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The American Civil War: war against slavery

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150 years after the American Civil War began, Matthew Cookson looks back at the significance of the conflict—and examines what really lay behind it
Issue 2248
Black people poured into the armies fighting Southern slaveowners during the American Civil War.
Black people poured into the armies fighting Southern slaveowners during the American Civil War.

The American Civil War began 150 years ago this month when forces bombarded Fort Sumter, a government base in South Carolina. Some claim the war between Northern and Southern US states was about the rights of states. In reality, it was a conflict between two different ways of organising society.

Slavery was at the heart of the bloody war, which lasted for four years and saw the death of 600,000 people out of a population of 30 million.

Leaders of the Southern states, known as Confederates, fought to defend slavery. In the North, rulers backed the ideology of “free labour” because it was in their class interest.

The North only won because, eventually, it fought a revolutionary war. It promised the abolition of slavery and hundreds of thousands of black people mobilised to fight for their liberation. Black and white women were a crucial part of the struggle.

The American Revolutionary War of 1775–83 had seen the US overthrow its British rulers. But there were two very different forms of organisation in the new, independent country.

In the North, workers flooded into the new expanding factories and small farmers worked the land.

Slaveowners dominated the South. By 1860, four million slaves, living under cruel overseers and harsh conditions, were producing a million tonnes of cotton a year for the world market.

There were deep divisions between the Northern and Southern elites. Many Northern industrial capitalists wanted tariffs to protect their markets and products from British firms.

But Southern slaveowners wanted free trade—as tariffs would hit their exports to the British cotton industry.


The interests of the South dominated for most of the 19th century with the aid of the Democratic Party, which represented the slaveowners.

But anger against slavery saw the rise of an abolitionist movement, and many supporters of “free labour” wanted to reduce the power of the South.

The Republican Party emerged out of this feeling in the 1850s—and Republican Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election.

Lincoln was conciliatory to the South from the beginning. He declared that he would not “interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists”.

Despite this, Southern states saw Lincoln’s election as a threat to their power. Seven of them—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas—split from the Union (the federal government).

Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina joined them after the bombing of Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s mobilisation of the army to restore government power in the South.

A powerful mood swept the North, with states offering militia regiments and men volunteering to the new army.

People flocked to abolitionist meetings with speakers such as the freed slave Frederick Douglass and 19 year old Anna Dickinson, a quaker activist.

Douglass wrote, “The American people and the government at Washington may refuse to recognise it for a time, but the inexorable logic of events will force it on them in the end—that the war now being waged in this land is a war for and against slavery.”

At first, Lincoln tried to keep “moderate” opinion on board.

He made concessions to Northern Democrats, who supported slavery, and slaveowning states that had stayed in the Union.

Lincoln gave control of the army to George B McLellan, a supporter of Southern slavery.

When one general started freeing slaves as a military measure against Southern forces in August 1861, Lincoln reversed his order.

Lincoln even said that runaway slaves should be returned to their Confederate owners, unless they had been involved in military labour.

These moderate methods failed—and, some 18 months into the war, there was a stalemate.

The abolitionists pushed for more radical measures.

They demanded Lincoln announce the freedom of the slaves and enrol black soldiers into the Northern army.

This was already becoming a reality as more and more escaped slaves became a volunteer labour force with the Union army.

Lincoln hesitated at first, but when he became convinced it was necessary for victory he embraced it wholeheartedly.

Lincoln sacked McLellan in 1862. Then he announced the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863, freeing the slaves in those states that had joined the Confederacy.

The Union army now became open to black people, and tens of thousands signed up.


By the end of the war they made up around 10 percent of the Union’s 2.5 million troops.

Their presence in the army transformed the ideas of many of those they encountered.

One Michigan sergeant wrote, “The more I learn of the cursed institution of slavery, the more I feel willing to endure its final destruction.

“Abolishing slavery will dignify labour; that fact, of itself, will revolutionise everything.”

The transformed Northern army waged an all-out war to destroy the power of the slaveowners.

The Southern elite became more worried about the presence of black people in their territories.

Hundreds of thousands of slaves deserted the plantations and walked into the Union army’s camps.

This threatened the South’s ability to supply its army.

As Northern armies marched further into the South, freeing slaves and burning plantations, slaveowners had no choice but to surrender in April 1865.

The struggle transformed Lincoln’s ideas. But it wasn’t solely his actions that freed the slaves.

Slavery was overthrown in the US because of the actions of millions of ordinary people—black and white—who took part in a revolutionary war against the South.

The revolutionary Karl Marx observed, “The new world has never achieved a greater triumph than by this demonstration that, given its social and political organisation, ordinary people can achieve feats which only the heroes could achieve in the old world.”

Limits of the North’s victory

Freed slaves celebrated following the North’s victory, but any hopes of equality were cruelly dashed.

A Confederate agent assassinated Abraham Lincoln days after the North’s victory. His successor, Andrew Johnson, didn’t want to impose any change in the South except the abolition of slavery.

But there was huge opposition to Johnson, leading to Ulysses S Grant winning the 1868 presidential election.

Grant enforced a period of “reconstruction” on the South.

An occupying Northern army kept the old Southern elite from controlling state or local governments.

Freed slaves voted in elections, and hundreds of black people were elected to state governments, and the federal Congress and Senate.

Schools opened for poor black and white children to be educated for the first time.

The old planters encouraged the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, which launched a campaign of terror against freed slaves and their white supporters.

While the Northern army was in place, this could not turn back the gains black people had won.


But the North refused to challenge land ownership in the South, which remained in the hands of the old masters.

Most former slaves had to sell their “free labour” to former slaveowners to make a living.

And by the mid-1870s, the Northern capitalists believed they had broken the power of the planters in the South.

The army pulled out, and the Ku Klux Klan was given a free hand to increase its campaign of terror. This, and the economic power of the landowners, allowed the old elite to re-establish control.

They abolished votes for black people and many poor whites.

There were grassroots challenges to this. But black people in the South did not win back the vote until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Industrial capitalism and “free labour” had come to dominate the US. But racism is integral to this form of the system too, and the rights of black people were soon trampled on.

Nevertheless, the mass mobilisation of ordinary people shows how fundamental change can take place.

Find out more

  • Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
  • A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • Glory—a great film on a black regiment during the civil war

All available to order from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop.

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