A STRUGGLE THAT HAS MODERN RELEVANCE
I really enjoyed reading “The Fall of the House of Dixie” written by Bruce Levine and published by Random House. It combines a succinct account of the origins and course of the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865, with a deeper examination of public opinion in Confederacy.
The range of opinion in the states that permitted slavery, was wide.
Indeed four “slave states”, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and Missouri never left the Union at all.. President Lincoln was keen to keep these states in the Union and that is why he did not abolish slavery in these states until the end of the War, whereas he liberated slaves elsewhere on 1 January 1863.
The most radical Southern advocates of leaving the Union to preserve slavery , were to be found in the Deep South, notably South Carolina ,whose state forces fired the first shot of the War.
Other more northerly states, like Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas, initially declined to join the Confederacy until forced to take sides by the course of events
During my five years closely observing US politics as EU Ambassador in Washington, I noted that, even to this day, these latter states tend to have a more moderate political stance than Deep South states.
Even within parts of states, voting patterns dating back to the stance taken in the Civil War, persist to this day eg in Eastern Tennessee
The “Deep South” states produced cotton and other crops, using a Plantation System, which would not have been workable without slave labour. The other states had other options.
A majority of the white population in the Confederate states did not own slaves, but slaves made up a significant share of the wealth of those who did, which explains why this section of the white population went to such lengths to protect slavery.
As the slave trade had been abolished in 1808, slaves were valuable in financial terms. Slave owning was profitable. Poor whites , on the other hand, were driven into badly paid casual work because of competition from the slave system.
Why did non slave owning whites fight so hard to protect slavery?
I think this can be partly explained by an almost religious sense of racial superiority, and by a fear of loss of relative status ,if slaves became free.
The condition of slaves was appalling. Slaves were whipped by their masters for transgressions.
In practice many of them could not marry, because a husband could be sold to a different owner to the one that bought his wife.
In some states, slaves were forbidden to be educated. Even to this day, there is a lack of investment in basic education in some of the former Confederate States.
The deep racism that underlay slavery came to light when, towards the end of the war, manpower for the Confederate Army was scarce. An Irish general in the Confederate Army, Patrick Cleburne, proposed that Blacks be recruited to Confederate Army in return for being freed of slavery.
The Confederate War Department rejected the proposal on the grounds that Black people would not be suitable for military service on grounds of “natural dullness, cowardice and indolence”. This was racist ideological rubbish , as shown by the exceptional bravery of the Black Americans who fought in the Union Army. Black soldiers in the Union Army, if captured, were likely to be executed in defiance of the conventions of war.
In the end, very few were recruited, to the Confederate forces, largely because the promise of liberation was confined to the soldier himself, and not to his wife and children.
What happened to the liberated slaves after the war was over?
This question is not explored as fully in this book as I would have liked. In Georgia, a large part of the confiscated land in the state was allocated by Union General William Sherman to be given in 40 acre holding to former slaves.
But in other places, the confiscated land was sold off, at a discount, to speculators from the North. Elsewhere the ex slaves were left to their own devices.
Indeed an attempt was made to reintroduce elements of slavery through so called “black codes” which restricted free movement, and wage bargaining by ex slaves.
There is one issue , very topical today, which is touched on briefly….voting rights for African Americans.
In an impromptu speech, delivered just after the War had ended, President Lincoln suggested that the newly liberated African Americans might be given the right to vote. One of the people in the audience for that speech was John Wilkes Booth, an actor . On hearing this suggestion, Booth immediately set about plotting to murder President Lincoln, an enterprise which unfortunately he completed successfully.
As I said at the outset, this is an excellent book. It relies on private correspondence, as well as public statements, to gain insights into public opinion in the Confederacy.