One hundred and fifty years ago North America saw the start of a revolutionary war fought between rival systems and opposing political ideologies. Neil Faulkner looks at The American Civil War.
When the guns opened fire on Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861, most Americans thought the war would be over before the summer was out. President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 militiamen to serve for 90 days. That, he reckoned, would be enough.
By the time it ended, four years later, 620,000 Americans were dead – more than in all the other wars in US history combined. What pushed the cost so high were the issues at stake.
The Civil War was the pivotal event in US history – a second revolutionary war to complete the work of the first and determine which of two incompatible social systems would dominate the North American continent.
Eleven Southern states had seceded from Union when Lincoln – a ‘black’ Republican – was elected president. The Southern leaders were clear about the reason. ‘The undying opposition to slavery in the United States means war upon it,’ explained Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens defined the new nation’s raison d’être as follows:
‘Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.’
Slavery was the issue on which men fought and died through four bloody years of ferociously contested civil war.
There were military reasons for the war’s intensity and duration – the vastness of the spaces, the dense wilderness across so much of it, the primitive communications, the killing-power of modern weaponry, and the ability of mass-production industry to equip and supply huge armies.
But the biggest reason of all was that it was a revolutionary war to decide what sort of society the United States was going to be.
The 1860 election had been one of the most polarised in US history. The Republican programme expressed the aspirations of the fast-growing capitalist economy of the North and the fast-expanding pioneer communities of the West. Central planks were higher tariffs to protect US industry, free farms for new settlers, and government subsidies for railroad construction.
The slogan was ‘Free soil, free speech, free labour, free men’. ‘The free labour system,’ explained Lincoln, ‘opens the way for all – gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.’ This was the rhetoric of a young, confident, forward-looking bourgeoisie – and, if needs be, a revolutionary one.
The South was a conservative agricultural society mainly dependent on export earnings from a single commodity: cotton. The South, like the North, was booming. As the textile industry expanded in New England, Britain, France, and elsewhere, the demand for, and price of, cotton soared.
In 1800, cotton exports had been worth $5 million, representing 7% of total US exports. By 1860, it was $191 million and 57% of the total. While mill-owners, mine-bosses, and railroad operators grew rich in the North, the traditional planter-aristocracy grew rich in the South.
The differences were many. Tariffs meant protection for Northern industry, but higher prices for Southern consumers. Westward expansion was fed mainly by Northern pioneers, threatening the balance of power between free and slave states within the Union. Railroad subsidies enriched Northern capitalists, not Southern planters.
Two economic systems, two social orders, two types of ruling class with different needs and rival demands were strapped together in a single polity. Whose interests should the state represent?
One issue became the prism that concentrated the growing antagonism and turned it into a mighty conflagration: human slavery.
The wealth of the Southern plantations depended on the labour of four million black slaves. The Republican Party contained a radical wing that was abolitionist. But it was Lincoln, a relative moderate, who said, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave, half free.’
Lincoln won only 40% of the national popular vote in the 1860 presidential election, but he carried almost every county in the Upper North, and won a clear majority of 54% across the North as a whole. Throughout the South, by contrast, his vote was minimal, largely restricted to Unionist enclaves like West Virginia and East Tennessee.
Northern abolitionists had no doubt about the significance of what had happened: ‘The great revolution has actually taken place,’ wrote Charles Francis Adams. ‘The country has once and for all thrown off the domination of the slaveholders.’
The struggle that resulted was long and bloody because it was a revolutionary war fought between rival systems and opposing political ideologies; no compromise, no negotiated settlement, no happy half-way house was open to Americans as they embarked upon their violent feud in the spring of 1861.
The stakes were irreducibly high for both sides: for the North, the survival of the Union, a unified national economy, and policy geared to industrial growth; for the Southern elite, the defence of slavery, the foundation-block of their social order.
The intensity and duration of the struggle radicalised it. For the first year and a half, abolition was not a Union war aim. But under the cautious leadership of a pro-slavery general, there was stalemate, and war-weariness and defeatism infected the North.
Lincoln was forced to re-energise the struggle by proclaiming the emancipation of the slaves. There was a good practical reason: slave labour freed white men for service in the Confederate Army, whereas escaped slaves could be turned into Union soldiers.
But the political reason was the greater: a war against slavery would make the struggle for the Union morally unimpeachable, wrecking any chance of European backing for the South, and enlisting the passion of abolitionists and the slaves themselves in the nation’s ‘fiery trial’.
Lincoln concluded that ‘we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued’. Implicit in the Emancipation Proclamation issued in September 1862 was a redefinition of US democracy. ‘As I would not be a slave,’ said Lincoln, ‘so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.’
Many of the men and women who won the Civil War for the Union were inspired by Lincoln’s vision of ‘a new birth of freedom’.
On 18 July 1863, a Union regiment hurled itself at the formidable defences of Fort Wagner at the entrance to Charleston harbour in South Carolina. The attack was pressed with consummate courage, but was defeated. The colonel of the regiment was shot down on top of the enemy rampart.
The regiment was the 54th Massachusetts. Carrying the war to the heart of the slaveholders’ rebellion, it was the very embodiment of revolution. The dead colonel was a young Boston abolitionist, and many of his men were former slaves. By the end of the war, 200,000 black soldiers would have served in the Union Army.
In 1864, the war entered its third phase. Union armies now waged total war to smash the South. ‘War on the chateaux, peace to the cottages,’ Danton had proclaimed in France’s bourgeois revolution. Now, at the climax of America’s second revolution, General Sherman’s army marched through the heartland of the Confederacy, burning mansions, freeing slaves.
The war ended in April 1865. The next decade was dominated by ‘Reconstruction’. Much of the South was kept under military occupation. Northern ‘get-rich-quick’ entrepreneurs – known as ‘carpetbaggers’ – moved in. Freed slaves got the vote and used it to elect black judges, state politicians, even congressmen.
But once the power of the Southern planter-aristocracy was broken and the dominance of Northern capital secured, the Union Army withdrew, and state governments were re-colonised by the old elite.
Southern blacks were disenfranchised, segregated, and terrorised into submission by the racist thugs of the Ku Klux Klan. They worked henceforward as menial labourers or impoverished sharecroppers. Slavery was replaced by a form of racial apartheid across the South. It would last for almost a century.
The American Civil War, like all bourgeois revolutions, gave rise to both huge advances and bitter disappointments. It destroyed an old system of exploitation only to raise up a new. Its unfinished business will be the work of a third American revolution yet to come.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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