Wars have often unleashed forces the warring parties hadn’t expected and couldn’t control. The Thirty Years’ War began as a struggle between religions but gave birth to the modern system of secular states, while World War I profoundly undermined the legitimacy of the British aristocracy and the stability of that country’s global empire.

The U.S. Civil War, University of Illinois historian Bruce Levine argues in his new book, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South, was no exception. Southerners launched the war to preserve slavery, and President Abraham Lincoln responded to save the Union. Ironically, the stresses and necessities of a near-total war quickly began to corrode the Confederate slave system from within and pushed an ambivalent Union to embrace emancipation to ensure victory in the field.

“A war launched to preserve slavery succeeded instead in abolishing that institution more rapidly and more radically than would have occurred otherwise,” Levine writes. “[The] ideology of white supremacy, which had always provided critical support for slavery, inhibit[ed] the slaveholders’ government from doing what it needed to do to survive.”

Many hundreds of books have been written on the Civil War in the century since it began, but Levine feels too many of these have concentrated on the movements of armies, and too few on the effect the war itself had on the societies that were fighting it, and on the slave system in particular. The Fall of the House of Dixie is intended “to help fill that gaping hole in our collective memory,” tracing how a “great and terrible war undermined the economic, social, and political foundations of the old South, destroying human bondage and the storied world of the slaveholding elite.”

The result is a compelling, readable, and informative account of perhaps the war’s most significant accomplishment and how it came about. While U.S. history buffs may find many of the details familiar—William Freehling has covered much of this terrain in various volumes, and Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln shares its theme—it’s clarifying to have them assembled in one place. Those less familiar with the conflict will profit from starting their education here.

Levine’s title is a play on Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, which features an outwardly intimidating edifice concealing a fatal structural flaw that brings its collapse. He shows that while the Deep Southern plantation system that had appeared impregnable in the 1850s—producing staggering wealth for the autocrats who built and defended it—turned out to be so riven with deep, structural cracks that it proved too brittle to survive a protracted military conflict.

Firstly, much of what was thought of as “the South” did not wish to go to war to serve the interests of aristocratic slave lords, many of whom held poor whites and the rough and rugged people of the hills and mountains in more contempt than their slaves. West Virginians seceded from Virginia in order to stay in the Union, and the people of eastern Tennessee, northern Alabama, and swaths of North Carolina tried to follow them out of the Confederacy. Kentuckians never left at all. By late 1863, anti-Confederate guerillas had taken over large swaths of the Arkansas and Georgia hill countries. “The condition of things in the mountain districts,” Confederate Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell warned, “menaces the existence of the Confederacy as fatally as either of the armies of the United States.”

Lowland whites rallied to the Stars and Bars in 1861. Like their Appalachian neighbors, they generally had few qualms about slavery and had internalized the white supremacist ideology that sustained it. But they also lived in regions where the enslaved comprised a third, half, or more of the population. “The great mass of non-slaveholders in the South, and especially in the cotton States,” Texas secessionist W. S. Oldman argued, shared the planters’ “interest in social order and domestic peace, which were threatened to be destroyed by the emancipation of slaves [who would] … riot without restraint.” The belief that the Yankees would be quickly routed fueled early enthusiasm.

But the war dragged on for years, with much of the fighting taking place within the Confederacy. Long before Appomattox, this fighting had dealt slavery, and the underpinnings of lowland Southern society, several mortal wounds.

Levine makes clear both that the South seceded to protect slavery—as anyone who wades into the primary sources knows—and that the Union at large fought to save the Union. That said, he also shows that “a war to save the Union was necessary in 1861 only because a political party that denounced slavery and menaced its future in the Union had won the support of a clear majority of northern voters in 1860. If secession had caused the war, therefore, it was the sharpening conflict over slavery that had caused secession.” Nor were “northern” concerns centered only on whether slavery would be allowed to expand to new territories. It had become a threat to democracy throughout the United States. Slaveholders came down hard on any Southern whites who criticized slavery—those who did were driven from pulpits, classrooms, and newsrooms—but they also worked to ban both the distribution of abolitionist materials by the U.S. Postal Service and speaking against slavery in the U.S House. Slavery was coming to threaten liberties of free people in the free states.

Still, federal forces initially had no intention of freeing slaves when they invaded Southern territory, but military expediency pushed many commanders in that direction. Some seized human “property” as contraband, effectively freeing slaves from bondage by declaring them federal property. This drew thousands of slaves to flee to Union lines, weakening Southern production and filling up federal forts and encampments with people often eager to provide intelligence, build fortifications, or even take up arms when allowed to do so. Lincoln pushed back, fearful of upsetting the fragile political coalition of “border state” slaveholders, Yankee abolitionists, and pro-slavery, pro-Union patriots the war effort depended on. But as the war went on, most members of the coalition came to accept what Frederick Douglass had called the “inexorable logic of events.” As Union lines expanded southward, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people had tasted freedom. Returning them to bondage would be morally questionable and practically impossible. From 1862, captured and runaway slaves were emancipated and even welcomed into the Union army.

For Confederates, the increasing military burdens tested public commitment to the war. Slaveholders were insulted when the government tried to force them to provide slaves to support the war effort or to join the army even if they felt they had more important things to do. Such policies—which grew more draconian as the South’s position deteriorated—”violated political, social, and other cultural imperatives and taboos.” This included “keeping government small and weak, extolling local and state sovereignty over that of a national government, and keeping black people firmly subordinated and strictly excluded from many spheres of life.” Planters refused to grow food for the army instead of cotton for profit. Critical fortifications were left unfinished because they refused to loan slaves to accomplish the task. Morale in Confederate ranks was eroded when well-connected plantation owners passed laws giving their families special exemptions from conscription.

Southerners had long claimed that black people liked being enslaved because many of them realized they were incapable of providing for themselves. Serving whites was supposedly their “manifest destiny” and the best fate any of them could have. This ideological holding always stood uneasily alongside the slave lords’ oft-expressed fears of a slave uprising and the draconian measures they took to keep their property compliant. But the war laid bare this lie. As Union forces approached, house servants and field hands who’d outwardly expressed loyalty to their masters suddenly abandoned them. Levine quotes one disillusioned Southern belle, Honoria Cannon, saying she sometimes wished “there was not a negro left in the country,” although “learning to do our own work would be hard.”

If having their slaves abandon them was a hard blow to planter ideology, seeing many of them return as brave and disciplined Union soldiers was the knockout punch. Black volunteers served bravely in unit after unit, belying the notion that they didn’t want the freedom and were incapable of fighting for it. General Robert E. Lee thought Lincoln’s arming of the slaves a “savage and brutal policy,” as it would consign “our social system” to “destruction” and a “degradation worse than death.”

Reeling from these shocks, white Southern unity began to collapse. Poor soldiers abandoned their units in droves and made their way home to help their families grow food. Anti-Confederate guerilla bands spread across the uplands. Some political leaders did the unthinkable—suggesting blacks be armed and encouraged to defend the Confederacy in exchange for freedom. Clearly a war to defend slavery had lost its central aim.

By war’s end, Congress had passed a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery and various Northern states had begun dismantling some of the laws that made blacks second-class citizens. This “second American Revolution” would be substantially rolled back, of course, with the end of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow laws, which would last another hundred years, supported by more or less the same white supremacist ideology that had sustained slavery. Still, the House of Dixie would never be fully restored.

Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”

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Colin Woodard

Colin Woodard is the author of six books, including Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood. He is the director of the Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.