This book offers a unique perspective on the developments prior to, during and after the civil war, as these developments affected the lives of the men and women held in the bondage of slavery that has become American's greatest historical shame. It also looks at the viewpoint of those defending the "peculiar institution", as well as the less affluent white southerners who did not own slaves, but who bore the brunt of the conflict as soldiers and as families left home. It offers remarkable insight into this strange mindset, both at the beginning of the war, and as the war progressed and as many of the myths southerners believed about a quick and glorious war failed to materialize.
Levine explores the reality of slavery that ran contrary to the idyllic image presented by many southerners of the time who sought to defend this heinous practice. He describes the cruel and inhumane discipline, the separation of families, and the other abuses perpetrated by "southern gentlemen" on human beings that they viewed as being of a lesser race. Without editorializing, he exposes the hypocrisy and the insensitive ramblings of diarists such as Mary Chestnut and Katherine Stone, who somehow viewed themselves as benevolent and as the victims when their self-centered and immoral way of life came to an end, letting the writings speak for themselves. He also explores the vantage of the middle and lower class of white soldiers who detested the wealthy southern ruling class, but whose feelings of white supremacy and pride as southerners impelled them to hate the Yankees even more.
This book follows the course of the war, explaining how many political and military strategic moves were driven by considerations of slavery, in some cases by not wanting to upset those border states where slavery still existed, and other cases, by causing internal division between the Confederate government of Jefferson Davis which prosecuted the war, and the provincial and selfish considerations of southern governors who refused to fully support the war, preferring instead to keep resources at home, rather than contribute to the common cause. An especially interesting discussion is that about the decision of both north and south over whether or not to allow African-Americans to aid in the war effort, in support roles as well as in carrying muskets. There is also an interesting exploration of the problem of desertion in the south by poor white soldiers who felt that they did not have sufficient stake in the goals of the war (i.e. protecting the interests of slaveholders) to leave their families to fend for themselves. The book also describes the actions of slaves as the war began to go badly for the south, what their options were, and how those left in the south tried to prevent the loss of the slave population.
This book has many strengths, not the least of which is in how it provides a fresh perspective on the Civil War. Many books have been written about the war, with most focusing on military strategy, especially by Abraham Lincoln and his generals. Bruce Levine tells the reader much that he or she did not know before, even for those who have read extensively on this era. Fascinating insight coupled with outstanding research leaves the reader with a fresh perspective on a war which Abraham Lincoln famously said "all knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war."