Few experiences are as exhilarating as watching a bully being brought to his knees. And if his former victims have had a hand in his collapse, it’s all the more delicious. That, in essence, is the scene Bruce Levine presents in The Fall of the House of Dixie as he traces the smug rise and ignominious fall of the Confederacy in America’s Civil War. Levine offers a fresh perspective on this oft-told story by relying heavily on personal letters, journals and diaries to reveal just how vile, self-serving and, ultimately, delusional the slaveholders were.

Brushing aside the notion that slavery was merely one of many issues over which the war was fought, Levine, a professor of history at the University of Illinois, shows that it was at the center of everything—the economy, culture, social relationships and worldview. While it was true that most Southerners didn’t own slaves, those most active in the push for secession did—and they were the ones who stood to gain the most if the war went their way. After describing the brutal conditions under which slaves lived, Levine then quotes a series of masters on how happy and contented their slaves are with their lot. “A fascinating quality of the human mind is its ability to hold firmly and simultaneously two contradictory ideas,” he observes wryly.

The dynamics of the war, even when the South seemed to be winning, made slavery increasingly untenable. Both sides needed their labor for military purposes, which gave blacks a certain leverage. With the men of the plantations away, it was more difficult to keep the slaves subdued and productive at home—and impossible to keep them from hearing the siren call of liberation, especially as Northern armies took control of the Mississippi and the vital port of New Orleans, and as General Sherman’s forces did their scorched-earth march from Atlanta to Savannah. Yet many slaveholders, instead of becoming gallantly self-sacrificing when the South needed them most, clung to their sense of entitlement, refusing to contribute war materials, pay higher taxes or allow their slaves to be used for the common good. Nobody was going to tell them what to do.

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