"Secession seems not to have produced the results predicted by its sanguine friends."
--William A. Graham, Confederate Senator from North Carolina, 1865
As a boy I was an avid reader of books about the American Civil War. In those days the standard historical fare included, in fact, was headed by, the works of Bruce Catton. Catton has been referred to as a "popularizer," a term intended as an epithet and a denigration of his works. This I assume has been because he committed the offense of making history interesting, and moreover, accessible to many who might not have encountered the Civil War as other than the grounding for Gone with the Wind. Some have even accused Catton of contributing to the fervor which fueled America's Cold War ambitions; one writer claims that Catton's interpretation of the meaning of the conflict led more or less directly to the "missionary obligation on a global scale," and a "overseas venture in Vietnam that ended illusions about global missions."  This is of course pure bunk. America was involving itself in the affairs of other lands long before Catton drew breath or metaphor. One might as well accuse Plutarch of causing Napoleon to attack Russia.
Catton was fifty years old when he wrote his first book on the conflict. Over the remaining years of his life he produced some of the best history, indeed, some of the finest historical literature, in the American library.
Here is a paragraph to read aloud:
"It was the fourth of May, and beyond the dark river there was a forest with the shadow of death under its low branches, and the dogwood blossoms were floating in the air like lost flecks of sunlight, as if life was as important as death; and for the Army of the Potomac this was the last bright morning, with youth and strength and hope ranked under starred flags, bugle calls riding down the wind, and invisible doors swinging open on the other shore. The regiments fell into line, and the great white-topped wagons creaked along the roads, and spring sunlight glinted off the polished muskets and the brass of the guns, and the young men came down to the valley while the bands played. A German regiment was singing "John Brown's Body."
--A Stillness at Appomattox (1953)
With passages like this I enchanted myself over many an evening or weekend day, following the progress of a war in successive volumes—a war that in fact approached and passed its centennial anniversary during my early reading. It should be noted that most of this material came to me courtesy of the public library—though I did scrounge some from my English-teacher father's classroom shelves.
For me the Civil War is a great morality tale with a blessedly happy ending. The trials and tensions of the war, documented in page upon page of battles, strategies and reversals, begin to lessen with Grant's victories and Sherman's March, concluding finally in surrender as Lee finds his soldiers fought out and deserting The Cause. Appomattox is not only a place in Virginia but a special spot in my heart: to me it marked the literal triumph of good over evil, with the whole tale of the war a pageant unparalleled, a great and wonderful story, our American Iliad.
I would not have been as enthralled with Catton or the war he describes so well had it not been for the basis of that conflict, the reason for secession, rebellion and war. The South departed over the issue of States' Rights, but the only right with which it was concerned was the freedom to enslave others for economic gain. The idea of slavery was so repellent to me, so foreign and detestable as to turn a young boy into a rabid abolitionist a century after the war's end. And so it was that I enlisted in the Armies of the Potomac, the Cumberland and the Shenandoah for the duration. I fought through the chapters until I became one of Sherman's ragged Bummers, gorging myself on the spoil of the ruined Georgia countryside, caring not a fig for the sorrows I worked upon the local population.
By the time my hair turned gray I had digested quite a bit of the war's history but not mellowed in the least. As the war remains a fixture in the eternal present so I am ever a young trooper in the ranks, ramming home the ball over the powder, firing my shot and often charging, bayonet fixed in sleeping dreams and stoplight fantasies.
These days it takes a good dose of writing to bring on the charge across the abatis. I try to choose carefully, avoiding stuff that would insult my experience. After all, I am Billy Yank and have my regiment's honor to defend.
And so it was that I approached Bruce Levine's Fall of the House of Dixie with the usual arm's-length caution. I took it from the library's New Books shelf, probed it with my bayonet and discovered a work of unusual quality and genuine distinction.
Put briefly, Levine combines an account of a war fought for slavery with a description of the erosion of that institution from the start of the conflict to its end. What we have here, in accounts gleaned from diaries, speeches, editorials and the compress of the author's analysis, is an album of the slaveholding South, crisp daguerreotypes taken at intervals from the high dudgeon of secession to point of Confederate defeat. And by "defeat" is meant not merely the submission of an army but of the people whose desire motivated its creation, filled its ranks, paid for its leather, lead and steel. Armies do not spring from the earth entire, and indeed there was no Army of the Confederacy until a force was called upon to defend the right of enslavement. There was never an honorable cause for Lee's army to defend, only the holding of human chattel, the denial of freedom and the profiting by oppression.
Southerners were wont to compare their mustering of troops to the formation of the Continental Army. For a people willing to describe slavery as a boon to the enslaved this presented no great difficulty; they already had a supportive theology and favorable laws: it was a simple matter (and moreover necessary) to put Robert E. Lee up as Washington, with the Federals as Redcoats to boot.
Southerners well knew the basis of their wealth and prosperity lay in human bondage. The value of their slaves was about half that of all southern assets at the start of the Civil War. The war was, like many another, fought over resources: in this case, the right to exploit practically free labor; but unlike other wars, this was not fought by one side to seize the property of another (Southern claims to the contrary). Lincoln's armies were not out to make Southern slaves into Northern ones. The North fought what is in essence a war of spoliation: a campaign to eliminate the beneficial use of a resource without laying claim to the thing itself. It is this feature which sets the Civil War apart, and sets upon the Northern armies (faults and bigotry aside) the mantle of crusaders.
[The same library that provided me with Bruce Catton's works yielded William Shirer's Berlin Diary and his later epic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It was no great stretch to compare the Civil War South to the Germany of the thirties and to follow Hitler's armies from beer hall thugs to final destruction in the ruins of Berlin. A story is in no way diminished if the reader knows the outcome, at least when the outcome favors the righteous.]
It does something for the soul to read the bleating diary entries of Southerners as they witness their wealth vanishing, their enslaved Negroes disappearing into the ranks of the Union army or simply refusing to work. It is satisfying to see others suffer when we feel they deserve it. And no population profited more by moral calumny than the South of the antebellum years. At last, with the war essentially lost, the question arose in Richmond as to whether to arm slaves in support of the Cause, but of course the question was absurd and treated as such, because to do so would be to acknowledge the Negro as a man equal to any, not to mention putting him in the position of a savior of the Confederacy. And so the South limped on, fed by prayer and vain hopes as the combined armies of the Union smashed and bled it into that final Spring of 1865.
The author's best work consists of blending military, social and political matter into a practically seamless whole. The result is a book that flows very well and is a pleasure to read. In no sense does the reader feel he is parsing stale material. Insights rise from the pages: there is light in every chapter and disappointment when the book is done. I recommend this book either as a one-volume introduction to the Civil War or to any who wish to study the institution of Negro slavery and its demise during that conflict.