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Emancipation proclamation only one piece in ending slavery, historian says

Book Cover "The Fall of the House of Dixie"
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Random House

The war and military necessity are what prompted Lincoln to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation 150 years ago, says historian Bruce Levine, but the Civil War itself was by then already working to dismantle slavery and upend the southern society built around it.

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9/12/2012 | Craig Chamberlain, Social Sciences Editor | 217-333-2894; cdchambe@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation 150 years ago this month, making the end of slavery a Union goal in the Civil War, then a year and a half old.

University of Illinois historian Bruce Levine
View a video of U. of I. historian Bruce Levine discussing the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation | Video by Anne Lukeman

To a degree not often appreciated, however, it was the demands of the war more than Lincoln’s long-standing hatred of slavery that prompted the president’s historic Sept. 22, 1862, announcement, says University of Illinois historian Bruce Levine.

Lincoln had finally determined, after more than a year of evolving policy and legislation, and the lack of Union victory, that defeating a slave-holding power required taking away all of its slaves, Levine said.

Even less widely understood, however, is how the demands of war also were destroying slavery from within, and dramatically upending the southern society built around it, according to Levine (pronounced Luh-VEEN), the author of “The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South,” scheduled for publication in January by Random House.

By the middle of the four-year struggle, “slavery in many places already is ceasing to be slavery in practice,” he said. “And the idea that the white South remained united throughout that war is a fiction.”

“This war turns out to be the means by which slavery is brought to an end much more radically than would ever have happened otherwise,” according to Levine, the J. G. Randall Distinguished Professor of history and a professor of African American Studies.

By the war’s end, the result is nothing less than a second American revolution, he said.

In his book, Levine shows how cracks in the foundation of southern society – seemingly nonexistent before the war – gradually widened under the weight of the conflict. “I think this is the first account of the war that shows this occurring, moment by moment, month by month, section of the South by section of the South,” he said.

Some of those cracks showed from the start, Levine said. Four border slave states refused to leave the Union, western Virginia split from secessionist Virginia to stay in the Union, and eastern Tennessee tried to do the same.

Within the Confederacy, many slaveless whites grew to resent fighting what they saw as a slaveholders’ battle, once the costs of war became clear, Levine said. In some areas, army deserters formed anti-Confederate guerrilla bands that had to be suppressed.

The war also tore at the loyalty of slaveholders, many of whom angrily resented and refused Confederate government demands to use their slaves to support the war effort, such as in building fortifications, Levine said. Many also refused Confederate government pleas to plant food crops instead of cotton, which was more profitable.

And slavery itself was eroding as slaveholders began to lose the means of control and punishment that the system required, Levine said.

“The whip is absolutely crucial to the running of this system, precisely because it’s a system based on physical control and physical brutality,” Levine said, and during the war there were often fewer men around to apply that whip. Over the course of the conflict, 80 percent of the white male adult population served in the Confederate army, he said.

“They simply don’t have the ability to enforce the kind of totalitarian system that slavery needs to be in order to work,” Levine said. “Given the level of brutality and oppression, as soon as you lift the lid, things start to change.”

Slaves became “demoralized,” a word slave owners used to mean they were becoming more resistant to following orders, he said. Some began to demand wages or other concessions in exchange for work.

Making all this possible were Union armies, Levine said. As they marched into Confederate territory, slaves escaped into their lines. The slaves near those lines who remained with their masters gained new leverage because of the threat of escape, he said. And the demands of fighting those Union armies loosened the enforcement of slavery elsewhere.

It was the interaction between Union armies and slaves, in fact, that largely forced the issue of emancipation and drove the change in policy and legislation that paved the way for the Emancipation Proclamation, Levine said.

Union leaders realized that giving the runaway slaves back to their owners was not an option; it only aided the Confederate cause, Levine said. By not returning them, the Union not only gained a source of labor – and, later, soldiers – they denied that source of labor to the enemy.

For men like Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and escaped slave, it was all part of “the inexorable logic of events” he thought clear from the start of a war largely begun over slavery, Levine said. For Lincoln and others, however, hoping for an early end to the war and fearing the loss of the Union’s border slave states, it took time to reach that conclusion.

“Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is the apex of a process that starts long before,” Levine said. “It’s the culmination of the Union’s decision that this war can’t be won without dismantling slavery.”

Editor's note: To contact Bruce Levine, call 217-722-8381; email blevine3@illinois.edu.

Levine’s previous books on the war include “Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War” and “Half Slave & Half Free: The Roots of Civil War.” Levine will be spending most of this academic year as the Rogers Distinguished Fellow in 19th-Century American History at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif.

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