In the middle of the nineteenth century, southern writers and politicians boasted often—and with considerable justification—that their states were the richest, most socially stable, and most politically powerful in the United States as a whole. Southern farms and plantations yielded handsome profits to their owners, who were some of the wealthiest people in the country, and the southern elite had controlled all three branches of the federal government during most of its existence. At the root of all this economic and political power lay the institution of slavery—an institution that, as the former slave Frederick Douglass would later recall, then “seemed impregnable.” Few could then have imagined, he noted, “that in less than ten years from that time, no master would wield a lash and no slave would clank a chain in the United States.”1
But what almost no one foresaw in 1860 is exactly what came to pass. In Mark Twain’s words, the Civil War and its aftermath “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country.”2 The most important and dramatic of these transformations was the radical destruction of slavery. About one out of every three people in the South suddenly emerged from bondage into freedom, a change of such enormous significance and full of so many implications as almost to defy description.
For the South’s ruling families, meanwhile, the war turned the world upside down. It stripped them of their privileged status and their most valuable property. It deprived them of the totalitarian power they had previously wielded over the men, women, and children who produced most of the South’s great wealth. “The events of the last five years,” a Memphis newspaper editor summarized in 1865, “have produced an entire revolution in the entire Southern country. The old arrangement of things is broken up.”3 The ex–Confederate general Richard Taylor lodged the same complaint that year. “Society has been completely changed by the war,” he wrote. Even the stormy French Revolution of the previous century “did not produce a greater change in the ‘Ancien Régime’ than has this in our social life.”4 Abraham Lincoln applauded this “total revolution of labor” as “a new birth of freedom.”5 Black South Carolinians cheered this “mighty revolution which must affect the future destiny of the world.”6
Even as it upended society in the South, the Civil War era transformed the shape of national politics in the United States as a whole. Beginning with Lincoln’s election in 1860, it finally broke the southern elite’s once-iron grip on the federal government and drove its leaders into the political wilderness. Into the offices that planters and their friends had previously occupied there now stepped northerners with very different values, priorities, and outlooks. These new men used their political might to encourage the growth and development of manufacturing, transportation, finance, and commerce and thereby sped the country’s transformation into the economic colossus familiar to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Under the hands of these same men, meanwhile, the post–Civil War federal government assumed key roles previously assigned to the states, including the power and the responsibility to safeguard the freedom and rights of the nation’s citizens—citizens whose ranks now expanded to include millions of former slaves. Constitutional amendments adopted in the war’s aftermath laid the legal basis for and pointed the way toward transforming the United States into a multiracial republic.
Relatively few people today are aware of just how all this happened. Although “the military movements connected with the Civil War are well known,” a witness to those events commented decades afterward, “the great mass of American people know but little, and so think less” about the destruction of slavery and all that it entailed.7 That observation holds true after the passage of another century and more.
The Fall of the House of Dixie was written to help fill that gaping hole in our collective memory. It traces the origins and development of America’s “second revolution,” explaining why it occurred and how it unfolded—especially how this 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. In recent years many scholarly books and articles have analyzed the Civil War’s momentous consequences. But bookstore shelves allotted to the Civil War are to this day filled principally with detailed accounts of armies, officers, and the battles they fought, great and small. Nearly every major study of the Civil War as a whole—especially those aimed at a wide audience—continues to take the military story as its organizing principle and narrative spine.
The Fall of the House of Dixie by no means ignores that subject. The slave-based society of the American South required powerful blows to break it along its lines of internal stress. Union armies delivered those blows—blows that therefore make up a crucial part of the story told in this book. But the chapters that follow focus especially upon the transformation of that war from a conventional military conflict into a revolutionary struggle. And they emphasize the ways in which very different groups of people—slave owners, slaves, the great mass of slaveless southern whites, and both Union and Confederate soldiers, black as well as white—experienced and helped to bring about what one newspaper at the time called “the greatest social and political revolution of the age.”8