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A New Book Explores the Psychology of Civil War Southerners

While the Confederate states fought together for the cause of slavery and secession from the United States, not all fought for the same reasons. Poor men and rich men had diverse interests to defend in the Civil War, and opinion varied widely both between and within slave states.
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House of Dixie

© Penguin Random House / penguinrandomhouse.com

September 22, 2023 22:59 EDT
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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 (1861–1865) with a deeper examination of public opinion in Confederacy.

Political opinion varied greatly among the slave states

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. That is why he did not abolish slavery in these states until the end of the war, whereas he liberated slaves elsewhere on January 1, 1863.

The most radical Southern advocates of leaving the Union to preserve slavery were to be found in the Deep South, notably South Carolina, where Confederate forces fired the first shots 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.

The Deep South states produced cotton and other crops, using a plantation system that would not have been workable without slave labor. The other states had more diversified economies.

A majority of the white population in 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. Slaveowning was profitable. Poor whites, on the other hand, were driven into low-paying, casual work because of competition from the slave system.

So 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. Poor whites also feared that, if slaves became free, their status as relatively superior to them would be lost.

African Americans during and after the Civil War

The conditions for slaves was appalling. Masters whipped their slaves for transgressions. In practice, many of them could not marry, because a husband could be sold to an owner different from the one who 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 manpower for the Confederate Army was scarce towards the end of the war. An Irish general in the Confederate Army, Patrick Cleburne, proposed that Blacks be recruited to the 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, the Confederate forces recruited very few Blacks, largely because the promise of liberation was confined to the soldier himself, and not to his wife and children.

On that note, what did happen 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 confiscated land in the state was allocated by Union General William Sherman to be given in 40-acre lots to former slaves. But in other places, the confiscated land was sold off, at a discount, to speculators from the North. Elsewhere, freedmen 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 freedmen.

There is one issue, very topical today, which Levine touches 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 of that speech was John Wilkes Booth, an actor. On hearing this suggestion, Booth immediately set about plotting to murder President Lincoln, an enterprise which he unfortunately 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.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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