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.