The Civil War becomes a revolutionary war

May 5, 2015

The Civil War may have begun for most Northerners as a fight to keep the U.S. together, but it ended 150 years ago as a revolutionary war to destroy slavery, as Donny Schraffenberger and Alan Maass explain in this installment in a series on slavery and the Civil War.

IT WAS the summer of 1862, America's Civil War had been underway for 16 months, and across the Atlantic Ocean, in the northern English city of Manchester, Frederick Engels was upset.

"Things are going wrong in America," Engels fumed in a letter to a friend in London. He ticked off the latest military setbacks suffered by the North in the war against the Southern slave power--one blunder after another on the primary battleground of Virginia, a Confederate breakthrough with an offensive that drove across Tennessee and Kentucky to the banks of the Ohio River. Engels concluded that, against all odds, the North was on the edge of defeat:

[W]hat cowardice in government and Congress. They are afraid of conscription, of resolute financial steps, of attacks on slavery, of everything that is urgently necessary; they let everything dawdle along as it will, and if some semblance of a measure finally gets through Congress, the honorable Lincoln so hedges it with provisos that nothing is left of it.

This slackness, this collapsing like a punctured pig's bladder, under the pressure of defeat that has annihilated an army, the strongest and best, and actually left Washington exposed, this total absence of any elasticity in the whole mass of the people--this proves to me that it is all up.

Black soldiers in the Union Army
Black soldiers in the Union Army

Engels' London friend was equally pained by the victories of the South's Confederacy, the states that had seceded from the Union to protect the institution of slavery. But Karl Marx disagreed about whether victory was at hand for the South.

"So far," Marx wrote in August 1862, "we have only witnessed the first act of the Civil War--the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand."

It was a prophetic comment. As Marx wrote those words, President Abraham Lincoln was preparing to announce the Emancipation Proclamation that would free the slaves in all the Southern states still in rebellion against the Union as of the end of the year. This was the primary confirmation of exactly what Marx predicted--that the Civil War would become a revolutionary war fought to destroy the institution of slavery, and with it, the power of the Southern ruling class.


THE FIRST steps toward that transformation came when the North gradually yielded to the self-activity of slaves who recognized the Union Army could become an army of liberation.

Slavery and the Civil War

One hundred and fifty years ago, the institution of slavery was finally destroyed with the end of the Civil War. Socialist Worker writers tell the story.

Before army officers and Northern political leaders were aware of the new weapon against the South that was being handed to them, slaves escaped to the Union Army's lines wherever they were in reach. It became official policy to consider them "contraband of war." Former slaves quickly became the backbone of the labor force in Union camps and fortifications.

Next came the recruitment of Black soldiers into the Union Army, which began in earnest after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. Once again, Lincoln had hesitated to take this more radical step, but he eventually yielded to the criticism of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass. Late in 1861, his newspaper Douglass' Monthly had run an editorial decrying the government's policy of "Fighting Rebels with Only One Hand":

Why does the government reject the Negro? Is he not a man? Can he not wield a sword, fire a gun, march and countermarch, and obey orders like any other?...We do believe that such soldiers, if allowed to take up arms in defense of the Government, and made to feel that they are hereafter to be recognized as persons having rights, would set the highest example of order and general good behavior to their fellow soldiers, and in every way add to the national power...

[T]his is no time to fight with one hand, when both are needed;...this is no time to fight only with your white hand, and allow your black hand to remain tied.

When the Black regiments were finally formed, it was a bitter pill for former slaves that the Union Army paid them less than white soldiers and barred Blacks from being officers. The stakes were clearly far higher for Black soldiers. If they were to be captured by Confederate forces, they faced the certainty of being enslaved again, if they weren't tortured and killed.

In spite of this, Blacks poured into the Union Army, driven by a determination given expression by, among many others, the Anglo-African newspaper:

Should we not, with two centuries of cruel wrong stirring our heart's blood, be but too willing to embrace any chance to settle accounts with the slaveholders?...Why should we be alarmed at their threat of hanging us; do we intend to become their prisoners?...Can you ask any more than a chance to drive bayonet or bullet into the slaveholders' hearts? Are you most anxious to be captains and colonels, or to extirpate these vipers from the face of the earth?

Some 50,000 Black men had enlisted in the Union Army and Navy by August 1863, and more than 200,000 would participate in their ranks by the war's end--10 percent of the total. Their presence in the army of a government that a few years before had considered them property was the most explicit proof that the Union forces had become an army of liberation.

It was also evidence of the determination of Blacks to win their freedom. Nearly 40,000 Black soldiers died during the war, including at the hands of Confederate forces who wanted vengeance as the war turned against them.

In April 1864, Black soldiers were overwhelmed at Fort Pillow in Tennessee and massacred by white Confederate troops commanded by Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the millionaire slave trader and later leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest gloried in his barbarism, in this passage later quoted by Union Army commander Gen. Ulysses Grant:

The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that Negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.

Forrest's "hope" was dashed. The words "Remember Fort Pillow" became the battle cry for Black soldiers as they fought to destroy the Southern slave power.


THE INTRODUCTION of Black troops was, by itself, a qualitative transformation of the Union Army. But it also contributed to the radicalization of the rest of the army--the more than 2 million white soldiers, overwhelmingly from the laboring classes.

There was an abolitionist core to the Union Army from the start. Naturally, those most inspired by the cause of defeating the slaveocracy were the quickest to volunteer.

One little-talked-about chapter of Civil War history is the number of German-born immigrants who served in the war--they likewise made up about 10 percent of the Union Army. Many who came to the U.S. after the defeat of the European revolutions of 1848 were radicals fleeing repression once the old order was re-established. Like Marx and Engels in Europe, the German radicals recognized better than most the necessity of destroying slavery, not only for the basic ideals of bourgeois democracy to be realized, but for the infant working class movement in America to develop further.

But the majority of the Union Army didn't start out as abolitionists. The army rank and file reflected the political sentiments of workers and small farmers throughout the North on the eve of the war. This included the pro-slavery appeasement of the Democratic Party, whose Northern wing, built around urban political machines, was always subservient to the Southern Democrats, who were the political rulers of the slaveocracy.

More commonplace was the attitude given political expression by the recently formed Republican Party--hostility to the economic and political power of the Southern slave system, but also, for many, hostility to the slave, as the historian W.E.B. Du Bois later described it.

The Civil War itself was the source for transforming this consciousness. Union soldiers were also motivated by the belief that they were the defending the democratic institutions and ideals created with the formation of the U.S.--and still, 90 years later, practically unknown in a Europe dominated by the old aristocratic order.

But as the soldiers saw firsthand the horrors of the slave system--and, over time, witnessed the determination of former slaves fighting for their liberation--more and more came to see the destruction of slavery as a central aim of the war.

Thus, one Illinois soldier wrote to his wife about how his unit confiscated horses and liberated hundreds of slaves in Tennessee: "Now what do you think of your husband degenerating from a conservative young Democrat to a horse stealer and a thief of slaves? So long as my flag is confronted by the hostile guns of slavery...I am as confirmed an abolitionist as ever was pelted with stale eggs."

A Michigan sergeant went further in a letter to his wife:

The more I learn of the cursed institution of slavery, the more I feel willing to endure for its final destruction. After this war is over, this whole country will undergo a change for the better...Abolishing slavery will dignify labor; that fact, of itself, will revolutionize everything.

Not every soldier in the Union Army was won over to abolition, of course, but the balance shifted. This was as important to transforming the Civil War into a revolutionary war as the federal government's political hardening and the change of the army's general staff to get rid of pro-Democratic appeasers like McClellan.

The commitment to the ideals of democracy and the defeat of slavery enabled Union soldiers to endure the tremendous sacrifices demanded by the war--including the ultimate sacrifice, paid by hundreds of thousands, including the Michigan sergeant quoted above, who was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter a few months after he looked forward to "a change for the better."


THIS RADICALIZATION of Union soldiers is all the more important considering the political pressures that could have driven events in the other direction.

Throughout the war, the pro-slavery northern Democrats--known as the Copperheads, after the snake--organized around every military failure, including those caused by the incompetence of their hero, Gen. McClellen, who was finally removed from command in November 1862.

The next summer, even as Union forces were defeating the South's last large-scale offensive into the North at the battle of Gettysburg--the "high tide of the Confederacy," as it became known--a southern general, John Hunt Morgan, rode with nearly 2,000 cavalry forces across the Ohio River and into Indiana and Ohio, in the hopes of stirring a Copperhead uprising.

No such uprising took place, but at the same time, New York City was gripped by draft riots on July 13-16. Less than 10 percent of Union soldiers were drafted into the war--92 percent volunteered. But the brunt of the draft fell on the poorer white population of the North, especially immigrants who protested a draft system that allowed richer men to pay for a substitute.

The riots of 1863 began initially over the issue of conscription, but quickly targeted the Black residents in New York City as scapegoats for the war. More than 100 African Americans were killed by white mobs.

The riots were a factor in a new political crisis facing Lincoln and the Republican Party at this time. As before, panicked Northern political and business leaders urged Lincoln to retreat and even to offer a "peace" agreement to the South on terms that would have left slavery intact. Some of the compromisers were prominent Republicans with a stronger record in support of abolition than Lincoln himself.

But Lincoln distinguished himself by his refusal to give in--by his determination, once the die was cast, to take whatever measures were necessary to win the war. In the face of pro-Southern agitation by the Copperheads, Lincoln's main base of political support was the Union Army. In local elections in 1863, rank-and-file soldiers responded to the political turmoil by voting 94 percent for the Republican Party.

Eventually, Lincoln found a group of generals, led by Ulysses S. Grant, who were prepared to wage an all-out war, rather than the half-hearted maneuvering of McClellen. At the same time that Union forces were stopped the Confederate advance in Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, Grant was winning the war in the West, fought along the Mississippi River--Confederate forces surrendered at Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4, 1863.

The tactics of total war were taken up by other Union generals like Philip Sheridan and William Tecumseh Sherman, who commanded Union forces on an offensive through the Deep South in 1864, ending with the so-called March to the Sea across Georgia.

The Union invasion of the South is mainly remembered today through the lens of pro-Southern propaganda like the movie and novel Gone With the Wind, which portrayed Northern forces as bent on mindless destruction. In reality, the March to the Sea was a calculated act--the companion to Lincoln's refusal to compromise politically--based on the recognition that the Confederacy would not be defeated without the destruction of its economic and social system, based on slave labor.

Sherman and Sheridan later became notorious for their roles in commanding the ongoing genocidal war on Native Americans. The radical abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who after the Civil War became a prominent advocate of equal rights for Native Americans, denounced Sherman in particular for using tactics developed in the war against slavery to carry out a policy of "Indian extermination."

Nevertheless, the commitment to total war against the South was the specifically military component of "the revolutionary waging of war," as Marx called it a few years before.


FOR MARX and Engels, following the course of the war as passionate supporters of the cause of abolishing slavery, the importance of the Civil War didn't lie in the individual political and military leaders of the North, but the fundamental social clash between two economic systems, one in the South based on slave labor and the other in the North based on free labor.

They recognized, of course, that the ruling class of the North presided over a system of industrial capitalism modeled on the one in England that Marx and Engels hoped to see overthrown and replaced by socialism. Northern political leaders were every bit as committed to "Manifest Destiny" and the xenophobic ideology that would later underpin the rise of the U.S. as an imperial power.

But at this point, the Northern ruling class's victory could only be accomplished by the defeat of a reactionary system that stood in the way of any economic and social development. In short, the interests of capitalism in the U.S. coincided--probably for the last time in history, anywhere in the world--with a massive expansion of democracy and freedom by ending slavery.

Thus, in order to ensure a Northern victory over the South, Lincoln was compelled to participate in one of the most important struggles for justice ever known. That struggle was initiated and brought to a head by the slaves' thirst for freedom in the South and the abolitionist movement's determination in the North. But it transformed all of its participants, up to and including Lincoln.

In his first inaugural address in 1861, delivered weeks before the first shots of the Civil War were fired, Lincoln declared that he had "no purpose...to interfere with the institution of slavery" where it existed. By his second inaugural--this one given weeks before the guns were silenced by the surrender of the Confederacy at Appomattox--Lincoln had embraced the cause of abolishing slavery and rejected any proposal for compromise.

His far more radical speech in front of the Capitol on March 4, 1865 was a vindication of Marx's judgment that the Civil War must become a revolutionary war:

Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled up by the [slave's] 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so it must be said, "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

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