Wednesday, June 03, 2020

The American Civil War

From 1959 issues of the Socialist Standard

The Conflict Defined

The American Civil War was a savage affair. It lasted for four years and it caused the deaths of 600,000 of the young men of America. It wrote such names as Gettysburg, Bull Run and Shiloh into the history of human conflict.

It was a war, we were told, over slavery. If you were humane, liberal and democratic you fought for the North, against slavery. If you were brutal, despotic and contemptuously aristocratic you fought for the South, for slavery. If there are any legends of history which for their own sakes are worth preserving, this is not one of them.

In truth, the Northern States had little use for slavery. Their agriculture produced anything from lumber to livestock, for which they needed workers who were knowledgeable, adaptable and freely moving. Such workers were also needed by the modern industry, which was developing in the North. In contrast, the South, with its warmer climate, raised settled crops like indigo, sugar, tobacco—and cotton. It was profitable to work these crops by ignorant slaves, under a few overseers. This difference in economic needs was at the root of the clash over slavery.

The first negro slaves came to America at the beginning of the 17th century. Before this, workers were employed under indentures—and they moved on to settle new lands when their term expired. This was not a convenient system for the Southern planters, who needed a settled labour force. Even so, they did not immediately use the Negroes as slaves; at first they were treated as indentured servants (although they had no indentures) and when their term ran out they often themselves bought another Negro. (It is interesting that the recognition of this right was the first legal sanction of slavery in America). When the planters realised that the Negroes had no legal rights they dropped the indenture formalities and openly bought and worked them as slaves. This was the stimulus to the West Indian slave mart, with its history of cold-blooded cruelly.

Slavery takes root

When slavery was not economical the white colonists tried to abolish it, but were often prevented by the English slave-running interests. Any anti-slavery movement based on moral grounds, without good commercial reasons, was doomed, as in the State of Georgia, which banned slavery when it was founded only to see the law ignored and evaded. The reason was that the Southern economy was being boosted by the demand from Europe for fresh foods and new materials; cotton was of increasing importance and the planters would not allow it to be disturbed. The invention in 1793 of the Whitney Cotton Gin (which automatically combed and separated the cotton), stimulated production and increased the demand for slaves. The cotton plantations spread from the Old South (Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky) into the Deep South (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi), whose red clay was ideal for this crop. The Old South traded slaves into the new plantations—in 1836 Virginia alone sent 40,000. The Negroes did not like their new conditions—the song Carry Me Back to Old Virginia is the lament of the slave who had been moved from the comparatively genteel Old South to the harshness of the Deep South. This area became heavily dependent on its cotton, and its pro-slavery sentiment became that much more fanatical and its planters that much more brutal. This attitude, although outdated, lingers on in the Southern States. It causes the riots in places like Clinton and Little Rock.

As we can see from a few dry figures, the 17th and 18th centuries saw a remarkable growth in the American Negro slave population. Over the 20 years up to 1671 the white population of Georgia increased from 15,000 to 40,000 and its Negros from 300 to 2,000. In 1760 the North American population was about 1½ million, 300,000 of them slaves; at this time the average slave holding in Virginia was 10 (largest 250). When the war started in 1861 there were about four million slaves in the Confederacy and some 230,000 free Negroes.

It was during the first half of the 19th century that the Southerners’ aristocratic pretensions became so objectionable, with the notion that they represented the gracious, hospitable elements of American society, whilst the Northerners stood for all that was brash and cheap. The uniformity of productive (that is, agricultural) , methods and organisation of property ownership tended to unite the South politically and gave it an important—possibly over-important—influence in American politics. On the other hand the North was comparatively disunited, with many economic factions each having its own functional and property rights. In the 1850’s the Capitalists of the North were stricken by a financial crisis and this, with the usual depression of the workers’ conditions and the greed of the industrialists, strengthened the Southerner’s conviction in his superiority. (The romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott went down well with this conviction!) Inevitably, the white men in the South looked on the Negro as a docile, dim-witted, sub-human; even the poor whites tried to get on the band wagon. Although they lived in appalling poverty on their tiny plots, trying to compete with the big plantations, they had their pride. Their skin—when they washed it—was white; so they could join the pro-slavery chorus.

Slave Empire

If the poor whites had little reason to get on their high horse, the wealthy Southern planters could offer strong justification for their attitude. They had invested good money in their Negroes, which they would lose if the slaves were freed. They wanted to expand the slave-lands into a great empire to take in the new lands in the West, Cuba, Central America and even Brazil. This empire, they thought, would supply the food and raw materials which the developing industries of Europe needed. But the Northern industries also had designs on the West and it was here that the conflict was defined. To win their point, the South rigged their elections, sending numbers of representatives to Congress based on population returns which included slaves who were not allowed to vote. They became more and more aggressive and impatient of the interference from the government. As the quarrel grew fiercer, one compromise after another was tried, but all failed. The Southern States wanted the right to run their affairs as they liked. And they were getting ready to fight for it. 

No Compromise

Neither side rushed blindly into the American Civil War. North and South made many efforts to compromise on their disputes, but each settlement only flung up more problems, making the war seem more certain.

Louisiana Purchase

In 1803 it was proposed that the Louisiana lands, recently purchased from France, should be recognised as a State of the Union. This proposal roused the jealousy of the New Englanders, not because Louisiana was a slave State but because they feared the addition of a Southern State on the other side of the political balance. This dispute promoted the agreement that free and slave States should be admitted to the Union alternately. This compromise worked well until 1820, when Missouri, a slave State, applied to join the Union. (Indiana. Illinois, and Maine had joined as free States and Mississippi and Alabama as slave States.) Although it meant breaking their agreement, the North bitterly opposed the entry of Missouri, for they were coming to the opinion that no more slave States should be admitted to the Union. This dispute was shelved by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which recognised Missouri as a slave State, but ruled that no slave State should exist north of a parallel 36' 30' N., and that any State south of this line should be allowed to decide its own status.

The Missouri Compromise was broken by the refusal to extend the line across the Continent when California joined the Union, and further trouble developed over the admission of Kansas and Nebraska. These two States were brought into the Union to carry the railways which were pushing into the West. Under the terms of the Missouri Compromise both should have been free States, but in the event only Nebraska was recognised as such. Kansas, whose wild and lawless settlers were violently pro-slavery, was allowed to choose its own status and the whole procedure was legalised by the Kansas/Nebraska Bill of 1854, which finally wiped out the Missouri Compromise.

The first elections in Kansas were chaotic. First, heavily armed Border ruffians from Missouri came into the State and drowned the election in illegal votes. When the pro-slavery candidate was declared elected, John Brown led a counter invasion of Abolitionists. Civil war broke out between the two sides, with each setting up its own government and holding its own elections. In the end, the slavers won, and they passed the most stringent measures to protect their system. Another compromise had failed. 

The Republican Party

Tempers on both sides were now rising fast, aggravated by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This Act allowed Marshalls from the Southern States to arrest runaway slaves, who had previously been granted refuge in the North, and return them to their masters. The dispute over this Act was highlighted by the case of Dred Scott, a runaway slave, who legally contested his return. His case dragged on for years, until in 1857 the Supreme Court ruled that he was a piece of property without the right to sue in Federal Courts and that anyway he had lost his case in the Missouri courts, which had sole authority to deal with it. This decision stung opinion in the North, and the extreme anti-slavery attitude of the Abolitionists became more acceptable. In Boston, Lloyd Garrison had earned from the State of Georgia a $5,000 price on his head for publishing the Abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. Respectable Northerners, after the Dred Scott case, looked upon Garrison’s paper with a less hostile eye.

Still, the Abolitionists could not win a Presidential election; in 1856 John C. Fremont lost to the Democrat, Buchanan. In truth, the Abolitionists could never fulfil the needs of the North’s rising capitalists. As the railways grew out and the link-up of the Middle West destroyed local prejudices, as the struggle between industry and the Southern landowners became more acute, so opinion in the North became more solid. In 1856 the Republican Party was formed and the Northern capitalists had a political organisation strong enough to counter the aristocratic planters. The Republicans did not at first intend to abolish slavery, or to sharpen the conflict with the South. They wanted to expand American industry, develop the West and control the country’s political affairs. But each successive dispute, and the planters’ notion of their inborn superiority, made civil war seem unavoidable.

Abraham Lincoln

The Bourbon planters were blind to the fact that the South was falling behind economically. Two-thirds of the country’s banking and financial investments were in the North, with Massachusetts alone said to hold more money in her banks than the whole of the Confederacy in 1861. Other estimates put the North's manufactures as worth nearly ten times all the crops of the South, and reckoned the Northern hay crop more valuable than all the Southern cotton, tobacco and sugar. (The planters over-estimated the importance of the world’s demand for cotton right through the war, many Southerners expected Lancashire opinion to force England to declare war on the North). They were convinced of their strength, and America slithered towards civil war, with the feeble President, Buchanan, incapable of doing anything about it.

In 1860 another Presidential election fell due, with Abraham Lincoln representing the Republican Party. There were only 30,000 slave-owning families in the South, with about 10,000 of them large owners. But these were the influences in Southern public opinion and, although Lincoln was plainly moderate in his opinion on the slavery dispute, they had no desire to put political power into his hands. He did not receive one vote south of Virginia (where he polled 2,000). In the border State of Missouri he got just 17,000. In 1856 the cotton States had plainly said that, if the Abolitionist Fremont were elected, they would leave the Union. (There had been several such threats during the past 60 years’ political struggles, not all of them from the South.) The planters recognised that Lincoln’s victory broke their last link with the Union, which they regarded as a collection of sovereign States which they could leave at will. They would suffer no coercion from a central government.


In December, 1860, South Carolina led the way out of the Union, and by February of the following year Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and Texas had joined her in a Confederacy formed at Montgomery, Alabama. Jefferson Davis was the President and Alexander Stephens the Vice-President. Civil War seemed a hardening certainty.

Preparation and Prospects

As the year 1861 opened the future opponents of the American Civil War stood glowering at each other.

The war was only a few months away, but it was still difficult to descry any clear-cut differences between North and South. The Confederacy’s President—Jefferson Davis—had been strongly Unionist, until he saw control of the Union slipping from the South’s hands. His Vice-President —Alexander Stephens—had opposed secession right until the moment when his own State of Georgia contracted out. There was also confusion on the issue of slavery, many prominent Southerners opposing it, whilst the Lincoln Government had often slated that it had no intention of abolishing it. Perhaps the most famous Southerner to oppose slavery was General Robert E. Lee—the North actually invited him at the start of the war to take command of its forces., but he refused. Especially confused was the Northern State of Maryland, where there was much sympathy for the Confederates. Plenty of Americans thought that the seceded States had taken a perfectly legal and constitutional action and that, whatever military precautions the two sides may take, the quarrel would blow over.

Fort Sumpter Falls

The first important dispute after secession came as each side began to draw up its strength, and was about the possession of military forts and recruitment of manpower. First, the Union Government ordered all the border States to place their troops under Washington’s control. Promptly, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina joined the rebels, as a protest against this attempt at federal coercion. More ominous were the rumblings around the army forts in the Southland.

The Confederates argued that, although the forts were occupied by United States troops, the land on which they stood had only been leased to the Government. Now that the Southern States had left the Union, their occupation by Federal forces was illegal and intolerable. Interest became centred on Fort Sumpter at Charleston, which the Governor of South Carolina had been planning to take over since December, I860. Southern Congressmen warned Lincoln that any attempt to relieve Sumpter would lead to war and sure enough on January 9th, 1861, the steamer, Star of the West, sent to the fort, was fired on and forced to withdraw. An uneasy peace brooded over Fort Sumpter until April, when Confederate General Beauregard, learning of a Union convoy on the way to raise the siege, bombarded it into surrender. Although many other forts had been taken in the South, Sumpter had become an important symbol, and its fall touched off a unifying passion in the Union. It may also be said to have marked the start of the war.

Since February, the South had been seriously preparing its war effort. After Sumpter, Lincoln replied by calling for 75,000 militia, to serve for three months (later altered to three years) and announcing a blockade of every Southern port from South Carolina to Texas. On May 6th the Confederate Congress passed an Act which recognised the existence of a state of war with the Union and shots were exchanged in Virginia and at Camp Jackson, St. Louis. There had been almost a year of increasing tension and bitterness. That was at an end. Hope was finished, too. The world’s first modern war had started, with its savagery and terror.


What were the strength, the weaknesses and prospects of either side ? The Northern population was about 22 million; the Southern between 5 and 6 million, plus about 4 million negroes. In 1860 the United States Army had numbered about 16,000; of these, the Southern States had the nucleus of an army in the forces controlled by each State. About 3 million men served in the war in the Union forces, 2 million of them 23 years old or younger—an ideal age for soldiers. On the other hand, the Confederates' smaller population forced them to conscript all men between 17 and 55. When the war opened the volunteers on both sides were numerous, but as the thing dragged on the spirit declined. In the South, poor dirt farmers joined open combat with Confederate patrols and draft officials, whilst in the North, Chicago suffered anti-conscription riots.

The South was full of hope. Although the Act of Secession had cut them off from the new lands in the West, they thought that their raw materials could be traded for manufactures from the growing capitalist powers of Europe. These manufactures, ran the optimistic argument, would compensate for the rebels’ lack of industrial power. Here lay the South’s weakness, for as the agricultural area of the United States, they had left manufacturing to the North. They had next to no factories and what they had were mainly worked by Northerners, who returned to their home States when the war started: this was disastrous to the railway repair shops. The rebels had only one works—at Tredegar, in Richmond—where they could cast a gun or make a marine engine: the States Armouries were deficient, and at the start of the war there were no powder mills. There was hardly any iron and unseasoned wood had to be used in shipbuilding. All of this meant that, among other things, the rebels would not be able to break the blockade which the Union Navy kept on its ports. It also meant that recognition of the Confederacy by the European Powers was a wild dream. But the South was blind to all this; their population may have been only a quarter that of the North, but they had plenty of men who got their living planting and hunting, who were used to horseback and hardened to a spartan outdoor life They could handle guns and, apart from a dislike of organised discipline, were ideal material for soldiers. When the time came, they were to fight hard and tenaciously. The aristocratic pretensions of the South had bred a group of accustomed leaders: men like Lee and Johnston, Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart, all brilliant commanders. Yes, the South was full of hope: one rebel, they said, was worth any ten Yankees.

The Yankees

And the North? Industrially, they had it all. But they needed a machine—the sort to which the 20th century has become accustomed—to change their population of factory and merchanting workers into soldiers. It took them a few years; but in the end they did it, reaching their peak of organisation when Sherman’s troopers blasted their way across the heart of the Confederacy, like any crack Commando brigade. “The Yankees dare not fight,” said many a cocky Southerner at the war’s beginning. The next few years showed that the Yankees could not only fight—they could also march and plunder, and hound an entire army to destruction.

Victory and what it was worth

Ask that approachable fellow, the man-in-the-street, to name a battle of the American Civil War and he will almost certainly mention Gettysburg; if history was one of his subjects at school he may remember Antretam and Manassas. These battles were all fought in the east, where the more glamorous—if that is the proper word—campaign of the war took place. If the western theatre was less famous, its effect was of greater consequence.

The Campaigns

In the north and the east, around the Potomac river, in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the two armies grappled for each other's capital city. Washington and Richmond spent an unquiet war in consequence, always afraid of attack and pillage. The early Unionist tactics in this area were notable for their lack of aggressiveness, which allowed Lee and Jackson to gain some spectacular victories. Fortunately for the Union, these victories were rarely pressed home, because of the Confederates’ heavy losses and their shortage of ammunition; they paid dearly for their industrial shortcomings. Lincoln fumed and fretted at his generals and changed them many times, until Grant’s appointment as commander brought a new conception to Northern tactics. Grant kept a constant pressure on his opponents, chasing them and forcing them to battle until in the end he destroyed them.

In the south and the west the vital part of the war was forged and fought. The Union armies moved down the Mississippi river from Missouri, whilst their navy landed troops at the river’s mouth to capture New Orleans. Vicksburg--an important junction of railway and river—was taken after a siege and the Union armies then moved cast through the mountain gaps into Georgia. They captured Atlanta and swept on to Savannah on the Atlantic coast, plundering as they went, and cut the Confederacy in two. Although this campaign earned Grant the leadership of the Union forces, it is General Sherman's name which is always linked with the march through Georgia. His men were a harum-scarum lot. who cared little for the niceties of military dress and discipline. But they could march and fight and destroy, and this they did, through 200 miles of enemy territory. “Sherman's dashing Yankee boys," the song called them, and that was what they were. More than any other their ruthless campaign won the war for the Union. 

Peace and Problems

On April 9th, 1865. General Robert E. Lee, commander of the starving and ragged Confederate army, dressed himself in his best uniform and went out to surrender. Ulysees S. Grant cut a poor figure beside the resplendent Southerner, but there was no hint of spite in the surrender terms which he offered. Washington’s policy was to draw the Southland back into the Union and to rebuild it on a sound economic basis. On April 26th Johnston—in the West—gave up and through May and June the surrenders dribbled on. Jefferson Davis was himself captured at Irwinsvillc. Georgia, on May 10th. From May 22nd to 25th the Northern victory was celebrated in Washington with a mass review of the armies of Grant and Sherman. Abraham Lincoln was not there to take the salute; a month before he had been shot to death in Ford's theatre by the actor John Wilkes Booth, a vain and passionate man, and a fanatical rebel.

Now that the war had been won, what was to happen about slavery? Northern policy had not been consistent. Back in November, 1861, General Fremont had proclaimed his intention of confiscating the property of rebels and setting their slaves free. Lincoln’s government had been elected for its Unionist policy and was uncommitted to abolition of slavery: it found Fremont’s declaration embarrassing and removed him from his command. Two things changed the government’s mind. The early successes of the Confederates strengthened abolitionist sentiment in the North. And it became necessary to draw up a co-ordinated policy on emancipated slaves, for each Union commander was dealing with them in his own way. Amid the chaotic conditions then existing in Washington, Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Emancipation. When the North won, this declaration gave the American Negro the hope of a life free from chattel slavery.


The emancipation measures broke down the plantation system and many Negroes took advantage of this and went to the Northern cities to look for work. The cities were partly unwilling and, anyway, unable to accept these immigrants, and thousands of them died of hunger and cold. Eventually, New York and Chicago eased the problem with their “black reconstruction” schemes. When power was handed back to the Southern States the whites soon look control again and the right of Negroes to vote vanished beneath a blanket of trickery. Prohibitive poll taxes, tests which could prove the most learned Negro to be illiterate and open violence were often used to prevent the black man from voting. We have all heard of the Ku-Klux-Klan, who are said to put three questions to their applicants for membership: “Do you hate Niggers? Do you hate Jews? Have you got three dollars? ” These were —and are—typical of the Southland, still largely carrying on its old agricultural economy with the Negroes and the poor whites barely scratching a living from the earth. The bloodshed and the tearfulness of the civil war was over, but the loud-voiced, colourful, racial-phobia politicians still lorded it over the land of the magnolia.

But the American Civil War did not leave things all unchanged, for it was the first modern war the world has seen and it introduced several things which we have since become familiar with. Grant's strategy of incessant pressure on his enemy was a tactic repeated in World War 1, in the slaughter at Passchendaele and Verdun and at Stalingrad in 1943. There was an official policy of conscription to counteract the large scale desertions from both sides, and an intensive propaganda campaign to sweeten the battering which the civilian population took through the Union blockade, the burning of Atlanta, the looting of the Shenandoah valley, and so on. London and Coventry and other English cities got similar treatment in the last war. And there was the lesson that a modern war is a social tragedy, not to be won by brilliant generals alone. The best commanders fought for the South, but the North had the industrial power and developed the necessary social organisation.


What of the present, and the future? American industry is expanding into Dixieland and needs the Negro to work in the factories alongside white people. It also requires that Negroes school themselves in the technicalities of modern industry. This expansion of productive and social knowledge is the force—more powerful than any war—which will, to use an overworked word, integrate the black and white American. Knowledge will destroy the Crufts of the human race and their theories of inborn superiority. Society's needs and progress will win. They always have.

Jack Law

The War Between The States (1961)

From the April 1961 issue of the Socialist Standard
100 years ago this month the American civil war began with the bombardment by the Confederate forces of the South of the Government held Ford Sumter. By the time it ended, four years later, it is estimated that out of a population of 31,000,000, between 750,000 and 1,000,000 men lost their lives, and many more wounded. The devastation was enormous. In many ways, it was the fore-runner of the total warfare we know today.
The revival of interest in the American Civil War is a phenomenon of the last decade. Chicago boasts of a successful book store where only Civil War items can be bought. Every week sees at least two new books on the War. What prompts this sustained interest is anybody's guess. Is it, perhaps, a search for a tranquilizer that will narcotize America to the many setbacks of recent years?

The Socialist searching through the mountain of Civil War books, is hard put to apply his yardstick of historical materialism. What seems to occupy the attention of the various authors, for the most part, is the spectacular bravery and dauntless courage displayed by Union warriors and Rebels alike. The social forces underlying the conflict, with the exception of the Slavery issue, are buried in a mass of drum and thunder history. It is easy for the casual reader to be left with the thought that the North was engaged in a crusade to wipe out slavery while the South was imbued with the "noble” ideal of saving it through secession. While this might have been typical of the average ideology of the War, it was certainly not a basic force in its origin.

If the abolition of slavery was an all important issue to the North, then why were Wendell Philips and William Lloyd Garrison mobbed in Boston, the centre of abolitionist ferment? Why was Lovejoy lynched in Illinois? Why was Douglass, friendly to the South and its institutions, elected to the Senate by the same State that started Lincoln on his road to fame?

Then too, the idea of opposition to slavery on moral grounds becomes ridiculous when one regards the low moral conscience of Northern industrialism. There was no revulsion at the horrible mills and mines where men, women and children toiled long hours for a pittance; at the miserable slums, unfit for human habitation in all the cities and towns; at the periodic crises which threw the workers on the streets to starve; at the universal blacklist for those who spoke of unionization.

Certainly it was not opposition to slavery on moral grounds, that prompted Massachusetts, in the early 18th century, to abolish it. John Adams wrote: “that the real cause was the multiplication of labouring white people who would not suffer the rich to employ these sable rivals so much to their injury." And the fact was that a committee appointed by the Massachusetts Council in 1706. recommended the abolition of slavery because “white servants were cheaper and more profitable than black slaves." Nor were Lincoln and his party, a century and a half later, concerned with the morals of slavery. In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued as a war measure against the Rebels and did not apply to those slave States loyal to the Union. The Republican Party made quite plain the fact that it was not opposed to the continuance of slavery in the South provided that it was not spread into the frontier areas in which the Northern industrialists wished to establish their own slave system — wage labour.

Chattel slave labour has to fill certain requirements in order to be a practical substitute for "free" wage-labour: (a) it must be cheaper; (b) there must be a climate which permits the use of cheap, coarse and scanty clothing: (c) the product worked must require little, if any, skilled labour; (d) there must be no complex machinery; (e) there must be an unlimited supply of new and fertile land that can be brought into cultivation as the old land becomes exhausted; (f) a one crop system is desirable; and (g) employment must be steady because chattel slaves must be supported continuously.

Obviously, the conditions for this type of labour did not exist in the North, whereas in the South, the cultivation and ginning of cotton for nine months of the year filled the bill. There were, however, serious contradictions which prevented the peaceful co-existence of the Southern and Northern economic systems, and which caused the Southern system to disintegrate prior to 1860.

The American South, despite its slave labour, was basically a commodity society in which goods (including slaves) and services were produced for sale on the market with a view to profit. A more fitting designation for the system is Plantation Capitalism. Certainly the South fought to maintain the chattel status of its Negroes, hut mainly because this type of labour was vital to its economy and because its very system was falling apart largely as a result of Congressional laws which favoured Northern interests and which helped make chattel slave labour too costly. The moral justification for slavery was naturally provided by the Southern churches for the benefit of their aristocratic “partners."

It was largely because of the law against the importation of slaves and the consequent need of breeding these “vocal tools" that a field hand who in 1808 sold for 150 dollars, brought from two to four thousand dollars in 1860. The control of Congress by the North resulted in high tariffs on imported manufactured goods which interfered with the important trade of Southern raw cotton for English textiles. The development of Northern seaports and railways also brought about a loss of trade to the South from the Western agricultural regions—long ship hauls down the Mississippi to the Port of New Orleans became unnecessary. And the South, which desperately needed new land lo replace that used up by their wasteful one-crop system, was losing out in its bid to bring in frontier areas as slave states.

As its losing economic war with the North and its internal contradictions progressed, the beneficiaries of the Southern plantation system became fewer, their holdings ever larger. In 1860, only about one-half million of a population of 9 million Southern whites are reckoned to have made any profit from chattel slavery, of which a mere 10,000 were the actual ruling class. In this crumbling fabric of the South, the problem confronting the 10,000 was how to maintain dominance under universal white suffrage. Support came from the professional class and the clergy with their one or two personal slaves. Also from the poor, degraded “white trash” who squatted on the poorest land and fiercely defended the institution of chattel slavery which provided another economic groups over whom they could vaunt their “superiority.” As an added bonus, there was the lift to their spirits to be had by identifying themselves with the Southern aristocrats.

The elections of 1860 tore any remnants of control of the national government from the hands of the Southern rulers. Secession became necessary. The plantation capitalists knew that their social system could never prosper with a government they could not control. They had no more need for the North, since their system was barred by soil and climate from expanding in that direction. With a government they could control, expansion to the south could proceed, in harmony with the grand visions of the Southern “Manifest Destinators.” There was Mexico to be conquered, Central America, Cuba, and even the vast continent of South America —all offering vast areas of land for the smooth operation of their economy. Their backs were to the wall, they had nothing to lose, so they took the plunge and the hot war began.

The Armed Conflict

The South, as an oligarchy, was better prepared in 1861 to begin a war than the more industrialized, but highly disorganized North. Productive work falling on the Negroes, the Rebels could put their entire fighting strength into the field without disturbance, and they inflicted defeat after defeat upon the army of farmers, mechanics and sailors of the North. The united South was faced by a North, divided, and to a considerable extent dominated, by the border states which were loyal but which were certainly not in favour of Abolition. The North found it difficult to raise the 300,000 men requested by Lincoln. Conscription was introduced for the first time in American history but an escape clause which permitted a man to buy a substitute for $300.00 enabled the rich to become legal dodgers and brought about riots in New York City against conscription.

But the outcome was inevitable. In the long run, despite the terrible initial defeats and despite the manipulations of such crafty patriots as J. P. Morgan who made a fortune by selling thousands of previously condemned rifles to the War Dept with a profit of $18.00 on each, the relatively highly developed North prevailed, and under such ruthless and capable generals as Sherman and Grant, swept away the last vestiges of chattel slave labour in America.

The socialists of the period, for the most part, actively interested themselves in the cause of the North. In England, the ruling class gave sympathy and support to the South. Karl Marx worked within the International Workingmen’s Association to rally the workers to the support of Lincoln. During the period of Northern reverses, the pioneer of scientific socialism held firm in his belief that the “North will make war seriously, adopt revolutionary methods and throw over the domination of the border statesmen; that the defeats being suffered by the North were due to the conducting of the war on constitutional and diplomatic instead of revolutionary lines.” He also pointed out “the failure to take cognizance of slavery as a military weapon . . . that the slaves should be declared free and that a single Negro regiment would have a remarkable effect on Southern nerves.”

Whatever the validity of the motives which influenced the socialists of the period, they definitely gave their support to what they regarded as a progressive type of capitalism. Looking back, we can question some of their views and the emphasis they gave to the chattel slavery issue and show that their all-out support of Northern capitalism was unwarranted.

With peace, the youngsters who had fought in one of the bloodiest wars in history (more than half of the Union Army were under 19 years of age and more than 300,000 were between 15 and 16) went out in the world to resume or begin the task of earning a living. Many of them, having become quick with the gun, were shortly to dot the Boot Hills of the new towns and mining camps and to help write the blood history of the West.

Those who returned to the industries found a new foe, warlike and pitiless, but in industrial rather than military warfare. These were the “captains” of industry—the Fricks, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Hills, Huntingtons, Flaglers and, of course, the redoubtable J. P. Morgan.

With the 70's came the business panics and the great strikes. In the Pennsylvania coal fields a bloody war raged with pistol and dynamite between the owners and the Molly Maguires (a secret society of rebellious workers). Alan Pinkerton, a spy of Lincoln’s, now became the leading industrial spy and strike breaker in the land. By worming his way into the inner circle of the society, he was instrumental in bringing about the exposure of the Molly Maguires. Ten of their members were hanged and many more sent to prison, bringing to an inglorious end the careers of some of the former heroes of the Union Army. Many more of the veterans were to witness the same generals who had led them to “victory” now march upon them with their former brothers-in-arms, to shoot, kill and jail them. It was a rude awakening and was to teach them that the war was not fought for them, as they had thought, but to build an economic system that would enrich a handful.

Sam Orner

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