[Audio] The American Civil War: A Sword in One Hand and the Book of Freedom in the Other

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Our fourth episode on the American Civil War covers the course of events from Emancipation Proclamation to the end of the war. After a brief hiatus, we will be back with more episodes to cover the convulsive period of Reconstruction.

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[Civil War song “Battle Cry of Freedom” and battle sounds]

The freeing of the slaves ranks as one of the biggest revolutionary expropriations without compensation in the whole of human history. And it was the mass action of the slaves themselves that forced Lincoln and his generals’ hands. It was their heroism in battle that further radicalized Northern public opinion in favor of abolition. Hundreds of thousands of slaves risked their lives to run away, joined the Union army, and otherwise sabotaged and hobbled the Southern economy in what WEB DuBois likened to a slave “general strike.”

[Theme music]

Hi, everyone! Welcome to this episode of the Socialist Revolution podcast. My name is John Peterson, I’m the editor in chief of Socialist Revolution magazine, the official publication of the US section of the IMT. You can visit our website at www.socialistrevolution.org. Every episode we feature contributions and discussions on current events, history, and theory from a Marxist, class-struggle perspective, featuring revolutionary socialists from around the country and around the world.


If you haven’t listened to the first three parts of our series on the American Civil War, I strongly suggest you check them out before moving on to part four. Over the course of the first few episodes we laid the basic theoretical foundations for understanding the second American Revolution, covered the main events that led to the secession crisis following the election of Abraham Lincoln, and gave a brief overview of the course of the war roughly up to the Battle of Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Revolutionary war

With the preliminary announcement of that all-important proclamation on September 22, 1862, a new phase of the war opened—the truly revolutionary phase. As we saw in earlier episodes, events had inexorably pushed in this direction.
As Thaddeus Stevens the Radical Republican had put it before emancipation and the arming of freed slaves was made official policy:

“The war will not end until the Government shall more fully recognize the magnitude of the crisis; until they have discovered that this is an internecine war in which one party or the other must be reduced to hopeless feebleness and the power of further effort shall be utterly annihilated. It is a sad but true alternative.

“The South can never be reduced to that condition so long as the war is prosecuted on its present principles. The North with all its millions of people and its countless wealth can never conquer the South until a new mode of warfare is adopted. So long as these states are left the means of cultivating their fields through forced labor, you may expend the blood of thousands and billions of money, year by year, without being any nearer the end, unless you reach it by your own submission and the ruin of the nation. Slavery gives the South a great advantage in time of war. They need not and do not withdraw a single hand from the cultivation of the soil. Every able bodied white man can be spared for the army. The black man, without lifting a weapon is the mainstay of the war.”

But, he argued powerfully, “Give [the general] the sword in one hand and the book of freedom in the other, and he will soon sweep despotism and rebellion from every corner of this continent.”

Originally conceived as a war measure to undermine the Confederacy’s ability to prosecute the war, emancipation meant that as of January 1, 1863, all persons held as slaves in those areas in rebellion against the federal government would be “then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

So although the slaves in non-seceded border states were not included, this nonetheless accounted for 7/8ths of the slave population, a decisive figure that would lead inevitably to eventual freedom for the rest. Slaves were no longer considered confiscated property, or contrabands, which could be restored to their owners once the war was over.

Although some black infantry units had been formed in Louisiana, Kansas, and South Carolina after the Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July, 1862, the first official all-black unit formed in the aftermath of the proclamation was the famous 54th Massachusetts, raised in early February of 1863 by the abolitionist governor of that state, and depicted in the film Glory. But even in uniform, the discrimination continued and black soldiers were paid less than white ones until later in the war.

As we noted in our last episode, some 180,000 black soldiers served in the Union army, roughly 10% of the total. Around half were recently escaped former “contrabands,” a quarter were from loyal border states, and the other quarter were free blacks from the North. Of the 40,000 who died during the war, 10,000 died in combat and the other 30,000 died from infection or disease. It is worth noting the well-documented fact that when Confederates captured or even fought black troops, they were especially targeted or even massacred outright, as happened at Fort Pillow and the Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg.

It would take several months before black troops saw major combat, and the war was far from over. Plenty of trials, tribulations, reversals, and close calls remained for the Union—not to mention hundreds of thousands more deaths.

In December of 1862, the Battle of Fredericksburg in Northern Virginia had seen a totally senseless slaughter, as Union general Ambrose Burnside sent waves of troops in one futile charge after another against well-entrenched defenders, with nearly 13,000 Union casualties, compared to just over 4,000 on the Confederate side. After the ignominious “Mud March,” a failed attempt to maneuver around the Confederates to strike at Richmond, Burnside was replaced with General Joseph Hooker in late January, 1863.

That May, the Army of the Potomac faced off again against Robert E. Lee and his key subordinate, Stonewall Jackson, not far from Fredericksburg, Virginia at a small crossroads known as Chancellorsville. This was Lee’s masterpiece battle, as he riskily divided his forces, which were already outnumbered roughly two to one, and sprang a bold and bloody surprise on the Union troops, inflicting 17,000 casualties on Hooker, while suffering just 12,000 himself. A brilliant tactical victory, it was nonetheless devastating in the long run, as the Union army could sustain these kinds of losses, while the Confederates couldn’t.

More immediately, Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops on his way back from a reconnaissance sortie, and he died a few days later, depriving Lee of his most trusted and tested commander. But the victory nonetheless emboldened Lee to try another invasion of the North, this time into Pennsylvania, in June of that year. His aim was to strike a blow at Union morale and to turn the Northern population to turn against the war.

His expedition culminated on July 1, 2, and 3 in what is almost certainly the most famous battle of the war, as over 170,000 soldiers converged on the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. And to make it even more of a nail-biter, the newest commander of the Army of the Potomac, George Meade, had only been in charge for a few days when the fighting started. This was the largest and bloodiest battle of the war, and included the largest artillery barrage in the history of the hemisphere.

From the exploits of General Buford’s light cavalry and the Iron Brigade on the first day, to the wholesale slaughter in the Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, and Devil’s Den, the First Minnesota’s charge down Cemetery Ridge, and Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine’s charge down Little Round Top on the second day, to Pickett’s infamous charge on the third day, there were incredible acts of collective and individual heroism and sacrifice on both sides, inspiring countless books, articles, and films.

News of the North’s victory at Gettysburg arrived in Washington on the Fourth of July— the same day as the fall of Vicksburg out west in Mississippi. The fall of Vicksburg gave the Union effective control of the Mississippi river, which Lincoln referred to as “the Father of Waters.” Although the Union had already taken New Orleans, which was the largest city in the Confederacy, in April 1862, strategic portions of the river were still in rebel hands. Referring to Vicksburg, Lincoln had once said that “The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.”

So for weeks, Ulysses S. Grant had slogged through the swamps in the summer heat, fighting a series of small but brilliant battles while entirely cut off from his supply lines before driving the Confederates in the area into the fortress town of Vicksburg. After several failed assaults and a creative and grueling siege, the defenders were forced to surrender to the relentless pressure of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, as Grant had been known ever since he had taken Fort Donelson.

Many consider the concurrent victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg to have been the decisive turning point in the war, the “high-water mark of the rebellion”—although the war went on for two more carnage-filled years.

Grant takes command

After Vicksburg, Lincoln knew that, after so many setbacks and disappointments, he had finally found his general, declaring, “Grant is my man and I am his the rest of the war!” Grant was given overall command of union forces in the West, and there was more bloody fighting in that theater, including Chickamauga in September—second only to Gettysburg in total casualties—and Chattanooga in November, when that key railroad junction was secured.

Holding Chattanooga opened the way to an invasion of Georgia and the deep South, which Sherman would undertake in a few months’ time. In March of 1864, Grant was transferred to the East to take overall command of the Union forces throughout the country. One union commander after another had been paralyzed by the mystique surrounding Robert E. Lee. But Grant knew that, like every other general he had faced, Lee was a man, and not a god—and he had actually met Lee once during the war with Mexico.

As an exasperated Grant once told his officers during the Battle of the Wilderness, “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think about what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Unfortunately, most Americans’ knowledge of Grant is colored by the pro-Confederate Lost Cause writers’ narrative that he was a drunk, a bad and corrupt president, and a butcher who didn’t care about the lives of his own men. Only recently have historians really begun to acknowledge his real qualities and understated genius, as well as his fundamental honesty and human decency. As Thomas Carlyle did with Oliver Cromwell, they have had to “drag [Grant] out … from under a mountain of dead dogs, a huge load of calumny and oblivion.”

Coordinated offense

In the early stages, the war had been waged almost as though there were several separate small wars going on in different parts of the country, in Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia, on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and so on. Without coordination, the many advantages enjoyed by the North could not be capitalized on.

Although they were numerically and economically at a disadvantage, the Confederacy had to wage a mainly defensive war and benefited from interior lines, which allowed them to shift troops as needed from one place to another. Although, to be fair, with such a massive territory to try to defend against the numerically and technologically superior enemy, and with a severe lack of resources from the very beginning, the Confederacy found it hard not to prevent the Union for pick enough one strategic stronghold after another, especially in the coastal areas.

As early as January 1862, Lincoln had written the following to one of his generals, Don Carlos Buell: “I state my general idea of this war to be that we have the greater numbers, and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision; that we must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an overmatch for his; and that this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points, at the same time; so that we can safely attack, one, or both, if he makes no change; and if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened one, but seize, and hold the weakened one, gaining so much.”

With its rapidly growing army and navy, the Union was quickly acquiring the means to apply “an unendurable pressure” on the Confederacy. Many in the South recognized this and feared what would happen once the resources of the North were fully brought to bear. Lincoln had had a hell of a time getting his generals to actually implement such a plan. In addition to a general lack of coordination, there was corruption, incompetence, and a series of petty rivalries and distrust within and between the military and civilian commands that added plenty of grays to his head and lines to his face.

But Grant shared a broad strategic vision for a coordinated effort to end the war, and more importantly, he had the will to grind out a victory no matter what it cost in time, money, and men. Knowing full well that the South did not have indefinite resources, Grant’s plan involved the simultaneous mobilization of five separate Union armies to pressure the Confederates on all sides and prevent them from taking advantage of the interior lines. He also knew that, along with economic strangulation and the freeing and arming of the slaves, the key to destroying Southern morale once and for all was to smash Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which was the embodiment and pride of the Confederate cause. Once these “bodies of armed men” were off the field, the game would be up for the secessionists—and for slavery.

The South didn’t have to take Washington, DC, invade, or occupy the North in order to win. The attempts they did make along these lines were mainly to gain political leverage and were not part of their long-term strategy. They mainly had to resist the Union armies long enough to wear down Northern morale, force peace negotiations, and if at all possible, gain recognition and some kind of support from the world’s major powers.

After emancipation, however, it was going to be virtually impossible to gain British or French recognition. The ruling class in these countries was under heavy pressure from the working class not to support a reactionary slave power. For example, at a meeting called by the London Trades’ Council at St. James’ Hall on March 26, 1863, over 3,000 workers came together to express solidarity and “sympathy with the Northern States of America, and in favor of Negro emancipation.” This, despite the extreme hardship suffered by British workers due to the lack of Southern cotton for the textile mills.

“Hard war”

The conflict had been transformed from a war merely to preserve the Union into a war to uproot slavery, and there was growing worldwide support for the Union cause. To speed up the end of the war, the Southern economy had to be crippled. Once Lincoln had found audacious and tenacious field commanders willing and able to carry out his policies in a concerted and coordinated way, the economic and demographic might of the North was all but unstoppable.

Union generals like Grant, Sherman, and Philip Sheridan believed that the South must be made to feel the “hard hand of war.” Eventually, the war was taken deep into the heart of the Confederacy, with slaves freed en masse, railroads and other property destroyed, and plantations and foodstuffs expropriated. So while the economy in the North was booming, the Southern economy was in free fall and both its armies and civilians suffered terrible privations.

But generally speaking, civilians were not targeted by either side for mass violence or wholesale massacre. In so many other civil wars, going all the way back to antiquity and even to the present day, the victors rounded people up, executed them, sold them into slavery, and so on.

It would be absurd, of course, to argue that there were no abuses as troops criss-crossed the country. For example, Sherman’s “bummers” during his march to the sea across Georgia in late 1864 weren’t always genteel to the local plantation owners. And as we’ve seen, in the border states there were vicious reprisals against civilians by partisans on both sides. And it is not an unimportant detail that during the Gettysburg campaign, black residents of Pennsylvania were hunted down and rounded up by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, to be sent South into slavery, even if they had never previously been slaves.

But it’s fair to say that what happened during the American Civil War was quite different from what happened when the White Armies occupied areas formerly held by the Reds during the Civil War that followed the Russian Revolution, or how the Romans treated those they conquered in so many of their civil conflicts and wars of conquest.

Nevertheless, the “total war” approach, targeting not only the armies, forts, and other strategic points, but also the economy—including slavery—eventually exhausted the South’s morale and capacity to maintain armies in the field.

Grant chased Lee doggedly in a series of bloody battles during the Overland Campaign, from The Wilderness to Spotsylvania Courthouse to Cold Harbor and many points in between, and applied overwhelming pressure during the siege of Petersburg and Richmond. It was a long, hard slog, and many in the North doubted whether he could actually pull it off—but he did in the end.

Philip Sheridan shattered the economy of Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, which had long been the breadbasket of the Confederacy. And Sherman besieged and eventually took the key city of Atlanta, the burning of which was immortalized in the film Gone With the Wind. He then marched across the entire state of Georgia to Savannah, and then up through South Carolina and into North Carolina, tearing up railroad lines and telegraphs, and cutting a wide swath of destruction as his tens of thousands of soldiers lived off the land.

In Georgia alone, Sherman estimated he had inflicted $100 million in damages—equivalent to around about $1.6 billion in today’s dollars—about one fifth of which “inured to our advantage” while the “remainder [was] simple waste and destruction.” His troops wrecked 300 miles of railroad, numerous bridges, and miles of telegraph lines. They seized 5,000 horses, 4,000 mules, and 13,000 head of cattle, and confiscated 9.5 million pounds of corn and 10.5 million pounds of fodder, as well as destroying an untold number of cotton gins and mills.

Nearly 20,000 freed slaves followed in his army’s wake, and were often targeted for murder by vengeful Confederates who could not stand up against the Union army itself. It was while he was in Savannah that Sherman signed his Special Field Orders 15, which set aside 400,000 acres of confiscated Confederate land so that “each family [of former slaves could] have a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground.” Some families also received some old army mules, and thus was born the idea of “40 acres and a mule,” which we’ll explore in more detail when we get to the episodes on Reconstruction.

The beginning of the end and the end of the beginning

As we’ve seen, the Confederates were unable to gain recognition from the major European powers. So they pinned their hopes on the 1864 elections, when Lincoln’s former top general, George B. McClellan, ran against him as a “peace” candidate on the Democratic Party ticket. The election was, without a doubt, a referendum on the war and emancipation, and even Lincoln himself didn’t think he stood much of a chance. But in the end, he was reelected in a landslide, with overwhelming support among the soldiers—and given a huge boost with the fall of Atlanta coming just a few weeks before the election.

At his Second Inaugural Address, given on March 4, 1865, Lincoln spoke the following powerful words: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”

That work, of course, was a revolutionary war to liberate 4 million humans from bondage.

The presidency had taken a terrible toll on Lincoln’s health. Not only did the stress and strain of the war leave its mark, he had suffered the death of his 11-year old son Willie while in the White House. But the Great Emancipator saw the war through to the end.

Just a few weeks later, on April 2, 1865 after a long and painful siege, the Confederates succumbed to Grant’s irresistible pressure at the Third Battle of Petersburg and had to abandon Richmond. True to form, seeking only a decisive military victory and not personal glory, Grant immediately continued his pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia, instead of marching triumphantly into the enemy capital.

The end for Lee and the main force of the Confederate Army came on April 9, at the tiny crossroads village of Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. To cut across the danger of the war descending into prolonged guerrillaism, and to accelerate the process of national healing, Grant offered Lee and his men extraordinarily lenient terms of surrender.

It has been pointed out by the historian Elizabeth Varon that Grant entered the negotiations under the assumption that the principles of the cause he defended had been victorious. As he later put it, the Confederacy and slavery was “one of the worst [causes] for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” But Lee conceded only military defeat, that is, that might had defeated right. In this difference of understanding of the significance of Appomattox you can discern the seeds of the chaos and complexity of Reconstruction.

Less than a week later, on April 15, Lincoln was assassinated by the renowned actor and pro-Southern zealot, John Wilkes Booth, while watching a play at Ford’s Theater. Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State Seward were also targeted but survived. Lincoln’s murder was a significant historical accident and, without a doubt, it changed the course of Reconstruction. Things would have been significantly different had he been around to use his towering personal authority, political acumen, and ability to change course when conditions required to guide the country through what was always going to be a violent and messy process.

Instead, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee presided over the first phase of postwar Reconstruction. And though he hated the Southern planter aristocracy with a passion, he was “no friend to black people,” as Frederick Douglass had accurately surmised when his gaze connected with Johnson’s at Lincoln’s second inauguration.

Much more than a war

The Civil War laid the basis for the full consolidation of capitalism in both the North and the South. It set the stage for the momentous struggles that would rage between labor and capital in the decades that followed, and prepared the ground for the rise of US imperialism and its restless military and economic expansion around the world. It was not only the military course of the war that had changed the country, but its effects on manufacturing, banking, militarization, infrastructure, and more.

Take the US dollar, for example. Before the war, the only currency issued by the federal government was gold and silver coins, or specie. There were hundreds of different banknotes issued by private banks, exchangeable for specie in limited areas serviced by those specific banks. Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury was none other than Salmon P. Chase—the namesake of today’s Chase bank. On February 25, 1862, the first Legal Tender Act was passed, and the federal government started issuing what became known as greenbacks, which had far-reaching consequences on the development of the economy and the role and power of the federal government.

As another example, take the Homestead Act, also enacted by Lincoln in 1862, which provided that any adult citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the federal government could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land as long as they “improved” the plot by building a dwelling and cultivating it. This led to a massive exodus of white settlers to the west, and to the wars of annihilation against the Native Americans.

In the midst of the war, in 1862 you had the Dakota War, also known as the Sioux Uprising, over treaty violations by the government and relentless encroachment by settlers. Hundreds of settlers and dozens of US soldiers and Indians were killed in the fighting. Hundreds more were rounded up and put in internment camps and 303 were sentenced to death. Although Lincoln commuted the sentences of 264 of them, 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota on December 26, 1862, the largest mass execution in US history.

So the war years saw enormous change at all levels of society across the entire continent.

The costs of war

In total, the fighting between the Union and Confederacy raged for four years across more than 10,000 battlefields, with some 237 major named battles. The human costs were horrific. Casualty rates ran as high as 30% or more in some battles. At the Battle of Antietam, more soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing than in all previous US wars combined—23,000 in a single day. For comparison, that’s four times the number of US casualties during the D-Day invasion of Normandy during WWII.

An estimated 624,511 soldiers and sailors died due to battlefield injuries, accidents, or disease during the war. That’s around 2.4% of the 1860 population. That would be equivalent to roughly 8 million Americans killed today. Hundreds of thousands more were wounded and maimed. On top of this, untold numbers of civilians were affected.

In the Union Army, your chance of dying was about one in four, more often from disease than from battle. As for the South, the records are less precise, but some states suffered a 25% death rate among military-age-males. And here’s an astonishing fact: in 1866, 20% of Mississippi’s state budget was spent on artificial limbs.

As I noted before, after the war, Confederate apologists fabricated the myth of the “Lost Cause,” arguing that theirs was a noble cause that was unfortunately doomed to defeat from the beginning, due to the North’s overwhelming economic and demographic superiority. It should go without saying that the cause of perpetuating slavery wasn’t at all noble, but there is an element of truth in their argument.

The population of the Northern states was 18.5 million. The population of the Confederacy was just 9 million, and 3.5 million of those were slaves. There were another 2.5 million free inhabitants and 500,000 slaves in the Southern border states that did not secede, and as we’ve seen, troops were raised for both sides from these states. So the raw demographics definitely favored the North.

But even more decisive was the economy. In 1860, the South produced less than 10% of US manufactured goods. New York state’s industrial output alone was 4 times larger than that of the entire South. The South had tried to industrialize in the 1840s to counter the North’s rising industrial strength, but slave labor and mono exports of cotton were too lucrative and entrenched for this to really take off.

During the war, the South not only lost its access to the Northern market, but the increasingly effective blockade cut it off from most of the world, though there was, of course, some smuggling both to and from the North and internationally.

In that epoch, railroads were the backbone of the economy, a solid indicator of relative economic development and industrialization. There were 24,000 miles of railroad in the North at the start of the war, and another 4,000 miles were built during the war. The South had only 9,000 miles at the start, and they built just another 400. They simply didn’t have the resources to do any more than that.

And when it comes to resources generally, Confederate war spending in 2019 dollars was roughly $23 billion, whereas the Union spent over $68 billion, nearly 3 times as much.

So I think it is fair to say that as long as the North’s will to continue the war remained, it was all but guaranteed to win out in the long run. And the will did remain, despite opposition by many, including the violent anti-draft and anti-black riots in New York in 1863, which were put down by Union troops fresh from the Gettysburg battlefield.

Could the South have won?

But many people still ask me sometimes whether or not I think the South could have won. Now, wars are among the most complex of social phenomena and the precise outcomes cannot be determined with 100% accuracy in advance. Otherwise, there would be no point in going to war in the first place!

But I personally think that, yes, at least in theory, the South could have won. An additional bad break here or there for the Union, or a small shift in the world situation could have tipped the balance. For example, Lord Palmerston was keen to undermine the US and support the Confederacy in some way, but as we’ve seen, he was pressured against this by the British working class. And on countless occasions, in battles like Gettysburg, a mere handful of soldiers averted disaster for the Union with just seconds to spare.

But it would have to be a very qualified “yes.” Any military or political victory would have been extremely pyrrhic and temporary. Even in defeat, the North would have been an economic juggernaut. It would have expanded westward, industrialized, and militarized far more quickly than the South ever could have, especially given the region’s relative economic backwardness and exhaustion by the war.

I think the North would have almost certainly conquered and occupied the South like a colony within a generation. So in many ways, defeat was probably better for the South than victory would have been, despite the social dislocation caused by the end of slavery and the destruction of the war. Some people even argue that the South ultimately did win the war, by being allowed to set the national tone on racism and segregation.

Why fight?

So why did so many people fight and sacrifice so much on both sides of the war?

When most people think of Southern slavery, they imagine large plantations with hundreds or even thousands of slaves. But in reality, in 1860, only one South Carolina rice plantation had more than 1,000 slaves, and just 13 had between 500 and 1,000 slaves. Most slaves lived on smaller estates with 20 slaves or less.

So although most people know that most Southerners did not own any slaves, many are surprised to learn that there were only about 385,000 slave owners, and that most of them owned fewer than 20 slaves. So in terms of direct ownership, the institution of slavery did not affect most people in the Confederacy.

And yet, most non-slaveholding white Southerners identified with and defended the institution anyway. Though many of them resented the wealth, power, and aristocratic arrogance of the large slaveholders, many of them aspired to own slaves themselves and to join the ranks of society’s elite. After centuries of racist scaremongering, the prospect of 4 million freed slaves terrified them. Furthermore, they saw them as competition for scarce land and jobs. Slavery gave many poor whites with little or no land someone they could feel superior to. They may have been poor, but at least they weren’t slaves, and they weren’t black.

So for many, the reason they fought so tenaciously against the Union was simple, in the words of one Confederate private: “Because you’re down here.”


Now, both sides claimed to be fighting for “freedom.” But what kind of freedom? Their definitions ultimately reflected the very different forms of social property that prevailed in each half of the country. Did they mean personal freedom and free labor? The freedom to own property? What kind of property? Property in land and human chattels, or in commercial farms and industrial capital?

I think it’s crystal clear which form of freedom won in the end—the freedom of capital to exploit wage labor. The Juneteenth declaration, issued on June 19, 1865 by Union Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas shortly after the end of the war sums it up concisely:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

What is indisputable is that the freeing of the slaves ranks as one of the biggest revolutionary expropriations without compensation in the whole of human history. And it was the mass action of the slaves themselves that forced Lincoln and his generals’ hands. It was their heroism in battle that further radicalized Northern public opinion in favor of abolition.

As we’ve seen, hundreds of thousands of slaves risked their lives to run away, joined the Union army, and otherwise resisted, sabotaged, and hobbled the Southern economy in what WEB DuBois likened to a slave “general strike.” But as one former plantation owner put it, “Emancipated slaves own nothing, because nothing but freedom has been given to them.”

And although Reconstruction had started in many areas liberated by union troops during the war itself, the question of reintegrating millions of Southerners who had risen up against the federal government, along with millions of freedmen and women was a massive and convoluted undertaking.

The formal end of military hostilities was really just a transition from one phase of revolution and counterrevolution to another. Far-reaching and not always consciously intended change surged uncontrollably in the aftermath of the war, and we’re still living with the repercussions today.


[Theme music plays]

That brings us to the end of this episode and sets the stage for the next part in our series, where we’ll begin our analysis and outline the early stages of Reconstruction.

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