January/ February 2013 Dixie’s Enemy Within

How the ideology of white supremacy undermined the South’s own war effort.

By Colin Woodard

Wars have often unleashed forces the warring parties hadn’t expected and couldn’t control. The Thirty Years’ War began as a struggle between religions but gave birth to the modern system of secular states, while World War I profoundly undermined the legitimacy of the British aristocracy and the stability of that country’s global empire.

The U.S. Civil War, University of Illinois historian Bruce Levine argues in his new book, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South, was no exception. Southerners launched the war to preserve slavery, and President Abraham Lincoln responded to save the Union. Ironically, the stresses and necessities of a near-total war quickly began to corrode the Confederate slave system from within and pushed an ambivalent Union to embrace emancipation to ensure victory in the field.

“A war launched to preserve slavery succeeded instead in abolishing that institution more rapidly and more radically than would have occurred otherwise,” Levine writes. “[The] ideology of white supremacy, which had always provided critical support for slavery, inhibit[ed] the slaveholders’ government from doing what it needed to do to survive.”

Many hundreds of books have been written on the Civil War in the century since it began, but Levine feels too many of these have concentrated on the movements of armies, and too few on the effect the war itself had on the societies that were fighting it, and on the slave system in particular. The Fall of the House of Dixie is intended “to help fill that gaping hole in our collective memory,” tracing how a “great and terrible war undermined the economic, social, and political foundations of the old South, destroying human bondage and the storied world of the slaveholding elite.”

The result is a compelling, readable, and informative account of perhaps the war’s most significant accomplishment and how it came about. While U.S. history buffs may find many of the details familiar—William Freehling has covered much of this terrain in various volumes, and Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln shares its theme—it’s clarifying to have them assembled in one place. Those less familiar with the conflict will profit from starting their education here.

Levine’s title is a play on Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, which features an outwardly intimidating edifice concealing a fatal structural flaw that brings its collapse. He shows that while the Deep Southern plantation system that had appeared impregnable in the 1850s—producing staggering wealth for the autocrats who built and defended it—turned out to be so riven with deep, structural cracks that it proved too brittle to survive a protracted military conflict.

Firstly, much of what was thought of as “the South” did not wish to go to war to serve the interests of aristocratic slave lords, many of whom held poor whites and the rough and rugged people of the hills and mountains in more contempt than their slaves. West Virginians seceded from Virginia in order to stay in the Union, and the people of eastern Tennessee, northern Alabama, and swaths of North Carolina tried to follow them out of the Confederacy. Kentuckians never left at all. By late 1863, anti-Confederate guerillas had taken over large swaths of the Arkansas and Georgia hill countries. “The condition of things in the mountain districts,” Confederate Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell warned, “menaces the existence of the Confederacy as fatally as either of the armies of the United States.”

Lowland whites rallied to the Stars and Bars in 1861. Like their Appalachian neighbors, they generally had few qualms about slavery and had internalized the white supremacist ideology that sustained it. But they also lived in regions where the enslaved comprised a third, half, or more of the population. “The great mass of non-slaveholders in the South, and especially in the cotton States,” Texas secessionist W. S. Oldman argued, shared the planters’ “interest in social order and domestic peace, which were threatened to be destroyed by the emancipation of slaves [who would] … riot without restraint.” The belief that the Yankees would be quickly routed fueled early enthusiasm.

But the war dragged on for years, with much of the fighting taking place within the Confederacy. Long before Appomattox, this fighting had dealt slavery, and the underpinnings of lowland Southern society, several mortal wounds.

Levine makes clear both that the South seceded to protect slavery—as anyone who wades into the primary sources knows—and that the Union at large fought to save the Union. That said, he also shows that “a war to save the Union was necessary in 1861 only because a political party that denounced slavery and menaced its future in the Union had won the support of a clear majority of northern voters in 1860. If secession had caused the war, therefore, it was the sharpening conflict over slavery that had caused secession.” Nor were “northern” concerns centered only on whether slavery would be allowed to expand to new territories. It had become a threat to democracy throughout the United States. Slaveholders came down hard on any Southern whites who criticized slavery—those who did were driven from pulpits, classrooms, and newsrooms—but they also worked to ban both the distribution of abolitionist materials by the U.S. Postal Service and speaking against slavery in the U.S House. Slavery was coming to threaten liberties of free people in the free states.

Still, federal forces initially had no intention of freeing slaves when they invaded Southern territory, but military expediency pushed many commanders in that direction. Some seized human “property” as contraband, effectively freeing slaves from bondage by declaring them federal property. This drew thousands of slaves to flee to Union lines, weakening Southern production and filling up federal forts and encampments with people often eager to provide intelligence, build fortifications, or even take up arms when allowed to do so. Lincoln pushed back, fearful of upsetting the fragile political coalition of “border state” slaveholders, Yankee abolitionists, and pro-slavery, pro-Union patriots the war effort depended on. But as the war went on, most members of the coalition came to accept what Frederick Douglass had called the “inexorable logic of events.” As Union lines expanded southward, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people had tasted freedom. Returning them to bondage would be morally questionable and practically impossible. From 1862, captured and runaway slaves were emancipated and even welcomed into the Union army.

For Confederates, the increasing military burdens tested public commitment to the war. Slaveholders were insulted when the government tried to force them to provide slaves to support the war effort or to join the army even if they felt they had more important things to do. Such policies—which grew more draconian as the South’s position deteriorated—“violated political, social, and other cultural imperatives and taboos.” This included “keeping government small and weak, extolling local and state sovereignty over that of a national government, and keeping black people firmly subordinated and strictly excluded from many spheres of life.” Planters refused to grow food for the army instead of cotton for profit. Critical fortifications were left unfinished because they refused to loan slaves to accomplish the task. Morale in Confederate ranks was eroded when well-connected plantation owners passed laws giving their families special exemptions from conscription.

Southerners had long claimed that black people liked being enslaved because many of them realized they were incapable of providing for themselves. Serving whites was supposedly their “manifest destiny” and the best fate any of them could have. This ideological holding always stood uneasily alongside the slave lords’ oft-expressed fears of a slave uprising and the draconian measures they took to keep their property compliant. But the war laid bare this lie. As Union forces approached, house servants and field hands who’d outwardly expressed loyalty to their masters suddenly abandoned them. Levine quotes one disillusioned Southern belle, Honoria Cannon, saying she sometimes wished “there was not a negro left in the country,” although “learning to do our own work would be hard.”

If having their slaves abandon them was a hard blow to planter ideology, seeing many of them return as brave and disciplined Union soldiers was the knockout punch. Black volunteers served bravely in unit after unit, belying the notion that they didn’t want the freedom and were incapable of fighting for it. General Robert E. Lee thought Lincoln’s arming of the slaves a “savage and brutal policy,” as it would consign “our social system” to “destruction” and a “degradation worse than death.”

Reeling from these shocks, white Southern unity began to collapse. Poor soldiers abandoned their units in droves and made their way home to help their families grow food. Anti-Confederate guerilla bands spread across the uplands. Some political leaders did the unthinkable—suggesting blacks be armed and encouraged to defend the Confederacy in exchange for freedom. Clearly a war to defend slavery had lost its central aim.

By war’s end, Congress had passed a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery and various Northern states had begun dismantling some of the laws that made blacks second-class citizens. This “second American Revolution” would be substantially rolled back, of course, with the end of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow laws, which would last another hundred years, supported by more or less the same white supremacist ideology that had sustained slavery. Still, the House of Dixie would never be fully restored.

Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”

Colin Woodard is State and National Affairs Writer at the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram and author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.


  • DRF on January 16, 2013 10:11 AM:

    Woodard describes the irony of the South starting a war in order to preserve slavery when that war resulted in the end of slavery. The implication is that the South made a strategic mistake.

    However, it has been my understanding that the Southern states seceded from the Union, not because Lincoln threatned to abolish slavery (which, of course, he went to some pains to assure thm was not his goal), but because the foresaw the inevitable abolishment of slavery and the South's loss of power in the Union.

    The Republicans campaigned on a platform of prohibiting the expansion of slavery to new territories (and future states). The South realized that if this policy prevailed, as new territories were developed and pressed for admission as states, eventually the slave-holding states would become a minority and slavery would eventually be abolished. From their perspective, there was no way they could remain in the Union and preserve slavery.

  • Werewolf on January 16, 2013 10:29 AM:


    Yes, slavery would have ended anyway-and the slavers knew it. Woodard's point was that it ended sooner because of the war. Had the South stayed in the Union, it would have been another generation at least before the free states could outvote the South on the issue of slavery.

  • Daniel Buck on January 16, 2013 3:41 PM:

    @DRF, that's more or less it, except that it was not "the South" as much as the red-hots in the plantation south the ignited secession. And not that they realized slavery would eventually be abolished, as much as they understood it would not be expanding. If they had cooled their jets, they might have enjoyed, if that's the word, another several decades of slavery. A weird lesson in the benefits of compromise that the red hots of today might ponder. Dan

  • Rick B on January 16, 2013 4:18 PM:

    The problem was that the largest group of wealthy men in America up to the beginning of the Civil War were the plantation slaveholders of the South. The exploitation of the unpaid slave labor force created their wealth and the slaves themselves were the property they owned which made up most of their wealth.

    This was a rather strange period in the early part of Industrialism. The sugar and cotton produced by the slaves was the raw material of which industrialism was created. Those international commodities were the equivalent of today's oil in international trade. The American and Brazilian plantation owners were the equivalent of today's oil sheiks in the middle east. Only the slaves would not run out. They reproduced, unlike oil fields.

    Great wealth moves heaven and earth to protect itself. Always. Look at the Koch brothers. And the wealthy do not look long-term any more than Wall Street banks and traders do.

    The plantation owners with their slaves had spent nearly two centuries creating a culture in the South that was militarized and racist because that was what created and protected their wealth and the resulting aristocratic social position. The greater the threat to their position and wealth grew, the shorter the time horizon they considered in protecting their position.

    No, they did not think long term. The threat was immediate and desperate, so any short-term desperate effort to protect their wealth was welcomed and grabbed onto.

    Those of us with the distance of time, education and no dog in the hunt will find their behavior quite self-defeating. But they could not see that because the wolf was immediately at their door - and for the most part as people who inherited their wealth instead of creating it themselves they are quite ignorant to start with.

    (Again, consider the Koch brothers. Inheritors of wealth will for the most part find themselves controlled by protecting the wealth they could not otherwise themselves have created and accumulated. Again, wealth defends itself because of its power.)

  • Sean Scallon on January 18, 2013 1:32 PM:

    There were many parts of the South which did not go along was very unenthusiastic about the war effort if you Cousins Wars by Kevin Phillips. You had the Free State of Jones in Mississippi, Eastern Tennessee, the mountain areas of northern Alabama and Georgia. South Florida and South Texas were not exactly hot for the Confederate cause either nor was hill country of Texas. Heck, the Vicksburg was Whig stronghold before the war. Afterwards it didn't celebrate the Fourth of July until World War II.

    The South was hardly a monolithic bloc when it came to the Confederacy and certainly after the surrender there were many that were ready to "move on". The surrender terms offered the Confederates by Lincoln and Sherman were generous enough. But Lincoln's assassination and determination by Radical Republicans on Congress to turn the South into a giant re-education camp created the "Solid South" afterward.

  • Jose Hipants on January 18, 2013 2:11 PM:

    The Civil War is one of the few cases where the losers got to write the history books. Most of the nation moved on after the war, industrializing, settling the west, etc. The southern leadership spent the postwar years writing and lecturing, creating the "lost cause" and "northern aggression" mythology.
    The country might have been better served by some executions.

  • bluestatedon on January 20, 2013 7:50 PM:

    "The country might have been better served by some executions."

    Whether or not executions might have been warranted in relation to treason is a question to ponder, but it's beyond naive to think that carrying them out would have reduced the Southern impulse for mythmaking. In fact, if you consider the well-established record of human behavior everywhere across the globe, executions would have had precisely the opposite effect you're apparently thinking they would have had.