In 1864 Karl Marx wrote a letter on behalf of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln congratulating him on his re-election. In it he describes the American Civil War as initiating a new era of ascendancy for the working class. The Emancipation Proclamation issued on 22 September 1862 – in which Lincoln ordered the end of slavery – helped make this war one of the most significant periods of American history.
Northern cities in the US in the mid 19th century would have looked familiar to commentators in Europe. In 1840 ten times as many Americans lived in rural areas as lived in cities. By 1850 this figure was five to one. The rapidly growing urban population was largely made up of working class people, often doing manual jobs and living in squalid conditions. Their numbers were swollen by immigrants, notably from Ireland and Germany.
However, in the Southern states things were very different. These states relied heavily on black slaves working for wealthy plantation owners and fuelling the hugely profitable cotton trade. At its height one million tons of cotton were produced every year. Although the capture of new slaves had been illegal since the turn of the century the slave population was steadily growing as the children of slaves were growing up to become slaves themselves. Slave-owners constructed a racist ideology to justify this. They argued that slavery was a “natural and normal condition” for blacks and stoked fears of violent uprisings and threats to the chastity of white women from black men. Some even tried to cast themselves as philanthropists. They said that their slaves danced with joy in their chains at night and enjoyed better living conditions than many of the workers in the North.
But the social system in the South was looking increasingly fragile. In 1857 a slave named Dred Scott had attempted to win freedom by going to court. Scott’s master had travelled to Illinois – a free state – taking Scott with him, who argued that this made him a free man. However, the court ruled against Scott, arguing that they couldn’t deprive the owner of his “property” and that a slave had no right to bring a case to court anyway, because he was not a full American citizen. Cases like this angered many. Sympathetic supporters of the slaves, both black and white, helped thousands to escape to Canada as part of the Underground Railroad. Frederick Douglass, a former slave, had toured the country for years arguing for abolition. As an articulate, self-educated black person he countered the widespread racist view that blacks were intellectually inferior.
White abolitionist John Brown believed that slavery could only be ended by violent revolution. In 1859 he gathered a small band of supporters and launched an attack on the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Brown expected that this would be the spark that would cause slaves to rise up and overwhelm their masters. Although he had little real influence among slaves and was easily captured and executed, Brown became a martyr. The threat of an armed slave uprising – a deluge by “blood and fire” – had a huge psychological effect on Southern slave-owners. The two very different forms of production – industrial capitalism in the North and slave-owning in the South – were increasingly drawn towards conflict. Both sides wanted to expand their territories, particularly into the newly acquired west of the country.
Slavery was already a hard issue to ignore and the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1861 made it unavoidable. Lincoln, with his newly formed Republican Party, opposed any expansion of slavery and supported the interests of businessmen and those of small farmers over the large plantation owners.
Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery but was no abolitionist. He made it repeatedly clear that he had no intention of freeing the slaves, arguing that “the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends to increase rather than abate [slavery’s] evils”. Lincoln opposed measures such as the vote for black people and inter-racial marriage and favoured “returning” slaves to Africa – a popular proposal at the time. Even so, Southern states panicked. They saw a fundamental threat to their way of life in the Republicans’ free market, pro-manufacturing industry policies. Eleven Southern states seceded from the union. Marx described this as a pre-emptive counter-revolution.
Succession triggered the Civil War as Lincoln tried to reinstate the union. Unionists from the North repeatedly tried to force their way south but were driven back by Confederate armies.
The war was horrifically violent. The Southerners used mounted troops to ambush the invading armies. They had the advantage of knowing the area and knew how to live off the land. The Northern armies were larger but they were often exhausted and short of rations and water. In one battle, the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862, 4,200 Unionists and 3,400 Confederates were killed. Volunteer nurses like Clara Barton recalled working through the night tending to thousands of injured men outside in the fields and worrying that her lantern might set the straw they were lying on alight. Amputation was commonly used by field medics to remove limbs destroyed by heavy gunfire and explosions.
Union general George McClellan led the peninsular campaign to capture the Southern capital in Richmond, Virginia, which could have ended the war. However, his advance was defeated in a series of encounters known as the Seven Days Battles. McClellan was forced to retreat back to Northern territory. This defeat changed the nature of the war. It became clear that Northern military forces would not be able to preserve the union as it was. In order to win, the South would need to be invaded and their entire social order overturned.
The question of slavery had been brought into focus by the outbreak of war. The Second Confiscation Act, passed in July 1862, meant that slaves escaping into the North or into Unionist camps were considered contraband (confiscated property) and could not be forced to return to their Confederate owners. But not all generals enforced these laws and Lincoln ignored the non-enforcement. There were also no overarching regulations about how to treat former slaves. They often worked long hours cooking, cleaning, digging trenches and loading ammunition, leaving the white soldiers free to fight. They were paid but far less than their white counterparts. In some cases they were beaten and black women were raped by the soldiers.
The treatment of confiscated slaves reflects wider divisions within the Northern population on the slavery question. Lincoln had introduced a quasi-draft, rapidly changing the rules to get more of the Northern working class to join the army. Draft resisters demonstrated and often used racist slogans. They were reluctant to fight to end slavery and also worried that their jobs would be taken by African Americans if they left to fight. Groups of white men organised violent attacks on black men, women and children. McClellan, who was a hugely popular general, supported a war with limited aims and argued that Northerners would not fight for emancipation. He favoured reuniting the union while leaving slavery intact – a political position which influenced his strategy in battle.
However, abolitionists also made huge gains during the war. Many abolitionists would have risked their lives by speaking out before the war – now they were addressing packed public meetings. They were even welcomed by the establishment. Wendell Phillips, a white lawyer, was formally introduced to the Senate by the vice-president to make the case for abolition. Despite McClellan’s assertions, some regiments did take up the cause of emancipation – “John Brown’s Body” became a popular marching song. Contraband camps were set up by the military near Union encampments and activists taught the slaves (both adults and children) to read and write. General David Hunter declared martial law in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida without waiting for Lincoln’s approval and declared the slaves freed in these states.
Lincoln was leading a Republican Party divided between radical and conservative factions. Some wanted to confiscate slaves from Southern owners; others proposed encouraging slave-owners to end slavery voluntarily. Lincoln aimed to appease the border states (those in the North where slave-owning was legal) by offering compensation to give up slavery. But abolitionists criticised Lincoln for his insistence on pleasing all parties.
By September 1862 Lincoln had become convinced that in order to reinstate the union he would need to change his strategy. He issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to the South which threatened to liberate the slaves of those states still rebelling against the union by 1 January 1863. But he wanted to wait until after a military victory so that the proclamation would not look like an act of desperation. This was the Battle of Antietam, where McClellan confronted Confederate general Robert E Lee, an even more desperately violent collision than Second Battle of Bull Run. Opposing sides faced each other across Antietam Creek near Washington DC as artillery guns filled the air with shells. In some regiments more than 50 percent of soldiers were killed or injured. When Lee’s army retreated the Unionists were reluctant to pursue them.
In September 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation was issued as promised. The proclamation certainly had its limits. It was a military measure and therefore couldn’t apply to the slave-owning states in the North – as president of these states Lincoln felt he could not legally enforce his will over them. However, the issuing of the proclamation was a turning point both in the war and in the fight against slavery. Eyewitness accounts from former slaves record the response in the cotton fields as news spread: “A Yankee soldier told someone in Williamsburg that Lincoln done signed the ‘mancipation. Was wintertime and mighty cold that night, but everybody commenced getting ready to leave. Didn’t care nothin’ about missus – was going to the Union lines. And all that night the niggers danced and sang right out in the cold.”
Historian W E B Dubois describes a general strike on the plantations with slaves throwing down their tools, devastating the South’s income. There are reports of slaves in Mississippi driving their former masters off the land and dividing the land and implements between themselves.
Former slaves fought for the North. People of African descent had been allowed to join the army since shortly after the Seven Days Battles as a response to declining recruitment among whites. However, they now joined in large numbers – estimates suggest there were 200,000 black soldiers. James McPherson argues in his book Battle Cry of Freedom that the North might not have won the war without these black regiments. Enlistment of slaves caused an embarrassing dilemma for the South – as one Southern general put it, “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” After the Emancipation Proclamation abolitionists renewed their campaigns and collected 400,000 signatures by the summer of 1864 calling for a universal end to slavery – formally agreed by the government in the 13th Amendment.
After the turn to emancipation Lincoln replaced General McClellan with Ulysses S Grant as commander of all the Union armies. Unlike his predecessor, Grant advocated a total war policy, aiming to destroy the South’s economy alongside a more aggressive attack on the Southern military. The war continued with a more conclusive victory for the North at Gettysburg followed by a long campaign until General Lee’s surrender in 1865. America’s war against itself was its most violent – resulting in roughly as many deaths of Americans in four years than in all other wars the country has been involved in combined.
Historians point to several factors behind Lincoln’s change of heart. In 1861 he repeatedly said that he had no intention of freeing the slaves. In 1862 he was demanding their freedom – and he consistently took this position throughout the rest of the war. As well as pressure from abolitionists in the US and the need to drain the South’s labour power, the possibilities for better links with Europe played a role. As Marx – living in London at the time – notes in his letter to Lincoln, British aristocrats were ideologically and economically linked to the South. They attempted to rally support for the Confederates and threatened textile workers with the prospect of mass unemployment if the cotton stopped flowing from the South. However, this was unsuccessful, and abolition remained popular among ordinary people in Britain and France.
In his book A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn argues that emancipation was a reformist strategy aimed at making limited concessions to abolitionists and on the terms of the ruling class. It was a strategy to end slavery in a controlled way to avoid the threat of more radical change hinted at by the growing and radicalising abolition movement.
For a few decades after abolition, order was maintained by the continuing presence of Union troops in the South. There was a reconstruction effort involving subsidised school building. Black people established their own churches and were elected to political positions. However, many of those freed faced the prospect of going from slavery to exploitation on land still owned by the descendants of Confederates. After Lincoln’s assassination the next president, Andrew Johnson, allowed Southern states to establish their own laws including one preventing former slaves from owning their own land. The white supremacist ideas that had supported slavery still existed – the Ku Klux Klan started a campaign of terror that would last into the 20th century.
The American Civil War has been described as a second revolution – a continuation of the aims of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (Lincoln even referred to the first American revolution in the Gettysburg Address beginning “Four score and seven years ago…”). Both sides in the Civil War were fighting for their own interpretation of the ideals of freedom and equality expressed in the declaration. For Southern slave-owners freedom meant the freedom to keep slaves as “property” without the central government interfering. But for increasing numbers of people it no longer made sense to try to base a society on these ideals and keep so many of its citizens in slavery. In four years the war swept away a social order in the South which had lasted for decades.
Emancipation and the destruction of the slave system in the South allowed industrial capitalism to flourish. After the war new techniques of mass production were introduced. Steel industry expanded at a rapid rate and new inventions such as the typewriter, telephone and electric lighting were introduced. The US rapidly became the world’s most powerful manufacturing nation. Lincoln’s change of position towards emancipation would not have happened without the actions of the slaves themselves and their supporters – both black and white. It shows how far reformist leaders can move if they are pushed hard enough.
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