as de jure—that black people won during and retained after emancipation increased immeasurably their ability to fight for greater freedom and equality of rights down the road. Strengthened family and community ties, access to education and political experience, the ability to leave the southern countryside for urban centers in the North as well as the South – all such gains helped the descendants of slaves not only to survive Jim Crow but eventually to triumph over it. It’s very hard to imagine how any of that would have been possible had slavery not been destroyed in the 1860s.

And for those who experienced, or heard, or read about what slavery’s enemies had accomplished during the 1860s, the memory of the second American revolution could provide hope and inspiration.

BK: Its hard not to be struck by the sheer range of your scholarship on the Civil War. Your Spirit of 1848 was one of a small handful of books that inspired me to apply for graduate study in history. My students have used Half Slave and Half Free for as long as I’ve been teaching the Civil War, and in recent years your Confederate Emancipation has been extremely important for cutting through what had for too long been a very confused (perhaps a contrived) debate on black ’service’ to the Confederacy. I expect that this most recent study will get heavy classroom use once its out in paperback. Where do you go from here? Is there another related project in the works?

BL: Thanks, Brian. That’s very kind of you. But it’s a mutual admiration society: I think very highly of your work on southern coal miners and now on Reconstruction.

Stevens 1868
Remains of Thaddeus Stevens Lying in State, 1868

My own next book looks at the life and times of Thaddeus Stevens. None of Stevens’s biographies, I think, has successfully rooted him in his specific time and place. That goes for earlier, rather hostile works (such as Richard Current’s Beardian portrait) as well as for the more recent, friendlier ones — notably Fawn Brodie’s psychobiography and Hans Trefousse’s deeply researched but rather narrowly focused recounting of Stevens’s life. As a result, the social and ideological roots of Stevens’s particular brand of democratic radicalism have not been adequately laid bare. I hope that putting him back in his actual setting — including the post-revolutionary Vermont of his birth and upbringing — will allow me not only to make better sense of who this individual was and why but also to re-examine the roots and flowering of popular antislavery sentiment in the North that made it possible for such an individual to become so influential a political figure in the 1850s and 1860s.

This study will also, I expect, allow me to re-examine some recently controversial subjects such as the rise of and divisions within the early Republican party, the nature and evolution of wartime Republican policy, and the strengths and weakness of the postwar attempt to remake the South into a more democratic and egalitarian society — to look more closely than I’ve previously don at the latter stages of the Second American Revolution.

Notes:

[1] Yael Sternhell, “Revisionism Reinvented? The Antiwar Turn in Civil War Scholarship,” Journal of the Civil War Era 3:2 (June 2013): 239-256

[2] Gary Wilder, “From Optic to Topic: The Foreclosure Effect of Historiographic Turns,” American Historical Review 117: 3 (June 2012): 723-745.

4 thoughts on “AS Interviews Historian Bruce Levine

  1. At least Levine mentioned desertions — the real reason the Confederacy collapsed. Too bad the “scholarship” on the US Civil War has to pander to the myth of Southern honor, bravery, and concern for states rights. Southern leaders hated states rights by 1861, and promised war if slavery was not spread — against the will of the people in Kansas, who voted a breathtaking 90% against slavery in one vote. Bet you didnt know that.

    The most basic fact of the US Civil War and secession, according to Southern leaders boasting of it at the time, was their goal of spreading slavery — by force if need be — for survival of the white race and for God.

    The lack of candor of the massive desertions is probably the next absurdity by “scholars”. Davis openly said in summer of 64 that 2/3 of the Confederate soldiers had deserted or otherwise gone AWOL. This was true of Lee’s supposed loyal men as well.

    Davis said if just half the Southern deserters came back, the South could not lose. He was probably right. But when have you heard that? Edward Pollard wrote at the time that the history of the Civil War would be shameful for the South because of the massive numbers of Southern deserters. By the final weeks, there was essentially no group left that were fooled by Southern leaders BS, Lee said his army “evaporated”. Lee would tell his men GOD would decide — but when he was in danger, he let his ability to run and surrender the entire army, decide.

    Lee sure was comfortable sending others to die and let God sort it out, but he wasn’t about to let God decide his fate. The deserters werent stupid, they were smar. Those that remained physically, of rank and file, would not obey orders to die for the cause of spreading slavery for GOD — the original loud and proud justification for secession and Civil War in the first place.

    1. Thanks for your comment Mark, though I’m not sure who you’re arguing against here. Levine would have no reason to shy away from acknowledging the impact of increasingly widespread desertion on the CSA’s ability to fight: in fact Fall of the House of Dixie deals with it extensively, as does much of the recent scholarship.

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