TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After seeing the film "Lincoln," I was especially interested in reading the new book by my guest Bruce Levine. It's about how the Civil War ended the institution of slavery, destroyed the world of the slaveholding elite and transformed the South, as well as American politics.
The book is called "The Fall of the House of Dixie." About one out of every three people in the South suddenly emerged from bondage into freedom, he writes, a change of such enormous significance and full of so many implications as almost to defy description. Levine's book is also the story of how Lincoln changed course during the war. He went to war to compel the slave states to return to the Union and promised not to interfere with slavery in the seceding states.
But as the war dragged on, he decided to weaken the South by stripping it of its slave labor. Levine is the J. G. Randall Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois. He's an associated editor of the Civil War magazine North and South. This is his fourth book relating to the Civil War.
Bruce Levine, welcome to FRESH AIR. So let me just start by asking you what you thought of the movie "Lincoln."
BRUCE LEVINE: I had very mixed feelings about the film. On the one hand, it's a Civil War movie that very properly places slavery and the Republican Party's and Abraham Lincoln's determination to see slavery die at the center of the story, and that makes this an unusual Civil War film and a valuable Civil War film. And there are many things about the film that are very good and very strong and very commendable.
But on the other hand, I think it gives too little context about the story in which this tale actually unfolds. It leaves out key facts that explain the meaning of what we're seeing on the screen and how it is that these events took place: the prior course of the war; the important role especially that slaves and free blacks played in advancing the Union cause; the important role that they played in already breaking down slavery significantly long before the question of the 13th Amendment arose; and the growth of anti-slavery sentiment in the Union; and finally who initiated the idea of the 13th Amendment, which wasn't Abraham Lincoln.
GROSS: Who was it?
LEVINE: It was free blacks and the radical wing of the Republican Party, captured in the film by Tommy Lee Jones playing Thaddeus Stevens. These were the folks who, in 1863, and abolitionists, began to push very hard for amending the Constitution. And Lincoln was not on board until the summer of 1864.
GROSS: Well, you point out that when the Civil War started, President Lincoln had no intention of freeing the slaves. What did he want?
LEVINE: Lincoln wanted to bring the seceded states back into the Union as quickly and as peacefully as possible because he and his party had a plan to eventually, gradually, peacefully do away with slavery by legislative means. It was that intention, of course, that had led slave states to begin to secede, but neither Lincoln nor his party saw the resulting war as the instrument of abolition.
So what they hoped to do is find a way quickly to bring those states back in and then get on with the business of peacefully, gradually setting the stage for slavery's eventual extinction.
GROSS: So you're saying that Lincoln wanted to bring the states that had seceded back into the Union and then slowly back legislation that would end slavery?
GROSS: Lincoln's view of slavery evolved. What did he believe when he took office?
LEVINE: Well, Lincoln said he had believed since childhood, and I see no reason to doubt him, that this was an immoral institution, as well as a politically backward and economically stunting institution so that on all fronts it was objectionable. Lincoln believed, however, that previous constitutional provisions limited what either the people like him, people who opposed slavery, and the federal government as a whole could do about eliminating slavery within the states where it already existed.
They all, however, believed that slavery was a system that needed to expand in order to survive the way they say a shark needs to keep moving in order to breathe. So Lincoln and his party concluded in the mid-1850s that the way to eventually kill slavery constitutionally was to prevent it from spreading any further, and so his party placed at the center of its platform the pledge to outlaw slavery in all the then-extensive federal territories.
GROSS: And of course the South didn't like that.
LEVINE: No, they certainly did not like that. The South agreed that this was a system that needed to expand, and so they saw the handwriting on the wall. They also assumed that the accession of a Republican president would pose all sorts of other dangers in addition to their system, that Republicans would start appearing in the South, that Lincoln would make appointments of Republicans to customs houses and post offices, that those would form the nuclei of Republican Parties within the slave states, that those parties would then begin to attract disaffected white supporters, that their electoral campaigns would encourage slaves to rebel.
And so they greeted the appearance of the Republican Party, much less Lincoln's eventual election to the presidency, as a mortal threat, most of them did in any case.
GROSS: Well, getting back to what Lincoln believed about slavery, there was a period when he thought that slavery should end, but the slaves should, like, leave after they were freed because there was no way that America would work with slaves freed and then trying to be equal in the United States. What did he think was not going to work about that? What were his doubts?
LEVINE: Well, Lincoln believed that whites would not tolerate the existence of free blacks in such substantial numbers in their midst. That was his fundamental - at least that was the view that he specifically articulated, that these people moreover were too different. Lincoln did not look upon Africans as legitimate members at that point of American society.
He sympathized with them. He was sorry that they had been dragged here, and their ancestors had been dragged here from Africa. He sympathized with their plight, but he did not believe the country could exist with substantial numbers of free blacks, whether citizens and equal or not, alongside whites. And so he until the middle of the war kept attempting to convince free blacks and newly freed blacks to voluntarily emigrate.
GROSS: To where?
LEVINE: Well, there were various ideas about where to do that, in parts of Central America, perhaps South America, the Caribbean, perhaps Africa. There was, as you probably know, already a state in Africa, Liberia, created earlier in the century by emancipated blacks, and that was another possible site.
GROSS: So what changed Lincoln's mind and led him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863?
LEVINE: Well, his fundamental plan about what to do about slavery changed in the same way that those of the rest of his party changed, and that was the discovery that bringing the slave states back into the Union was not going to be nearly as easy nor nearly as quick a proposition as they had initially hoped. The white South was much too united in support of the Confederacy, and they were far more effective militarily than, again, Lincoln and others had apparently anticipated.
So by the middle of 1862, it has become clear to Lincoln that this essential source of support to the Confederacy - and that's what the four million slaves were, they had been the chief labor force in peacetime, they were now an important source of military strength to the Confederacy in wartime in all sorts of ways, though not as soldiers, as some people have claimed - that this source of Confederate strength had to be removed and in fact turned to the service of the Union, and emancipation was the way to do that.
Lincoln, it should be said, though, didn't pioneer that idea. Republicans in Congress had begun doing that in the first year of the war.
GROSS: So what were the limits, geographically, of the Emancipation Proclamation? Who did it cover? Who did it not extend to?
LEVINE: It extended solely to those slaves living in parts of the Confederacy not yet then occupied by Union forces, which meant that it excluded sections of Louisiana. According to another agreement that Lincoln struck, it excluded Tennessee as a whole. But with those (technical difficulty) and one or two other places on the Atlantic Coast that Union forces had managed to control by then, it applied to the entirety of the Confederacy still in existence.
It did not apply to the slaves living in the four slave states that then remained within the Union.
GROSS: Why didn't it apply to the slave states that remained in the Union or to the areas where Union forces had already taken over?
LEVINE: Well, this was a war measure. It was a measure based upon what Lincoln thought of as his special powers as a commander of Union military forces during the war and therefore only could apply in active theaters of war. So places already pulled behind Union lines he considered no longer to be subject to an edict like that, and that was the advice he had been given.
He had also reached an agreement with forces in Tennessee, which was half-occupied by that point, not to apply the Emancipation Proclamation there for political reasons, to encourage the return of the rest of the state to Union control.
GROSS: So the emancipation was very bold. It was also a bit of a compromise.
LEVINE: Well, it was - I wouldn't say so much that it was a compromise but that it was not global, which is one of the things that eventually brought Lincoln to embrace the idea of the 13th Amendment that would abolish slavery throughout the United States.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bruce Levine. He's the author of the new book "The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bruce Levine. He's the author of the new book "The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South."
So you were saying that President Lincoln didn't issue the Emancipation Proclamation until he was convinced that that was really going to help the war effort. Did it?
LEVINE: It certainly did, and we have much testimony to that effect. By the end of the Civil War, nearly 200,000 black men had served in either the Union Army or the Union Navy, and that alone was an enormous military assistance to the Union at a time when volunteering had fallen drastically and when there was a great deal of hostility to the draft.
So these 200,000 men significantly contributed to giving the Union armies the volume, the bulk, the size that they needed to cope with their Confederate opponents, and that gave the Union the power ultimately to overwhelm the opposition.
GROSS: And these - were these African-American men from the North or the South or both?
LEVINE: About 80 percent of them were from the South. Now yes, of course that leaves 20 percent from the North, and the well-known film "Glory" is about a unit primarily composed, in fact, the 54th Massachusetts, of Northern free blacks. But 80 percent of Union black soldiers had been slaves very shortly before being inducted into the war. So they're almost literally going straight from the fields into uniform.
GROSS: And joining the military for people who had been slaves was a step toward freedom, I mean literally. There was an act that was passed before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued that basically guaranteed slaves who ran away and entered the Union Army freedom.
LEVINE: That's right. By - there are two acts that the Republican-controlled Congress passed, in 1861 and then in 1862. They became known as the Confiscation Acts. And the first one in fact, the second one in law declared that any runaway slave reaching Union lines would become free.
GROSS: You reprint a fascinating recruitment poster courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, and I just want to read some of this. So this is a recruiting poster for African-American men. And it says: Men of color, to arms, to arms. Now or never, three years' service. Fail now, and our race is doomed. Our last opportunity has come. Men of color, brothers and fathers, we appeal to you, strike now.
Can you talk about their recruitment effort?
LEVINE: Yes, people like Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave and by this point major figure in the abolitionist movement, people like the escaped slave Garland White and a number of other long or recently emancipated black men, and women for that matter, went through the North, attempting to recruit, and went through sections of the by then occupied portions of the Confederacy recruiting black men into the Union Army using the themes that you quoted from that poster.
GROSS: And how effective was that recruitment effort?
LEVINE: Well, it was quite effective. It was not universally effective because there were at least some slaves who still believed what others had been telling them during most of the war, namely, quote, "this is a white man's war, stay out," end-quote; and others because having just been freed and finally given the opportunity to live the life of free men and women didn't relish the prospect of immediately being separated from their families and possibly killed before they could realize the benefits of that freedom.
But very, very large numbers, as the figures I quoted earlier indicated, responded very enthusiastically to the chance, finally, to in great numbers take organized, collective action in pursuit of the freedom of their people.
GROSS: You write: Nothing would more radically subvert the Confederacy's slave economy than sending black soldiers into slave country. Why?
LEVINE: Well, the black population of the South had been raised, quite literally raised, on the notion that among other things black men could not, of course, be soldiers, that black men were not courageous, black men were not disciplined, black men could not act in response in large numbers to military commands, black men would flee at the first opportunity when faced with battle.
And the idea that black men in uniform could exist and could then come down and offer them the opportunity to disprove these notions, and again, more importantly, actively struggle to do away with slavery was unbelievably attractive to huge numbers of black people. Here was a chance, in other words, not only to obtain freedom but to participate in the fight for freedom and prove themselves in the process.
GROSS: What were the roles within the military that black men were and were not given?
LEVINE: Well, let's start with the not end. Black men were almost never permitted to become officers, and those few who by the end of the war did become officers were chaplains, not unit commanders. There were sergeants but no higher than sergeants, I believe, in even the black units raised in the Union Army.
Furthermore, at the beginning of the period of black enlistment, black soldiers were pretty largely relegated to labor tasks rather than active combat tasks and frequently simply to maintaining control of already conquered territory and Union installations while white soldiers were the ones placed at the front of battle, testifying to the fact that most whites in the North continued to believe that black men were incapable of being good soldiers in a combat situation. Black men had to prove that notion radically false before that policy could change.
GROSS: So what were the ways in which black soldiers were most able to disprove the myths of their inabilities?
LEVINE: Well, when you assign black soldiers the role, quote, "simply," end-quote, of holding down supply depots or even garrisons, you by no means guarantee that they won't find themselves nonetheless in a combat situation, and so it proved. In a number of cases, garrisons and depots like that were attacked by Confederate soldiers, and black Union soldiers responded and responded with a great deal of success and great courage and great obstinacy.
And word of those engagements spread through the ranks, and white officers frequently filed reports that said: contrary to my expectations, these soldiers have fought better and more courageously than most white soldiers under my command have previously.
Even Confederate officers filed reports like that to their superiors, saying that in such-and-such an engagement, the white soldiers fled, but the black Yankees stood their ground. So the word was getting not only back to the rest of the Union population but even to those sections of the Confederate population who were willing to take off their blinkers and face reality.
GROSS: Bruce Levine will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "The Fall of the House of Dixie." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Bruce Levine, author of the new book, "The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South." When we left off, we were talking about how 200,000 black men joined the Union Army and Navy and helped the Union win the war.
So we've been talking about how the Union Army used black soldiers. And you write about how the South once considered conscripting slaves into the Confederate Army. What did they want the slaves to do in the army?
LEVINE: Well, first of all, they didn't want them in the army at all. That was a serious mistake made very early on the Confederate side. There were many, many more adult male whites living in the Union than living in the Confederacy and that meant, of course, that they would therefore, be much larger armies on the Union. One way of dealing with that for the Confederacy might have been to do what had been done many other times in history, to offer freedom to slaves if they would agree to join one's army. Although, some Confederate officers and civilians persistently suggested that from the beginning of the war, the Confederacy flatly refused to even consider the proposition for racist reasons and because they were fighting for slavery and they considered this to be a preposterous way to fight a war in defense, specifically, of slavery. But as Confederate fortunes waned, this idea came to the fore more and more persistently. And finally, basically within the last six months of the Confederacy's life, Jefferson Davis reverses course and begins to embrace the idea that this is the only way in which the Confederacy stands any chance of surviving. So this is the last-ditch act of desperation on the Confederacy's part.
GROSS: Why would Confederate leaders think that men who they had enslaved would be willing to fight and die to preserve their own enslavement?
LEVINE: Well, that's a really good question. And Frederick Douglass, after the war, calls it a species of madness. And there is, of course, something to that. Partly I think it is simply a reflection of the state of desperation. Anything is better than what we face because what we certainly face is defeat, so how much worse might this be? At least we can try it, I think is one strand of Confederate thinking. But another factor is the drumbeat of self-hypnosis that the Confederacy has been keeping up during the entirety of the war. A message contained in that self-hypnosis is the slaves are loyal. The slaves embrace slavery. The slaves are contented in slavery. The slaves know that black people are inferior and need white people to oversee their lives. Black people, therefore, are grateful for our care of them. Black people will defend the South that has been so good to them. There are, of course, by now very many white Southerners who know this is by no means true, but enough of them do believe it so that they're willing to give this a chance.
GROSS: And were there instances where the black soldiers turned against the plantation owners in the military?
LEVINE: Well, I think that's probably what would have occurred had this experiment been attempted earlier. But, in fact, only handfuls, relatively speaking, of black soldiers are ever raised on the Confederate side and they see nearly no combat at all. The only soldiers, to my knowledge, that are ever raised of this sort are raised within Richmond and Petersburg, they probably don't number more than 60 or so, despite the fact that there are, there's obviously a black population in that state radically bigger than that, and they see no combat and are not in fact, therefore in a position to turn their guns on their own officers, testifying to the fact that this was - the whole idea was an ultimate and complete failure.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bruce Levine. He's the author of the new book "The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South."
Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bruce Levine. We're talking about his new book "The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South." He's a professor of history at the University of Illinois.
You write one of the paradoxes of the Civil War is that the war actually ended slavery sooner than it would've ended had the Confederate states stayed in the Union.
LEVINE: Absolutely. There was a general assumption, North and South, that slavery would survive for a very long time, in 1860 there was that opinion. And absent of war, it very likely would have lasted - I think - another half century or more. So there very well might have been slavery still in the 20th century. Even the propositions that were on the table, in most cases, for the peaceful gradual end of slavery would still have maintained some people in slavery again, into the 20th century. So that in taking what they assumed to be a defensive position in support of slavery, the leaders of the Confederacy radically hastened its eradication.
GROSS: So what was it about the war that hastened the end of slavery?
LEVINE: Well, it's a number of factors. One is what Lincoln calls the friction and abrasion of war. Wherever Union armies went slaves took the opportunity to escape to their lines. Wherever Union armies approached, that is to say didn't quite reach a given plantation but slaves there heard that they were at least within running distance, slaves could use that fact to embolden themselves to resist the orders of their owners and even to begin stating conditions under which they would continue to labor on those plantations. And so Confederate plantation owners in those circumstances, whether they wished to are not, often found themselves having for the first time openly to bargain with people whom in law they legally controlled.
Something else that's happening is that large numbers of Northern whites, who may previously have had no sympathy for blacks, are by virtue of moving into ever more deeply the land of slavery, are being confronted with the brutalities of slavery and being confronted with the fact that much pro-slavery propaganda that they have been hearing for decades by Northern allies of the slave owners are lies and that this system is pretty horrible. And many of them start writing in letters home to their relatives that, contrary to their original assumptions, they have now become in effect abolitionists and they would never tolerate slavery again. And the Northern population, of course, is watching its relatives dying on battlefields trying to protect the Union against dissolution at the hands of slave owners and their rage at slavery is growing. And that includes people who in the North are as racist as they ever may have been but their fury at the rebels is leading them to support proposals that lead to emancipation.
And finally, there's the understanding that comes to grip an overwhelming proportion, I think, of the Union population that doing away with slavery now is, as I said earlier, the only way to win this war and to reconstitute the Union.
GROSS: So I'm going to ask a really stupid question that probably anybody who ever took an American history course, as I have, should not need to ask. But tell me more about why it was so important to the North to maintain the Union. If the South was doing something that the North was so horrified at - the institution of slavery - and the South wanted to pull away but there was still a lot of racism in the North, why did the North care so much about having the Southern states within the Union?
LEVINE: Well, I wouldn't exaggerate the extent to which people know the answer to this question. And I don't think it's a bad question at all, therefore.
GROSS: I'm so relieved to hear you say that.
LEVINE: We have to remember that the mid-19th century is a time when in the transatlantic world the norm is not republican, small R, government - that is living in a republic. The norm is still monarchies and aristocracies and societies in which non-aristocrats have relatively few rights and particularly little control over their government. So this is still an unusual, a very unusual place. Despite the existence of this horrible oppressive system of slavery, for white people, this is a remarkable outpost of freedom and, of course, especially for white men, since white women have considerably fewer rights than men. But for white men then, this is the cutting edge of progress. They believe that what protects the rights that they have is the strength and unity of the country. And they fear that as sections of the country begin to withdraw from the Union, the country will continue to fragment, that this will only be the beginning of the fracturing of the Union.
And, by the way, there's some reason to think in retrospect that they were right. There are, for example, individuals - including the mayor in New York City - who begin to talk actively about pulling New York out of the Union, because New York in that era has powerful economic ties to the slave South and making it a so-called free city on the model of such things in Europe. Sections of the lower Midwest display sympathy for the South. Sections of Midwestern states heavily populated by white migrants out of the South. And so instead of there being one powerful, more or less powerful country in North America, south of Canada that is, and north of Mexico, there might be two and maybe three and maybe four and so on, and that in turn might very well lead to the end of republican government in North America. And again, we're talking about an era in which much of the world still thinks that republican - non-monarchical, non-aristocratic - government is doomed. And that had been the opinion in Europe for many, many centuries based on looking at what had happened to ancient Greece and ancient Rome and various city-states thereafter.
So the idea that republics are stable is not very widespread. And indeed, large numbers of forces in monarchical Europe are rubbing their hands in positive anticipation of seeing this dangerous, provocative idea - large republic sustaining - itself finally crumbling.
GROSS: So, but how much of preserving the Union, as far as the North was concerned, was economic because it needed access to the South's cotton?
LEVINE: Well, that's a factor. Textile manufacturers in New England want that cotton and want easy access to cotton. Furthermore, farmers in the Midwest want easy and continuous access to the Mississippi River in order to sell things to Southerners and to export through the Port of New Orleans. But I think it's too easy to exaggerate the degree to which economic motives are driving the North. I think more powerful a motive is the desire to preserve the Union in order to preserve republican liberty.
GROSS: Are you shocked when you still see people flying the Confederate flag or when you see statehouses flying the Confederate flag?
LEVINE: Well, I'm no longer shocked because I've been exposed to it for so long and been arguing against it for so long. But I'm still deeply offended by its appearance, because it seems evident from history both distant and near, that more than nine times out of 10 those who are flying that flag are not doing it simply out of regional loyalty or some sort of misty nostalgia, but as a statement of political intent. Political intent that leaves no room for genuine racial equality.
GROSS: Do you think it's impossible to separate slavery and the Civil War?
LEVINE: I think so.
GROSS: Because I know some people say, oh no, we were fighting for a way of life. It's not about slavery. Of course the way of life was dependent on slavery.
LEVINE: Just what you said. It was impossible for most people to claim to be fighting simply for a way of life, to imagine that way of life without slavery at its center. And in fact, I think it's impossible for anybody to imagine that particular way of life without slavery at its center because that's exactly where it was.
GROSS: We started this interview talking about the movie "Lincoln." I just want to get back to that for a moment. One of the characters in the movie is Thaddeus Stevens, who's portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, who's one of the radical Republicans who seeks the abolition of slavery.
How does the Tommy Lee Jones portrayal compare to what you know of (unintelligible) Stevens?
LEVINE: Well, that's an interesting question. One of the aspects of the portrayal is that he, in fact, has a black mistress, his housekeeper.
LEVINE: In fact, we don't really know that that's true. There were all sorts of allegations at the time made by members of the opposition party for whom having sexual relations with a black woman proved you immoral on the face of it. So those accusations were bandied about all the time.
GROSS: You think it might've been more of an attempt to smear him than anything else.
LEVINE: Exactly. Exactly. Which is not how Stevens would have viewed it, because Stevens was a genuine racial egalitarian. And that part of the depiction is true. So whether or not this particular aspect of his life accorded with the cinematic version, it certainly is true that he was remarkably egalitarian in racial terms. He was the foremost fighter against slavery and for racial equality in the Congress.
He was the most important single figure, I would say. It's also true, and I think undersold in the film, that Stevens and the radicals were way ahead of Lincoln throughout the war on these questions, pointed the way forward for Lincoln, and without their pressure and without their agitation and without their constant demands, it's not at all clear Lincoln would have eventually moved in the same direction.
They, and Stevens as an individual, are a very important part of the story of how slavery comes to an end.
GROSS: Well, Bruce Levine, thank you so much for talking with us.
LEVINE: Thank you very much for giving me the chance to be on your show.
GROSS: Bruce Levin is the author of the new book "The Fall of the House of Dixie." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also see the poster we were talking about, recruiting black soldiers for the Union Army.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.