Book Review: The Fall Of The House Of Dixie

The Fall Of The House Of Dixie:  The Civil War And The Social Revolution That Transformed The South, by Bruce Levine

This book was one of two books given to me as an early birthday present by my mum [1], and the book’s title is a reference to the Edgar Allen Poe tale “The Fall Of The House Of Usher,” which the author perceptively refers to with regards to the fissures and cracks that developed in the edifice of Southern antebellum society during the course of the Civil War that led to the destruction of the privileged life of the planter elite and the liberation of their human chattel from slavery despite the strong racism within American society as a whole before, during, and after the Civil War itself.  As an excellent example of social history [2], the work focuses on the actions of ordinary people like slaveowners and slaves and Yankee soldiers as well as political elites like Presidents and generals, giving a moderately revisionist view that gives full credit to Abraham Lincoln for his actions, however belated, to rid the nation of slavery and subject the institution even in loyal slave states to the abrasion of war, and that credits those who were able to follow the logic of events that an essential way of subduing the rebellion of the Deep South was by striking at the cruel and inhumane core of its wicked slave-based society.  The book, as a result, is a gripping read of about 300 pages of material with lengthy bibliographic sources that demonstrate the author’s erudition and mastery of the relevant primary documents to undertake his task.

The contents of this book are arranged in a mostly chronological fashion with some additional thematic layers of organization as well.  After an introduction that compares the House of Dixie to the House of Usher based on some writing by a plantation mistress who commented on having read some Edgar Allen Poe, but not his more frightening stories, the book introduces the House of Dixie, discusses the revolt of slaveholders in late 1860 and early 1861 and its origins as an attempt to secure slaveholding in an age of increasing insecurity.  From here the author turns to examining the early portents of conflict, the changing Union policy in response to the logic of events by which harming slavery helped the Union efforts, the dark clouds that the Confederacy faced in 1863, the concerns about the future of blacks after slavery, and then several chapters that contain structural elements of the discussion of the late Civil War in dealing with cracks in the wall widening, a ray of light shining briefly through the rafters, and the feeling of shuddering timbers before the walls give way at the fall of the Confederacy and the oblivion of Southern slaveowning society.  The conclusion seeks to rejoice while also pointing to the imperfections of the postwar racial order.

There are a few aspects that make this book particularly valuable.  One is that it is obvious that the author sought to understand slavery through a deep reading of source material including the letters of soldiers, black and white, as well as the writings of slaves and slaveowners during the period before, during, and even after the Civil War.  The book as a whole deals with themes of immense importance, including the way that religious doctrine can often be self-serving in social injustice and great evil.  The capacity of people to justify their own sins and the desire of people to have those sins protected by the power of the law, with their enemies silenced to appease their own insecurities is not a matter of interest merely for those of us who study the 19th century, but it is an aspect of contemporary political history as well.  By giving voice to a variety of people and pointing to the complexity of the situation of the South during the Civil War, and the incompleteness of Northern victory but the transformative importance of the end of slavery, this book prompts us to reflect upon the way that revolution is appealing to some and utterly frightening to others, and that justice is elusive to gain and maintain, all matters it is worthwhile to reflect upon.  The author manages the difficult task of intensely criticizing the biases of slaveowners without making them appear ridiculous or inhuman, and by giving dignity to the sometimes idiomatic thoughts and reflections of often unlearned former slaves showing their grasp of the situation they faced, and the difficulty of dealing with the tangle of longings and goals of different parties in the aftermath of destructive civil conflict.  For those who appreciate social history and have an interest in the Civil War, this is a good book to add to one’s collection.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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8 Responses to Book Review: The Fall Of The House Of Dixie

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