[Audio] The American Civil War: A Violent and Remorseless Revolutionary Struggle

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In this episode of our Civil War series, John Peterson analyzes the events of the war itself, all the way from secession to the Emancipation Proclamation.

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

It soon became clear that this was not going to be an easy or short war. But as Trotsky explained, we can’t forget about the class content of this or that action. The end justifies the means, but only if the end itself is justified—even if those carrying out the means aren’t entirely clear what their end is. And in the case of Lincoln and the Civil War, it’s clear to me at least, that a revolutionary war to uproot slavery was, indeed, a justified end.

[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 parts one and two of this series on the American Civil War, I strongly suggest you check them out before moving on to part three. Over the course of the first two episodes we laid the basic theoretical foundations for understanding the second American Revolution, and covered the main events that led to the secession crisis that followed the election of Abraham Lincoln in the fall of 1860. In this episode, we’ll take a broad-strokes look at the course of the war itself.

The outbreak of war

Now, we’d need several episodes to cover the main campaigns, battles, and generals who rose and fell during the four years of the war. And as much as I’d like to do that, the aim of this introductory series is limited to laying the framework for understanding the class struggles and dynamics of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

In future articles, and perhaps someday, in a book, I’ll analyze the events of war in much greater detail. So for now, here are a few super telegraphic points about what followed secession.

Contrary to what Lincoln and others in the North had assumed, the start of open hostilities cut across any residual unionist sentiment and actually pushed the majority of Southerners together, though there were, of course, continued class contradictions, plenty of people who opposed the war, desertions, mutinies, and even bread riots in the Confederate capital of Richmond.

But on both sides of the divide, there was mass enthusiasm for the war, and in many ways, the population was driving the politicians and even military policy itself.

Several decades later, Leon Trotsky was in Vienna at the outbreak of World War I. This is how he described the mood of the masses, who had no inkling of the horrors to come and were infected at that moment with patriotism and nationalism:

“The people whose lives, day in and day out, pass in a monotony of hopelessness are many; they are the mainstay of modern society. The alarm of [war] mobilization breaks into their lives like a promise; the familiar and long-hated is overthrown, and the new and unusual reigns in its place. Changes still more incredible are in store for them in the future. For better or worse? For the better, of course what can seem worse to [an ordinary person] than ‘normal’ conditions?”

I think a similar mood was prevalent in both the North and the South as hundreds of thousands mobilized to go and fight what everyone assumed would be a short and glorious little war.

The border states

The situation was particularly tense in the border states, in the slave states that had not seceded from the union, or in those parts of seceded states that had strong unionist sentiment. Since winning as many states as possible was crucial to both sides, the question of the border states was a delicate, high-stakes game of political maneuvering.

As we’ve seen, Western Virginia seceded from Virginia outright to eventually form a new state. But in other areas, there was, in effect, a civil war within a civil war, especially in places like Missouri but also parts of Kentucky, Eastern Tennessee, and elsewhere. And in states like Maryland, regiments were raised to fight on opposite sides of the conflict.

So the conception of the Civil War as a war between brothers was literally true in many of these areas. At Gettysburg, for example, Confederate and Union soldiers from Maryland confronted each other on Culp’s Hill, calling out greetings to their former friends and neighbors as they killed each other.

While the South needed all the support they could get, holding the border states was equally vital for the Union, both economically and strategically. As Lincoln wrote to a supporter in September of 1861: “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capital.”

Remember, Washington, DC sits on the border of, and is surrounded by, Virginia and Maryland, both slave states, but only one of which seceded. The threat posed to the capital and to Lincoln himself and the rest of his government was extremely high in the first few weeks of the war, and the only way to get loyal troops to defend the city ran through Baltimore, where pro-Confederate sentiment ran high.

In fact, while no one was killed at Fort Sumter, the first blood of the war was shed on April 19, 1861, when a secessionist mob in Baltimore attacked Massachusetts troops bound for Washington. Four soldiers and 12 civilian rioters were killed. And although Lincoln was trained as a lawyer and approached many things legalistically, he wasn’t about to let mere laws and pieces of paper lead to inaction and the dissolution of the Union.

To keep states like Maryland and Missouri in the Union, and to defend the Constitution as a whole, Lincoln was more than willing to bend certain aspects of that document beyond recognition, to wage the war by any means necessary, in order to ensure the survival of his government and his country.

This included the suspension of habeas corpus in parts of the country, the creation of a secret service, an internal passport system for citizens, and the arrest and imprisonment of pro-Confederate dissenters, including the mayors of Baltimore and Washington, DC, Congressman Henry May, and former Kentucky governor Charles Morehead, as well as many Northern newspaper editors. While it is not clear exactly how many people the government arrested for antiwar protests during the war, estimates range from 13,000 to 38,000.

On the surface, this all seems like a clear-cut condemnation of Lincoln, who seemingly behaved like a tyrant. But as Trotsky explained, the end justifies the means, only if the end itself is justified—even if those carrying out the means aren’t entirely clear what their end is. In the case of Lincoln and the Civil War, it is clear to me, at least, that a revolutionary war to uproot slavery was, indeed, a justified end. Or, to paraphrase the Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, the laws of war superseded the laws of the Constitution.

As an aside, I think it’s worth mentioning that the way Lincoln handled his friends, rivals, cabinet, generals, media, and public opinion is a true master class of Machiavellian political genius, in the very best and original sense of that word. His careful, step-by-step balancing act between all the different pressures and players—most of whom thought they were smarter and better qualified than this backwoods country lawyer—is truly unparalleled in the whole of American history.

The start of the war

Now, the North’s basic strategy for the war was the so-called Anaconda Plan, devised by the Union’s General-in-Chief at the start of the war, Winfield Scott. Though it was mocked in the press on both sides of the border, in broad strokes, it is what was actually carried out in the end, and what eventually led to military victory—along, of course, with the eventual transformation of the war into one of revolutionary liberation.

Basically, it called for the coordinated strangulation of the South through the combined pressure of Union land and naval forces, with a maritime blockade of the Confederate coast and a concerted push down the Mississippi River to take control of that key waterway, to effectively split the Confederacy in half militarily and economically.

At the start of the war, the Union army was just 16,000 strong, and most of them were stationed in the west. A healthy chunk of the West Point-trained officer corps—though by no means all of the best military cadres—went over to the Confederacy.

So the South got people like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, and J.E.B. Stewart. But the North got Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and despite his many faults, the master organizer, George McClellan. And both sides had their fair share of military dilettantes and incompetent political generals, who were in command merely because they had the wealth and wherewithal to raise and equip their own units.

Many in the Confederacy believed Northerners to be soft and effete, unlike the fiery and martial people of the South. But as George Ticknor wrote from Boston shortly after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, there was “much enthusiasm [in the North], much deep earnestness. Men and money are profusely offered; the best blood among us volunteering and going, and money untold following them … We have been slow to kindle; but we have made a Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace of it at last, and the heat will remain, and the embers will smolder, long after the flames that now light up everything shall cease to be seen or felt.”

And as William T. Sherman presciently told a Southern friend in Louisiana in the days after South Carolina announced it was leaving the Union:

“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!

“You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it … Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make.

“You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.”

After Fort Sumter, Lincoln had called for 75,000 three-month volunteers. But he was eventually compelled to call for another 42,000, and then another 500,000, along with extending the term of enlistment to three years and instituting a national draft. By the end of the war, more than 2.1 million people had served in the Union army, which was the largest, best trained, and equipped military force on the planet. Roughly 180,000 of these were black troops, most of them former slaves. Another 750,000 people served in the Confederate army.

So it was a colossal mobilization on both sides, far greater than anyone could have imagined. And while early engagements were plenty bloody by the standards of earlier wars, it soon became clear that this was not going to be an easy or short war, and that the carnage was going to reach previously unimaginable levels.

A new kind of war

As Ulysses S. Grant later wrote in his truly extraordinary memoirs: “Up to the battle of Shiloh, I as well as thousands of other citizens believed that the rebellion against the government would collapse suddenly and soon [if] a decisive victory could be gained over any of its armies. [But after Shiloh,] I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”

In April of 1862, near a small country church in southwestern Tennessee known as Shiloh, which, incidentally, means “place of peace” in ancient Hebrew, more than 13,000 Union soldiers and 10,000 Confederates were killed or wounded, more men than in all previous American wars combined.
By contrast, there had been some 4,750 total casualties at the first Battle of Bull Run, the first major engagement of the war, fought the previous summer on the outskirts of Washington, DC.

The nation was horrified by Shiloh and there was big pressure on Lincoln to relieve the commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant from duty. But Lincoln sensed something important in Grant and stood behind him. As he put it, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.” On another occasion, when unsubstantiated complaints were raised about Grant’s alleged drinking while on duty, Lincoln is reported to have said:

“But can you tell me where he gets his whiskey?”
“We cannot, Mr. President. But why do you desire to know?”
“Because, if I can only find out, I will send a barrel of this wonderful whiskey to every general in the Army.”

I think these small anecdotes provide a wonderful insight into Lincoln as a leader. He knew people, and he knew how to make the best of their talents and abilities despite their weaknesses, how to build a team out of contradictory personalities and interests, and he had no problem sharing credit with others as long as the job was done and was done right.

Now, many of the most famous battles, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spottsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor, and the Battle of the Crater, took place in the Eastern theater, in Virginia and Maryland. But there was plenty of bitter and bloody fighting in the Western theater, in Tennessee and Georgia, at places like Shiloh, Stone’s River, and Chickamauga.

Due mainly to leadership issues, the fighting went fairly badly for the Union in the East for the first couple of years, and northern morale and confidence went through some pretty extreme swings. But the mass of the population and of the soldiers was resolutely behind the war, and wanted it seen to the end.

By contrast, gains were steadily made in the West, where Ulysses S. Grant’s tactical, strategic, and operational genius, his bulldog-like grit and tenacity, coolness under fire, mastery of logistics, and personal familiarity with the enemy commanders he faced, led to one Union victory after another, including the taking of Fort Henry in Kentucky and Fort Donelson in Tennessee.

Many Union generals, like George B. McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, and Joseph Hooker, overthought things, overestimated the enemy, or were simply out of their depth, and froze up in the face of the enormous responsibility on their shoulders. As an example, McClellan succeeded in building up a magnificent, well-drilled, and expensive force, the Army of the Potomac, but he kept finding excuses not to actually use it, presumably out of fear of losing it.

This led an exasperated Lincoln to exclaim in the Spring of 1862, “If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it for a time, provided I could see how it could be made to do something.”

Grant and Lee

By contrast, Ulysses S. Grant’s philosophy was straightforward: “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”

Before the war, no one could have imagined that Ulysses S. Grant would rise to command all of the Union’s military forces and eventually become President of the United States. Despite being a West Point-trained cadre of the officer corps, he had left the army under a cloud of rumors about his alleged alcoholism.

On the Confederate side the most famous general was, without a doubt, Robert E. Lee. He was a so-called gentleman warrior who allegedly hated slavery personally but fought nobly to defend his beloved home state of Virginia. But the reality about his character is somewhat different, and in my opinion, as well as in the opinion of Ulysses S. Grant, he is also overrated as a military commander.

Despite declaring before Fort Sumter that he would free all the slaves if that would save the union and prevent the war, Lee saw black people as inferiors requiring the firm, civilizing hand of white people. As a plantation owner, he separated slave families, a punishment more cruel than physical beatings. And there were plenty of those too. After two of his runaway slaves were recaptured, not only did he have them whipped, he had saltwater literally poured into the lacerations.

Compare that to Ulysses S. Grant. Sometime in the 1850s, Grant had acquired a slave named William Jones from his father-in-law, who owned a medium-sized plantation and as many as 30 or so slaves. Grant worked side by side with Jones and other slaves on his modest homestead, which included a hand-built cabin with the unironic name of “Hardscrabble.” But on March 29, 1859, Grant went to the St. Louis Courthouse and wrote a paper of manumission legally freeing Jones from slavery. Grant was in dire economic straits at the time, and could have sold Jones for $1,000 or more, which was a lot of money at that time.

As for their military prowess, although Lee exhibited moments of tactical genius on the battlefield, he also made his fair share of mistakes, some of them quite serious. Perhaps most importantly, Lee had a far more limited vision than Grant when it came to broader strategic thinking.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, at least in part, this difference stemmed from the different class interests that Grant and Lee ultimately expressed, as well as their class backgrounds.

Lee was about as blue-blooded as you can get in the US, the plantation-owning son of a Revolutionary War hero, he had married the daughter of George Washington’s adopted son. Grant, on the other hand, was the son of a tanner, a failed farmer and small businessman, who at a low point in his life had been forced to sell cartloads of firewood just to survive. When the war started, he was working as a clerk in his father’s leather shop in Galena, Illinois.


Now, early in the war, fugitive slaves were actually returned to their Confederate owners when they crossed over to Union lines. They were, after all, “animate property” and the rights of property had to be respected. But in May of 1861, three slaves being used to build Confederate defenses crossed over the Union lines at Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Instead of being returned to slavery, General Benjamin Butler held them as “contraband of war,” just as a shipment of guns or ammunition would be if intercepted at sea.

Nevermind that Lincoln didn’t recognize the Confederacy as a foreign power, or that it was unclear who actually owned these enslaved people, or whether they were now and forever free. Despite the lack of clarity, this apparently simple and limited war measure expressed a deeper historical necessity and took on a life of its own. It set a new precedent, and word spread fast throughout the Confederacy—to both the slaveowners and the slaves themselves.

As we mentioned in part one of this series, slaves had resisted for centuries against their masters in innumerable ways: they slowed down the pace of work, disabled machinery, feigned sickness, destroyed crops. They argued and fought with their masters and overseers. Many stole livestock, other food, or valuables. Some learned to read and write, which was legally forbidden. Others burned forests or buildings or killed their masters with weapons or poison.

Countless thousands escaped to the North, to Canada, Mexico, or to the swamps of the south, where they established independent maroon communities or joined Native American groups, as was the case with the Black Seminoles. Others committed suicide or mutilated themselves to ruin their value as property.

So as the Union armies closed in from all sides on the Confederacy, hundreds of thousands of slaves crossed the lines, where they helped the Union effort in various ways, including eventually, as uniformed soldiers. This all begs the question: if slavery were such a benign institution, why would so many as 500,000 of them risk death and extreme punishment to escape over the course of the war?

Whether the Union armies or warships or officers or soldiers intended any of this, the entire social structure of the South was being turned upside down, organically, long before emancipation became official policy. In these areas, most of the white people ran away, while the slaves stayed, welcoming the union troops as liberators, while getting organized to occupy and farm their former masters’ abandoned land themselves.

These were the unintended consequences of what was supposed be the mere suppression of a regional rebellion. This was all part of the molecular process of revolution which accompanied the convergence of union troops and self organized slaves. Some Union generals like Fremont in Missouri and David Hunter in Georgia had unilaterally moved in this direction early in the war, but had been reined in by Lincoln.

In his first annual address to Congress, just a few months into the war, in December 1861, Lincoln had been very clear that, “In considering the policy to be adopted for suppressing the insurrection I have been anxious and careful that the inevitable conflict for this purpose shall not degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle. I have therefore in every case thought it proper to keep the integrity of the Union prominent as the primary object of the contest on our plan, leaving all questions which are not of vital military importance to the more deliberate action of the Legislature.”

But Lincoln eventually realized that they were not only fighting the Confederate armies, but the majority of the southern population, which saw it as a defensive war. As we’ve seen, slave labor was the foundation of the southern economy, allowing a larger proportion of the overall population to fight in the Confederate armies. So to accelerate the end of the war and to stop the bloodshed, the social and economic roots of the rebellion had to be smashed.

It’s one of those great ironies of history that Robert E. Lee’s bold victory in the Seven Days’ campaign to repel George McClellan’s invasion of Virginia, in June and July of 1862, marked the end of the North’s reformist strategy of trying to end the rebellion while keeping slavery intact. So far from defending slavery, this military success actually made its destruction inevitable.

Just a few weeks after this, in August of 1862, Lincoln wrote the abolitionist newspaper editor Horace Greeley: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

But it seems pretty clear to me that by then, Lincoln had decided that emancipation was the most powerful weapon in the North’s arsenal, and he was working on finding the best way and time to unleash it.

With his usual brilliant farsightedness, Marx wrote the following, also in August 1862: “[Lincoln] errs only if he imagines that the ‘loyal’ slaveholders are to be moved by benevolent speeches and rational arguments. They will yield only to force. So far, we have only witnessed the first act of the Civil War—the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand … No matter how the dice may fall in the fortunes of war, even now it can safely be said that negro slavery will not long outlive the Civil War.”

Just a few weeks after that, in September, came the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, the bloodiest single day in US military history. Although not an overwhelming victory, McClellan succeeded in turning back Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North. Lincoln used the momentum to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, which promised to free all slaves in any areas still in rebellion on January 1, 1863—while leaving the institution in place in the border states that had not seceded.

As Marx commented: “Lincoln’s proclamation is even more important than the Maryland campaign. Lincoln is a sui generis figure in the annals of history. He has no initiative, no idealistic impetus, no cothurnus, no historical trappings. He gives his most important actions always the most commonplace form … His latest proclamation, which is drafted in the same style, the manifesto abolishing slavery, is the most important document in American history since the establishment of the Union, tantamount to the tearing up of the old American Constitution.”

But not only did the Emancipation Proclamation free the slaves in areas of rebellion, it allowed for them to armed and brought into the Union Army. For his part, Grant was enthusiastically in favor of this measure. As he put it: “By arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weaken him in the same proportion they strengthen us. I am therefore most decidedly in favor of pushing this policy.”

The stakes were now crystal clear and the second act, the revolutionary phase of the war, would be even more bitter and bloody than the first.


[Theme music plays]

That brings us to the end of this episode and sets the stage for the fourth part of our series on the Civil War and Reconstruction, where we’ll wrap up the main events of the war and its immediate aftermath. After that, we’ll take up Reconstruction.

Thank you so much for listening! Big thanks, as always, to Laura Brown, our audio-visual producer, whose hard work behind the scenes makes these episodes possible.

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