And Yet Again, the U.S. Civil War

I’ve noticed more than once that fools and internet trolls can occasionally provide a useful service in that they can make us take a fresh look at our own arguments. Right now, someone on Facebook is pulling out the old, tired chestnut that the U.S. Civil War “wasn’t actually about slavery,” and in reading the replies from those naive enough to believe he can be reasoned with, I’ve noticed some things that are worth clarifying.

First of all, putting the question as it is usually put, “What was the Civil War about?” or, “Why was the Civil War fought?” introduces ambiguity right away. The question can mean any of four closely interrelated things: 1) what were the social, economic, and political pressures that led to secession? 2) What were the social, economic, and political pressures that led the North to resist secession? 3) Why did those on either side volunteer for military service? 4) Once there, what drove them to actually charge into those horrific killing fields, willing to die or to take life?

For 3) and 4) in particular, I strongly recommend For Cause and Comrades by James McPherson. For the moment, I’ll just say that, in general, in 1861, Northerners did not enlist to fight slavery, nor Southerners to defend it. This is far from absolute–certain Southern officers certainly thought of slavery as a noble cause and enlisted to defend it, and some thousands of Northern enlisted men, particularly from the New England states, did join to fight for Abolition. But these were a small minority on both sides.

However, I think 1) and 2) are the more significant questions. And the point I want to make is that the North (in particular, Northeastern capitalism) did not need an end to slavery, it needed to break the power of the slaveocracy. This is an important distinction. Since the founding of the country, it was the slaveholders who controlled the Federal government, and the building conflict was over control of that government, which the slaveholders simply could not give up without economically destroying themselves. So far in history, no ruling class has ever voluntarily destroyed itself, or failed to fight to defend its privileges when it could.

And this fact–that the North and South went to war over conflicting economic interests–does not make the Northern cause one whit less progressive, nor the Southern cause one whit less reactionary.

Those who look back into history and want to find purity of motive (whatever that even means) in the actions of social classes, and then wag a finger and say tsk tsk when they fail to find it, are utterly unscientific and contribute nothing to our understanding of history. The North was on the side of increased equality and advancing human freedom–not because Northern capitalists were good people who thought those were good things to do, but because in order to continue to develop the productive forces, capitalism required free labor, and free labor, though still oppressive, is a significant improvement over chattel slavery! When we call an economic system “progressive” at a given time and place, such as U.S. capitalism in the 19th Century, that’s what it means: not that a bunch of saints are in charge of it, but that it moves society in the direction of more equality, greater freedom, toward plenty. If we call an economic system “reactionary” in a given time and place, such as  U.S. capitalism in the 21st Century, it means that it is holding back advances in equality, freedom, and plenty.

All of which leads us back to points 3) and 4) above: as Professor MacPherson makes clear, it was the progressive character of the war against secession, and the Northern enlisted man’s understanding of this character, that provide much of the answer to these questions. To a Marxist, one of the things that defines a revolution is the conscious participation of the masses in making history–the key word being conscious. The most cursory study of Civil War letters and diaries will convince an impartial observer that the Northern soldier knew very well what he was fighting for. Those who have a vested interest in seeing the masses as ignorant tools to be led by the nose will have to have their ideological blinders on especially tight if they study this question.

Today, those who want to deny the progressive character of the North in the U.S. Civil War, fall generally into two camps: Those on the Right who overtly oppose human freedom, who feel shame before the courage and determination of their capitalist forebears and, now that capitalism is reactionary, fear mass movements as a fundamentalist Christian fears hell.  And those who call themselves Leftists, who are so desperate to protect their middle class privileges that they will do anything to deny the progressive force of the masses, and must find a way to interpret history in light of their narrow, petty, individualistic concerns.

What these two groups have in common is fear and hatred of the oppressed fighting in their own name. It is no longer 1861. It is not even 1980. It is 2015, and we are beginning to see the stirring of the masses: the Greek working class is not done; we’ve seen mass movements in Egypt; London and Glasgow just saw tens of thousands demonstrate against austerity; and there are signs of renewed labor struggles in the United States, for example among refinery workers. The study of history in general, and the U.S. Civil War in particular, will help arm the working class with the understanding necessary to carry matters through to a successful end of the next Civil War.

ETA 2021: I’ve learned a great deal since making this post. For the most part, I stand behind it, but I need to add, first, that anti-slavery sentiment among Northern soldiers was considerably greater than I’d thought, and, second, thanks to work by such historians as Victoria Bynum, I’ve learned that there was a great deal of anti-slavery sentiment—to the point of picking up arms—in the South, as well.

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24 thoughts on “And Yet Again, the U.S. Civil War”

  1. One of my breakthroughs in understanding the Civil War was realizing it was promoted by the slaveocracy, and therefore most of the officers were slaveowners or related to them, but the privates, the soldiers who came from the working class, included people fighting for many reasons. Shelby Foote has his flaws, but I agree with this: “You have to understand that the raggedy Confederate soldier who owned no slaves and probably couldn’t even read the Constitution, let alone understand it, when he was captured by Union soldiers and asked, What are you fighting for? replied, I’m fighting because you’re down here.”

  2. As for the identitarian left, it’s important to them to see the Civil War as a contest between the unrepentant racists of the South and the unintentional racists of the North. It makes a tidy myth that fits the liberal desire to see flaws in capitalism as flaws in human nature.

  3. “It makes a tidy myth that fits the liberal desire to see flaws in capitalism as flaws in human nature.”

    Oh, that was well put. I may need to steal that.

  4. The essay BY SKZB IS LUCID AND WRITTEN WJTHOUT THE obscurantist rhetoric typical of academics “experts” . The explanation of “progressive” v. “reactionary” us a wonderful use Marx’s concept of history. I share the contempt you and Will Shetterly have for the smug “leftist” who short-sightedly wants the perks of capitalism available to a very narrow middle class segment of capitalist society,


  5. “To a Marxist, one of the things that defines a revolution is the conscious participation of the masses in making history–the key word being conscious. The most cursory study of Civil War letters and diaries will convince an impartial observer that the Northern soldier knew very well what he was fighting for.”

    That is, the Northern soldier knew he was fighting for the availability of free labor to Northern capitalists? Since only a small minority were fighting against slavery.

    (Sorry, I don’t know how to do italics here.)

    I don’t understand what you’re saying about those Northern capitalists. If the North hadn’t fought secession, they would have gotten what they wanted–a government not controlled in the least by slaveowners. And they already had free(ish) labor. Is the idea that they also wanted the South as fertile ground for capitalism, where they could eventually build factories and hire black people? Or that they were just better off as capitalists in a bigger country than in a smaller one?

  6. Wait, was there a contempt for ‘smug “leftists” who want the perks of capitalism…’ etc? I’d like to think I lean more to the left than the right, but I don’t really want capitalism at all. In an ideal world, capitalism means something very different from what it equates to today. A person should never have profit for its own sake as a goal. When you base your rationale and moral hierarchy on personal profit – whether financial or spiritual – then you are bound to always be left wanting more. While, in most cases, this leads to striving harder to achieve better goals, it can just as easily turn into narcissism and greed.

    Sorry about straying from the topic of the article, but the above comment left me bewildered. If I read into that wrong, then I apologize.

  7. Dacia: Apologies for my sloppiness; I was intending to ironically refer to those that use the label “leftist” to identify themselves, but are all for capitalism as long as they get to advance their own position.

    Jerry: Reply forthcoming, when I haven’t been drinking with velociraptors.

  8. That is, the Northern soldier knew he was fighting for the availability of free labor to Northern capitalists? Since only a small minority were fighting against slavery.

    People have this weird idea that each effect has a single cause. But every human being had his own reasons for what he did.

    Why was WWII fought? A lot of Americans believe the reason for WWII was that the Japanese did a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor against the rules of war, so therefore the USA had to destroy Germany. A whole lot of non-Americans had other reasons….

    Similarly, the Spanish American war was about the USS Maine, WWI was about the Lusitania, the Mexican War was because US troops were attacked on US soil, and Vietnam was about the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

    Possibly for some people in the Union, the Civil War was about Fort Sumter.

    Traditionally, wars were fought to decide who would be king. Wars between nations were fought basicly because one king wanted to be king of more. But the USA had no king. Factions of capitalists competed to control the whole enchilada. The South produced lots of cotton, their capitalists wanted to decide for themselves who to sell it to. The northern capitalists wanted to control their sources. It was a war about vertical integration.

    Cotton was King in the South. They thought it was King everywhere. (Picture Paul Atreides proclaiming “The cotton must flow!”.) They thought they were more important than they were.

    One of Steven’s important points is that from a modern humanitarian point of view, it didn’t matter what they were trying to do. The Southern system was evil and deserved to be broken. The Northern system was not quite as evil, and evolved into what we have today. So they did good even if what they intended was just to decide which boss people would be bossed around by.

    I have one tiny doubt about one thing Steven said, though it is not important in any practical sense.

    “So far in history, no ruling class has ever voluntarily destroyed itself, or failed to fight to defend its privileges when it could.”

    I think there might be some examples where that did happen. And as a result, they didn’t get a whole lot of notice. When they let themselves be destroyed without a fight, history does not record the absence of the fight. It can be assumed that they were not important rulers, that there was a power vacuum waiting for whoever took over from them. So just because we can’t point to any examples doesn’t mean it’s never happened.

    But this has no practical significance. If you’re getting ready to take over from a ruling class, you can’t assume they will hand over power without a fight. You’d better be ready for a fight, and if they don’t in fact fight then that’s great. Look for a hidden trap, because there might be one.

    I think Steven’s statement goes beyond the evidence. There’s potentially a danger doing that. It can lead you to dismiss possibilities that could become real. But this particular time I don’t see any danger. He might be right, and if he’s wrong it’s unlikely to matter at all.

  9. Jerry: ‘That is, the Northern soldier knew he was fighting for the availability of free labor to Northern capitalists? Since only a small minority were fighting against slavery.’

    The development of the thinking of the Northern enlisted man (especially regarding slavery) is a fascinating study, and something I’d love to see some academics spend more time on–the developments from 1861 to ’63 and then to ’65, and the differences between the Eastern soldier and the Western soldier are all fascinating.

    They were remarkably literate, and conscious of the deeper political questions. There were wide-spread debating societies–especially in the Army of the Potomac–that would take on and discuss the major issues of the war, among other things. In other words–these very questions that we’re debating 150 years later were also talked about, often in a very organized way, by the soldiers fighting the war. Seriously, how cool is that?

    But we can be pretty clear on certain things regarding the overwhelming majority of these soldiers from their letters and diaries: They were aware of making history, that future generations would be judging what they did or failed to do, and above all, they were very much aware of the need preserve the union. The progressive nature of the Union–the world’s first large-scale experiment in a Democratic republic–was well known, as was the way they were being watched by the people of Europe.

    That’s what I meant about consciously making history, and knowing what they were fighting for. I hope that answers your question.

  10. skzb: I don’t think it was your sloppiness. Maybe Danny Freebman meant his satirically and I simply didn’t pick up on it. I think your points are valid and very well explained and executed. And I agree with them. When people look back on history, they tend to lessen the intelligence or sophistication of historical people. I think that this isn’t the case at all. While you had sheeple who were along for the cause for the sake of the cause, we don’t need to downplay the fact that the average soldier could and did argue the semantics of their actions.

  11. Steven: Thanks, that does answer my question.

    You’ve been making me curious, so I looked at most of the Union letters from enlisted men at . Only one talked about the reasons for fighting the war, and he just used generalities, such as “the cause of truth and humanity”. I’m guessing that’s a biased sample for some reason, or you’ve read a LOT of those letters, or you’ve read a compilation of letters selected because the soldiers talked about their reasons.

    I agree it’s impressive that the soldiers had debating societies. I wonder what goes on in the U.S. military now. If the Pentagon’s keeping all their e-mails and Skype conversations, there will be a treasure trove for future historians.

  12. I strongly recommend the book I mention in the OP. It’s a slim little volume, and brilliant. Also the diary of Elijah Hunt Rhodes, and–uh, just spaced on the famous diary of the Confederate enlisted man.

  13. While soldiers in the field on both sides may have had varying ideas of why they fought, the leaders of the South clearly knew they were fighting for slavery. The leaders of the North were less clear; I think many initially thought preserving the Union was distinct from opposing slavery.

    I think that reflects something about people who are fighting to change history for the better.. Those struggling for progress are heading towards a light that dazzles their eyes. Whereas reactionaries who fight to keep humankind in chains have the light at their backs; they can see what they fight against more clearly than those struggling to advance freedom can see what they are fighting for,

  14. I thought it was a funny coincidence that I was reading The Incrementalists yesterday and came across this passage:

    “Why was the Civil War fought? To break the power of the Southern slaveholders so Eastern manufacturers could prosper? To preserve the Union? To defend the Southern homeland against invaders? To free slaves? To create a strong central government?”

    Love the book by the way. The writing between you two is strong (like the force…).

  15. I think the clarifications you make are important and valid, but your definition of progressive economic systems raises as many questions for me as the rest of the post answers. At first I really loved the definition of progressive economic systems “advancing towards freedom, equality and plenty,” but the more I think about it, the more it feels a bit like an open can of Kyuss’s favorite fishing bait sitting on the counter. I don’t think there are many economic systems that wouldn’t argue that those are their values and outcomes.

    The devil’s in the details. Freedom for whom and from what? Plenty for whom, and how much qualifies as enough? Equality, presumably for all, but in what manner – equal opportunity or equal distribution?

    Corporatism (or US capitalism if you prefer, though classical economists would cringe at the use of the term and refer to it as economic fascism) purports to maximize freedom through market mechanisms, but those market protections are primarily for corporations big enough to afford lobbyists, and that’s pretty clearly a massive failure on the equality and plenty fronts for everyone except politicians and those who control the capital. Socialism advocates as a major goal equal access to the means of production, but who can be trusted to administer that fairly? How are innovations that improve production (i.e. move us towards plenty) rewarded? If there’s no reward, the common (and trivial) question is how are innovators motivated. The more interesting ones are a) how do we know which advances will actually work and b) which will result in more of what society wants?

    While it’s not a zero sum game, there are almost certainly winners and losers, and even trade-offs among those virtues. Without a framework for answering these questions, the definition feels as vague as “truth, justice and the American way,” when what we need moving into an election cycle is a way to tell who’s really bulletproof and who’s just wearing an S on a t-shirt.

  16. Anyone who reads the secession resolutions of the various states cannot seriously doubt that the slavery was the cause of secession. Another cause was resentment over various northern states in asserting their state’s rights to hinder the operation of the fugitive slave law. Then resentment over northern states’ resistance to allowing the introduction of slavery in the territories.

    What the soldiers on both sides thought they were fighting for a whole nother question.

  17. Jeremy: Thanks for the thoughtful remarks. First, regarding your parenthetical, see here: #12.

    Now, on to the substance of your comments: I’m sure we both agree that history is not kind enough to move in even, direct, straight lines–that vulgar formalism of social progression (primitive communism to slavery to feudalism to capitalism &c) sometimes given off as Marxism in fact has little to do with it. There are rises, falls, dips, turns, and backward steps. But to focus on those temporary turns can also blind us to general trends–just as in economics focusing on the variations in price caused by supply and demand can blind us to the underlying source of value.

    Nevertheless, when taking a long view of over-all trends, we can form some useful conclusions. It seems obvious that a society built on the contradiction between those who own the land and those who work is an improvement over one built on owning another human being, yes? The destruction of slave society was a huge step toward equality. To replace that with an economy based on free labor seems to me another step forward–the exploitation of the working class, though real, and often resulting in inhuman treatment, also brought with it the opportunity for the urban proletariat to unite and fight to improve its condition. I mean, did you enjoy the weekend? Where did the weekend come from?

    But more significant is this: without capitalism, there could never have been the growth in the productive forces that today permit everyone in the world to have a life that is better in nearly every way than that enjoyed by the nobility a thousand years ago. And this possibility, in turn, produces the opportunity for political equality, because in my opinion political inequality is a reflection of economic inequality–or, to be more precise, economic inequality requires political inequality to support it.

    That advance in economic forms in general also produce greater freedom and equality seems inarguable–in this Country, we have seen the franchise extended to the propertyless and then to women; we have seen an end to slavery, we have seen in my lifetime an end to Jim Crow. Could these gains have been possible in a feudal-monarchical ssytem?

    In this sense, I think it reasonable to speak of a given social system being progressive compared to another.

  18. Thanks! That helps quite a bit. I think there will always be questions of timing (for example, when does the social benefit of more equal access to the means of production exceed the cost of violent disruption and reduced incentive for innovation), but I agree with your reasoning and conclusions.

  19. Many of the folks who fought for the Northern side didn’t do so voluntarily… they were drafted. Although you could buy yourself out of the draft at a price out of range for the poor. (the middle class as we know it did not exist at the time) There was even a major riot about the draft tax in New York City.

  20. Not actually all the many, Frank. The draft did not go into effect until 1863, by which time the armies were pretty well established. And even then, according to all reports, it wasn’t very effective; in addition to being able to buy one’s self out of the draft, desertion among draftees was epidemic. Certainly the numbers were not high enough to alter the point of the OP.

  21. Frank is not entirely wrong. “Voluntary” enlistment relies heavily on people who have no better-paying work available.

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