Sunday, January 27, 2013

Lincoln and Dixie

Two new books supposedly shed new light on old subjects: Lincoln as the great emancipator and the death of Dixie.  The first book, Freedom National, I already touched on in the previous post.  This book puts the argument that the Civil War was fought over slavery front and center.  As Howell Raines noted in his Washington Post review, James Oakes argues that from the moment Lincoln assumed office, he sought every political and military means to end slavery as we know it.  Marx may have said that Lincoln never made a move until he had the will of the people behind him, but in Oakes' view Lincoln wanted a lasting Constitutional solution to the problem, not an executive order that could easily be overturned by a succeeding administration.

Oakes makes the argument that emancipation was a process, not a means to an end.  He argues that the Emancipation Proclamation wasn't simply a means to keep the European nations out of the Civil War, as some historians have argued, but a proclamation that could only come after the United States had secured victories on the battle field, as other historians have argued.

It seems that Oakes covers similar ground as has Eric Foner in highlighting the actions of Benjamin Butler, who was the first Union general to institute Reconstruction in Louisiana, when he took control of New Orleans in 1862, invoking the hatred of Southerners in the process.  Foner has long argued that Reconstruction began in New Orleans during the war and spread as more Southern states fell to the Union.

Oakes, however, argues that Lincoln allowing slavery to continue in border states that had maintained their allegiance to the Union, wasn't incongruous, but rather a cold pragmatic decision to split the Southern states at the outset of the war, and make their effort at secession that much more difficult.  Of course, slavery wasn't as much a part of the culture in Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware as it was in the rest of the South, and there was strong federal feelings in all these states.

The second book, The Fall of the House of Dixie, looks more specifically out the devastation the Civil War wrought on the Southern states, but examining the slave economy and culture.  One can help but sense parallels to the present day in the way Bruce Levine describes a society controlled by a plutocracy of rich slave owners, yet accepted by most white Southerners.

Levine also argues that the presumptions this aristocratic class made that the slaves would stand by them during the war, proved to be their ultimate undoing.  These land barons had come to see themselves as a masters of their own universe, oblivious to the growing unrest during the war.  Levine argues, like Oakes, that slave interests were central to their decision to secede from the Union, and that these plantation owners  went out of their way to protect their most valued slaves by shipping them to Texas, which they considered to be out of arms way.  This forced the white underclass to essentially fate for the "negro aristockracy" as one soldier wrote in the ditches of Georgia.  By the end of the war, a third to a half of the Confederate army had deserted.

We still live with the fallout of the war today.  It took over 100 years to fully achieve emancipation at the voting booths, and in many ways the social and economic structure of the South echoes that of the antebellum days, which is why you see such nostalgia for this bygone era in places like Charleston, South Carolina and Natchez, Mississippi.  Civil War battles continue to be re-enacted and the battlefield sites are treated as hallowed ground.

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