How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America



While the North prevailed in the Civil War, ending slavery and giving the country a "new birth of freedom," Heather Cox Richardson argues in this provocative work that democracy's blood-soaked victory was ephemeral. The system that had sustained the defeated South moved westward and there established a foothold. It was a natural fit. Settlers from the East had for decades been pushing into the West, where the seizure of Mexican lands at the end of the Mexican-American War and treatment of Native Americans cemented racial hierarchies. The South and West equally depended on extractive industries-cotton in the former and mining, cattle, and oil in the latter-giving rise a new birth of white male oligarchy, despite the guarantees provided by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and the economic opportunities afforded by expansion.

To reveal why this happened, How the South Won the Civil War traces the story of the American paradox, the competing claims of equality and subordination woven into the nation's fabric and identity. At the nation's founding, it was the Eastern "yeoman farmer" who galvanized and symbolized the American Revolution. After the Civil War, that mantle was assumed by the Western cowboy, singlehandedly defending his land against barbarians and savages as well as from a rapacious government. New states entered the Union in the late nineteenth century and western and southern leaders found yet more common ground. As resources and people streamed into the West during the New Deal and World War II, the region's influence grew. "Movement Conservatives," led by westerners Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, claimed to embody cowboy individualism and worked with Dixiecrats to embrace the ideology of the Confederacy.

Richardson's searing book seizes upon the soul of the country and its ongoing struggle to provide equal opportunity to all. Debunking the myth that the Civil War released the nation from the grip of oligarchy, expunging the sins of the Founding, it reveals how and why the Old South not only survived in the West, but thrived.

Product Details

$27.95  $25.71
Oxford University Press, USA
Publish Date
April 01, 2020
6.2 X 1.2 X 9.4 inches | 1.1 pounds

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About the Author

Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History at Boston College. Her previous works include West from Appomattox and To Make Men Free.


"A timely and vivid account of America's enduring struggle between democratic ideals and oligarchical demands -- from a stellar historian. The themes are broad and the implications mighty, but this isn't history from on high. Richardson uses a human lens to tell her tale, revealing the passions and power-plays that have sustained this battle for dominance. The end result is something rare and invaluable: a skilled work of history, deeply grounded in the past, that speaks loudly, clearly, and crucially to the present." -- Joanne Freeman, Yale University, author of The Field Of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War

"A thought-provoking study of the centuries-spanning battle between oligarchy and equality in America. " -- Kirkus

"Though Richardson underemphasizes the prevalence of racism, sexism, and inequality in other parts of the country during and following the Civil War, she marshals a wealth of evidence to support the book's provocative title. Conservatives will cry foul, but liberal readers will be persuaded by this lucid jeremiad." -- Publishers Weekly

"What the great books do is retell history in a way that creates a deepened and clarified connection between what was and what is. The brilliant historian Heather Cox Richardson has produced magic with this stunning work, which fuses the historian's craft to the storyteller's art. I love this book. For anyone seeking to understand how we got here, and where we're likely bound, this is a must-read." -- Ron Suskind, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Price of Loyalty and A Hope in the Unseen

"Good revisionist history jars you, forces you to look at the past in a new way, and thereby transforms your view of the present. Heather Cox Richardson is a master of the genre, to the benefit of us all. Even those who take issue with her will be forced by this powerful book to come to terms with aspects of our past that we often just sweep under the rug of memory. Important and revelatory." -- E.J. Dionne JR., author of Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country

"In a tour de force, Richardson exposes the philosophical connective tissue that runs from John C. Calhoun, to Barry Goldwater, to Donald Trump. It's not party, it's a complex ideology that has swaddled white supremacy and its political, legal, economic, and physical violence in the language of freedom and rugged individualism, and, in doing so, repeatedly slashed a series of self-inflicted wounds on American democracy." -- Carol Anderson, Emory University, author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide and One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy

"Those interested in American history, politcis, and its historical development will find much to enjoy in this well-written, argued work." -- Library Journal, *starred review