Understanding The Confederacy And Reconstruction

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF DIXIE: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that
Transformed the South by Bruce Levine.  439 pp, maps and over 40 illus. in b/w.  Random House,
New York  2013. USA $30.00   ISBN 978-1-4000-6703-9

THE WARS OF RECONSTRUCTION:  The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive
Era by Douglas R. Egerton. 438 pp., b/w illus. throughout. 2014.  Bloomsbury Press, New York
$30.00  ISBN 978-1-60819-566-4

By Frank Cummins

While Dr. Levine says little about Thaddeus Stevens, I wholeheartedly recommend both his and the
Egerton book to members of our Society.  They can be invaluable references as we work to refresh
the reputation of our much-vilified Hero and work to advance his banner of equality for all.

Levine's The Fall of the House of Dixie focuses on the American South and slavery from the eve of
the Civil War to its conclusion.  While not completely ignoring the battles and military side of the
conflict, the book concentrates on the political, economic and social developments within the
Confederacy, noting how internal contradictions within slavery helped bring down that institution --
not unlike the hidden fissures that led to collapse of Poe's fictional House of Usher.

To today's defenders - open or disguised - of the antebellum South and those who claim that the
Civil War was provoked by abolitionist aggression against 'states rights.'  Professor Levine
demonstrates that the war by the South was launched to preserve slavery.  Quoting from
contemporary letters, editorials, public and private papers, he describes how the slave-owning elites -
particularly, the ten thousand families that each held 50 or more slaves - saw the South as the
richest, most masculine, socially-stable, and politically-powerful section of the nation.

The Prewar Slave Power held disproportionate, often dominating, roles in the national legislature,
judicial and executive branches (i.e., of President Lincoln's 15 predecessors, eight were slavemasters
and four others were pro-slavery).  Of the South's 12 million people, more than one-third were in
bondage.  Even the three-fourths of the South's white population who had no slaves were united
with the elites as the Confederacy was formed in late 1860.  From the pulpit to the printing house,
virtually every segment of the southern people (apart from the black bondsmen) supported slavery
and few argued again succession.

By the end of 1865, war and social revolution had changed that. The House of Dixie had collapsed.
The Union was preserved.  And, legal slavery was officially dead.  Bruce Levine tells this story in
enlightening and engrossing detail.

Perhaps, even more gripping is the story of the South after Lee's surrender and Lincoln's
assassination.  In his The Wars of Reconstruction, Douglas Egerton writes of the abolition of
slavery, the enfranchising of former slaves and their entry into political life, the generally protective
role of Union troops (both white and black) during the all-to-brief  'new birth of freedom,' coupled
with  the work of the Freedmen's Bureau, the establishing of schools across the South to bring
education to tens of thousands of eager young (and old) black minds and the thirst among former
slaves for self-dependency.  Egerton calls Reconstruction "the nation's most progressive" era.  He
effectively denies the all-too-common misconception that Reconstruction was a corrupt period of
unjust oppression of Southern whites. On the contrary, he recounts in often horrific detail the waves
of assassinations, lynchings and widespread violence inflicted on freedmen and their sympathizers
by entrenched, unrepentant white supremacists. Terrorism (by no means limited to that of the
newly-created Klu Klux Klan),  Andrew Johnson's obstructionist policies, the enactment of Black
Codes,  the withdrawal of Union forces from the South, and the Republican Party's ultimate
refocusing on capitalism/industrialization -- all contributed to the end of Reconstruction, leaving
segregation and social, economic and political inequality virtually intact in the South until the
mid-20th century.

Professor Egerton devotes the closing chapters of his book to - what he calls - the "Reconstruction
Era Memory."  Here he contrasts the views advanced by W. E. B. Du Bois (Black Reconstruction)
and John Hope Franklin (From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans) with those in
Tennessee journalist George Fort Milton's The Age of Hate (in which Thaddeus Stevens is called  
the 'Caliban of the House') and the anti-Reconstruction analyses of historians William A. Dunning, J.
F. Ford and others of their persuasion both South and North.  Prof. Egerton also examines the
negative treatment of abolition and Reconstruction by the film industry (The Birth of a Nation, The
Nigger, Tennessee Johnson and surely the most powerfully-effective distortion of all - Gone with the
Wind).

Thaddeus Stevens' role in Reconstruction and the Great Commoner's commitment to education and
equality are described in The Wars of Reconstruction.   Stevens is given appropriate credit for his
legislative achievements and his battles with President Andrew Johnson.  More than three pages are
taken up with Stevens' death and his relationship with Lydia Hamilton Smith.   I was touched by
these lines by Professor Egerton:
".... The alliance, whatever its precise nature, between Stevens and Smith personified the grander
union forming between black Americans and progressive Republicans by the last moments of 1866,
as politicians such as Stevens, horrified by the Black Codes and the rising tide of white violence,
embraced earlier black demands for civil and voting rights ..."

In sum, these are two books worthy of study and a place on your bookshelf.

Frank Cummins, a former naval officer, broadcaster and foreign service officer, spent nearly 40
years with the Voice of America and the U. S. Information Agency. His assignments included
Washington, Lebanon, Pakistan, Nigeria and Germany. After retiring from the government in 1997,
he has worked as an international consultant for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and
National Public Radio.  He lives in Lancaster with his wife Christine.