The New Worker
The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain
Week commencing 29th April 2011
ON THE 150th anniversary of the American Civil War there have been a number of articles on this important event in world history. So it’s important to review it as historians and pundits try to falsify history yet again.
Perhaps the most popular theory of the cause of the Civil War today is that it was a war by the Northern states against slavery. There was, or there became, an element of truth in this but it far from says it all.
The fundamental cause of the war was the growing conflict between the long time dominant cotton plantation, black-slave-owning economy of many of the Southern states and the increasingly industrial, non-slave economy of the North.
However the aggressor was not a North out to end slavery but the South, dominated by a few plantation owning families, who realised that without expansion into new territories their slave owning system was doomed.
As Marx pointed out in one of his articles on the war, the system of cotton plantations worked by slaves demanded the continual availability of fresh land without which production would gradually decline and the economic system based on it collapse.
The South approached its problem in two ways. Firstly by attempting to bring new parts of America into its system by political means or force and secondly by political manoeuvres to change the federal constitution so it unambiguously supported slavery.
When the Southern leaders came to the conclusion that in spite of their long dominance of the federal government, due their superior wealth, they could not achieve their aims by other means they resorted to out-and-out war. And so started a conflict that caused the deaths of a million people, of whom 200,000 died in battle — more than the US lost in the Second World War.
So the Southern ruling class fought for the system of plantation slavery, but what did the North fight for? It would be nice to say, as some do, that the North fought to end slavery and free the black population of the South but while there were many fierce opponents of slavery in the North it was not as simple as that.
For some time in fact the North did very little as the South took aggressive moves against federal forts and institutions and against “free” territories but eventually it decided that it had to take a stand or submit to total Southern dominance.
The North fought back but for some time not wholeheartedly. Many would have been happy to restrict slavery to the Southern states and wait for it to die out. Many were not actually anti-slavery as such and many of those who were, or became so, agreed with Abraham Lincoln that black people were not actually the equal of whites but they should have equal rights under the law (in other words they took a more thoroughly bourgeois view rather than a semi-feudal one).
This rather ambiguous attitude found expression in some of the early Northern generals, who were reluctant to fight to a conclusion. But as the war progressed more people in the North realised that the war would have to be pressed home and the South conclusively defeated and this would mean the end of the plantation slavery system.
So to the fore came brilliant and ruthless generals such as Grant (latter to be president) and Sherman. Sherman in particular believed that the war would not end until the white population of the South, rather than just its armies, were made to suffer.
Perhaps, then, that’s why the ruling classes fought but why did the working people? It’s been pointed out that, by and large, the armies on both sides were made up of the same type of men (and occasionally women). They were mainly the younger sons of farmers and farm labourers with a sprinkling of skilled and middle class workers who, at the start of the war anyway, volunteered in droves.
From this similarity it’s been concluded by some that the war was not between different economic systems; but this misses an important point. The basis of the plantation system, the black slaves, were not about to be armed by the Southern states for obvious reasons (although in desperation it was proposed near the end of the war).
And although Blacks were eventually recruited into the Northern armies (segregated and lower paid) they were relatively few and were not of course slaves. So the economic basis of the war would not be clear from the make up of the armies.
The question why people fought can be asked of many wars but perhaps with civil wars, where nationalism does not seem to be involved, it’s more of a puzzle to our modern minds. But wasn’t nationalism of a type involved here?
It would seem that in the South particularly something like nationalism was felt towards their state rather than the federal government and the US as a whole. The great Southern general, Robert E Lee, was offered command of the Northern army at the onset of hostilities but chose to rebel with his state. The call for states’ rights was a watch word in the South and remained so throughout the war — often to the frustration of their central government.
For many in the North their main loyalty was to the US as a whole and the federal government and to whom the Southerners were rebels who had to be put down for the sake of the whole country. And the anti-slavery sentiment also played a part.
The fact is that individuals fight for many reasons and historically many soldiers have not had a clear idea of the issues behind the wars they have fought and died in.
In the end, if the Northern ruling class kept its nerve, the North it was bound to win. It was larger in population and superior in industry and was able, more or less, to control the Southern coastline and isolate the South.
But although the South lost the war, and its psyche bears the scares today, the aftermath of slavery was a long time going. The system of share cropping, which also tied people to the land, and segregation, kept black people politically dominated in the South until the 1960s.