Capitalist Development and the American Civil War: the Civil War as the key moment in the subjugation of the black and white proletariat to the requirements of a rapacious bourgeoisie

By International Communist Party ()

This text was published in four parts in the ICP’s publication Communist Left, starting in issue 21-22. Find all four parts at

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§ The United States in the mid Nineteenth Century

At the time of Lincoln’s election to the presidency of the country, the United States of America was an expanding society the like of which had never been seen before. The population of 23,261,000 in 1850 had risen to 31,513,000 in 1860, an increase almost entirely due to the influx of European immigrants. Indeed the wave of Irish immigration caused by the famine in the 40s had been followed by another wave due to the political reaction after the revolutions of 1848-49, composed for the most part of Germans. These were often politicised, skilled workers, many of whom were communist, and amongst them were many of Marx’s friends, including Weydemeyer and Willich, who would achieve high ranks in the Northern army during the course of the Civil War.

Those who didn’t stay in the industrial cities of the North moved off towards the Frontier where there was work for all. Although the Gold Rush certainly played an important part in the transfer of so many people to the West, the main dream of the pioneers was a patch of fertile land where they could live with their families. By 1860, the Union was still predominantly an agricultural country; in the previous ten years the area of cultivated land had grown by 50%, and the gross product had almost doubled. Five out of six Americans made a living from agriculture and only one dollar in nine was invested in non-agricultural activities.

And yet the most surprising phenomenon of those times was actually the rate of industrial development, which started up on the basis of the enormous market created for products linked to agriculture, and which was rendered possible by the uninterrupted flow of manual workers from Europe. In the same ten years the growth of industry is such that it is measurable in values of around the 100% mark, or even more. Along with the industrial development came an enormous development in the infrastructure, in particular in railways, merchant shipping, and the telegraph. Great cities like Chicago arose from nothing whilst the average literacy of the population was around 90% (as compared to around 20% in newly united Italy).

Trade had undergone a rapid and tumultuous expansion too, concentrating on the export of agricultural goods, mainly cotton, tobacco and cereals. Imports consisted principally of textiles, clothing, tea, coffee, and manufactured iron goods.

Workers had to endure harsh conditions, working eleven or twelve, or in extreme cases, 14 or 15 hours a day for low wages. Yet still, as compared with Europe, working and living conditions were better. If on the one hand the continual influx of starving immigrants tended to lower salaries, there still remained the choice, for the proletarian of New York or Pittsburgh, of acquiring a spade and a gun and heading off for the Frontier – a choice clearly denied to his brother proletarians in Manchester, Dusseldorf, Turin or St Petersburg.

One consequence of this fluidity of labour was a lesser permanence of the workers in the workplace, and therefore a certain dislocation between the minority of specialised and the mass of generic unskilled workers. This characteristic would mark out the American workers’ movement and influence even some aspects of its trade-unionism, soon to become a phenomenon on a national scale.

§ North and South

This picture of American society, which refers to the year 1860, is not enough to portray the Union’s economic, social and political situation, the origins of which are to be sought in the revolution of the century before. In the 80 years or so before 1860, two clearly differentiated poles had been developing within the Union according to two very different logics, the North and the South; to which may be added a third pole, the Mid-West, eventually better known as the North-West, less populated but extremely dynamic, and which would later be found to hold the balance of power in the conflict.

The North was composed of the states of New England, arisen from the puritan emigration in the 17th century, and strongly homogeneous in terms of culture, religion and custom. At the beginning these states had been communities of fishermen and sailors, and of merchants; and, incidentally, it was from New England that virtually all the American slave ships came. Intermediate from a cultural point of view were Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, even if economically they were undoubtedly part of the North.

The South is considered to start a little below the 40th parallel, the so-called Mason-Dixon line, which separates Pennsylvania from Maryland. In 1860 it comprised the major part of the United States, including the states of the Atlantic strip and the Gulf of Mexico, from Maryland to Texas, and the states further inland (Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky). With an extremely varied climate and terrain, a very dispersed population and few cities, the colonies, later states, in the South soon discovered their vocation in agriculture and were drawn towards the cultivation of those species particularly required by the world market, such as tobacco, rice and indigo; cotton would be introduced later. The wide open spaces favoured the installation of large landed properties and the sparsity of the population favoured the phenomenon of acquiring forced labour from abroad. Initially that included whites as well, on contracts of temporary slavery; later slavery would centre on the importation of Africans, captured and deported.

These differences, which already existed prior to the anti-colonial revolution, would become accentuated in the following years as bit by bit the two parts of the Union developed their potentialities, and brought into being two parties representing these divergent interests. The North became the stronghold of the federalist party, which was pro-centralisation, and supporter of strong federal government and the creation of a powerful Union bank – functional objectives of Northern mercantile interests (especially at the start). The South was represented by the Democratic party, supporter of decentralisation – of maximum autonomy for the individual states, and fearful that the central government could end up in the hands of a financial oligarchy; to these characteristics were added the defence of agriculture against other economic activities, and of the small business against the large. These were objectives, in fact, which were shared not only by the agricultural population of the South but also by a large part of the popular masses in the North which was composed of a significant number of small farmers and artisans.

This formula allowed the Democratic Party to secure the presidency with Jefferson (1800) and hang onto it, with a few, insignificant exceptions, until the fateful year of 1860. Such continuity of government and political line, not without occasional jolts and resistance from the North, allowed for an uninterrupted development of the United States both in a territorial and economic sense. In 1860 the territory of the Union was already approaching what it is today, being bordered by the two oceans and by Canada and Mexico. The principal stages in this growth were:

  1. The acquisition of Louisiana from France in 1803 2. The 1812-14 war with Great Britain, which prevented an expansion towards Canada
  2. The acquisition of Florida from Spain in 1819 4. The war with Mexico (1845-48), followed by the acquisition of enormous territories in the South-West.

From a political and economic point of view various events would occur in this period which would have repercussions on the crisis which led to the Civil War. In the South the cultivation of cotton suddenly became very lucrative with the invention in 1797 of a machine for separating the seeds from the cotton fibre. In the space of a few years cotton would become the main crop in numerous Southern states, bringing wealth and an important export crop to the country.

The consequence of the war with Great Britain was a boost to the industrialisation of the North. Without the supply of goods from industries in Great Britain it became a pressing necessity to set up indigenous industries, and the preferred area for industrial expansion was – due to the concentration of capital, the continual influx of manpower and the already entrenched commercial sector – precisely the North, which to start with had been extremely opposed to the war. Among other things the government had to reconstitute in 1816 a Union bank, and also institute mild protective tariffs in order to protect the nascent industry from overseas competition. This matter of protectionism – required by the industrial North in the interests of its immense internal market, and opposed by the South, exporter of agricultural products – would come to overshadow every relationship between the two halves of the country.

1818 would mark the controversial appearance of another key issue in North-South relations, slavery. The territory of Missouri was ready to be admitted as a full state of the Union, but it was proposed by a deputy from the North that admission should be conditional on a gradual abolition of slavery in that state. What prompted this demand and why did it give rise to a serious crisis? To understand this it is necessary to go a bit deeper into the question of slavery and examine the changes it had undergone in previous years.

§ The Peculiar Institution

Slavery had existed in the United States since the colonial period. The chronic lack of farm labourers had made necessary the importation of forced labour, in other words, slaves. And the Southern farmers were not worried about the colour of their skin, it was just the enslavement of whites was not really a viable proposition, even if a form of temporary slavery had been applied earlier on when it had been the custom to keep European workers as slaves, for periods of seven years and more, in virtue of a contract that these had signed to cover their passage to America. A kind of temporary serfdom. But after the prescribed period they were free, if indeed they hadn’t freed themselves before: all one had to do was head off West, and to be courageous and adaptable. There was plenty of land for everybody. The Indians, what few there were, had shown how little adapted they were to working in the fields, as well as being susceptible to illness.

The first slave ship was a Dutch warship. In August 1619 it stopped off the coast of Virginia, and put ashore in order to put twenty slaves up for sale. This event, new for the Northern hemisphere of the New World, had been customary for some time in the European colonies of Central and South America. Other ships would soon follow.

The slaves arrived just as the plantations of Virginia were entering a crisis period. The enormous extent of the territory they covered required a huge number of hands, and the only alternative was to abandon it. In a short time slavery extended to all the English colonies in America, including New England in the North. Thus, once again showing that, at least in certain areas, relations of production aren’t determined by theoretical schemes but rather by the iron laws of production. In a short time there had been a transition from modern relations of labour, typical of the bourgeoisie which in Europe was just then starting to shake off its feudal chains, to feudal relations, and from these to slavery.

However in the North slavery never really took root: the type of work, commercial and craft-based to begin with, later industrial, wasn’t adapted to slavery, which functioned best in the great plantations; in addition, there was already labour in the North, consisting of small peasants and craftsmen, and none of them intended to have to compete with slave labour. Slavery therefore quickly disappeared in the North, but not for humanitarian reasons, the contrary. That the puritans of the North were far from being saints, despite the opinion they had of themselves, is shown by the fact that in the space of a few years they had set up in the slave business themselves, and such was their enthusiasm for the trade that eventually they would carve out a virtual monopoly for themselves, and derive enormous profits.

For the Southerners, the arrival of the slaves – especially when these began to constitute a substantial part of the population – was viewed with a certain amount of concern, because of the changes it brought to the country, and because of the potential threat to the economy and problems of coexistence with the whites. Therefore the colonies of the South, even before independence, enacted measures which prohibited the introduction of new slaves via the African trade; measures which the British government regularly annulled since it had no intention of renouncing the profits it derived from the trade. Thus the states had to wait until after the war of independence to prohibit the slave trade. There was even a proposal in 1787 to abolish the importation of slaves throughout the whole of the Union, a proposal which was thrown out, due, in fact, to opposition from the North; and for the same reasons as the government of his Britannic majesty. In the end there was a law passed in 1808 which abolished the trade, and another one, in 1820, which branded it as piracy.

Naturally, this didn’t mean the end of slavery, nor did it even halt the growth in the number of slaves, which actually experienced a veritable boom during this period. For a start, a good number of the slaves came from states within the Union: specifically those with economies intermediate between the north and the South (the so-called border states, such as Virginia, Maryland and Delaware etc) which had a limited requirement for them, but specialised in the production of slaves (an activity which had never been prohibited) as if they were just so many heads of cattle. Secondly, the only real consequence of the trade was an increase in the price of slaves because smuggling them had been going on pretty much continuously all along.

The price of slaves continued to rise, and on the eve of the war the average price was $1,000, peaking at $2,000. Indeed, the capital expended on slaves would come to constitute the main part of a company’s fixed assets, worth more than the market value of the land itself. The fact that the Northern business classes had never stopped dealing in slaves is illustrated by a newspaper story which tells us that even after the commencement of hostilities, on 21 April 1861, a slave ship was captured in Boston headed for New York with 960 slaves on board. These facts need to be borne in mind if we are to understand how lacking in unity the two sides were, both in the condemnation of slavery in the North, and the defence of slavery in the South.

Throughout the 19th Century the position of the African slaves and their role in Southern society was not very different from that of the European working class, which was then enduring the oppression of a bourgeoisie greedy for profit; and Marx didn’t hesitate to place the conditions of the one and the other on the same plane: For slave-trade read labour-market, for Kentucky and Virginia, Ireland and the agricultural districts of England, Scotland and Wales, for Africa, Germany (Capital, vol.1). In certain respects the condition of the slaves was better than the workers: the fact that the slave only had a value for as long as he was alive meant that someone had to maintain him or suffer an economic loss. The enterprise which went bust would sell its slaves, who would merely have a change of boss, whereas for free workers, in periods of economic crisis, if their work ended they would be abandoned to starvation and poverty. Even the pace of work was a lot more relaxed, and not for one moment would the Northern industrialists have considered using slave labour in their factories: in the final analysis, workers cost less than slaves, with the advantage that there was no need to make a substantial initial investment, and it was possible to let them go whenever convenient. Also they were considerably more efficient and diligent.

The situation would change substantially towards the end of the 18th century when the invention of the machine, already mentioned, for separating the cotton seed from the fibre would change the face of the South for ever. The machine, known as the cotton gin, allowed a man’s productivity, in terms of the amount of cotton hulled, to be substantially increased from half a kilo to 50 kilos a day. It was from this time that the South, totally abandoning the old crops en masse, became a country of cotton plantations. There is not the least doubt that the rapid strides of cotton spinning, not only pushed on with tropical luxuriance the growth of cotton in the United States, and with it the African slave trade, but also made the breeding of slaves the chief business of the border slave-states. When in 1790, the first census of slaves was taken in the United States, their number was 697,000; in 1861 it had nearly reached four millions (Capital, vol.1).

Cotton, produced for export to England, became therefore an immense source of income on both sides of the Atlantic, for the shipping magnates of Liverpool and New York as well as the Southern farmers and Manchester industrialists. And the other consequence was the immiseration of all involved in its production and processing, slaves here, workers there, united in their bosses’ unbridled pursuit of profit. Whilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact the veiled slavery of the wage-workers in Europe needed for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.

The condition of the slaves in the South, in particular those who worked as manual labourers on the great cotton plantations, would in the space of a few years get progressively worse, combining together the disadvantages of slavery and wage labour. Marx gives an accurate description of this phenomenon. In the chapter on the working day, in the section on the greed for surplus value, he shows in a compellingly forceful description how the condition of the slaves had become a living Hell. Surplus value wasn’t invented by capitalism, he says, referring to previous economic forms, it is, however, clear that in any given economic formation of society, where not the exchange value but the use-value of the product predominates, surplus-value will be limited by a given set of wants which may be greater or less, and that here no boundless thirst for surplus-value arises from the nature of the production itself. Hence in antiquity over-work becomes horrible only when the object is to obtain exchange-value in its specific independent money-form; in the production of gold and silver. Compulsory working to death is here the recognised form of over-work (…) Still these are exceptions in antiquity. But as soon as people, whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave labour, corvee labour, etc., are drawn into the whirlpool of the international market dominated by the capitalist mode of production, the sale of their products for export becoming their principal interest, the civilised horrors of over-work are grafted on the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom, etc. Hence the Negro labour in the Southern states of the American Union preserved something of a patriarchal character, so long as production was chiefly directed to immediate local consumption. But in proportion, as the export of cotton became of vital interest to these states, the over-working of the Negro and sometimes the using up of his life in 7 years of labour became a factor in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products. It was now a question of production of surplus value itself.

§ The Missouri Compromise

Thus, even if many vocal and influential philanthropic and abolitionist societies did exist, the reason impelling the North to call for the banning of slavery was nothing to do with morality. The fact of the matter is that ending slavery in Missouri meant ending colonisation by southerners and opening it up to northerners. And that wasn’t all. Thanks to the parliamentary deputies which the new State had elected, the equilibrium in Washington could be altered in favour of the North in a definitive way. But politically most significant of all was the fact that for the first time the South no longer saw eye to eye with the frontiersmen; the pioneers who were populating the mid-west. It was they, rather than the New England industrialists, who were demanding the abolition of slavery most loudly, at least in the new territories. But despite this, the planters couldn’t afford to break off from such an important social group. Although at the time there weren’t that many of them, their numbers would grow rapidly, and there would be a proportionate increase in their economic and political weight up to the point of them deciding the election in Lincoln’s favour; and the destiny of the country at the time of Civil War.

After a tense period, the so-called Missouri Compromise was reached in 1820. It was established that slavery would be permitted in that State (where it had hardly taken root anyway, to the extent that in 1861 Missouri wouldn’t side with the Confederates), but in future no slave state would be admitted from the new territories north of Missouri’s southern border (latitude 36 30’). This meant keeping back enormous spaces for the north, for future settlement and colonisation; for the free peasant and free wage-earner. The political weight of a slave-holding Missouri would be compensated by a new State, Maine, in the north-east.

§ The Midwest

After the War of Independence, and above all after the famous Louisiana Purchase, the first migrations of pioneers had poured into the Mississippi-Missouri basin and transformed vast areas of prairie and forest into productive agricultural enterprises. Since the differences between North and South were perpetuated even in the interior, the Mason-Dixon line appeared as a valid demarcation also to the west of the Allegheny mountains. But whilst the States of the new south (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, etc.,) weren’t very different from the Atlantic States, the states of the North-west, today referred to as the Midwest because they form an intermediate zone between the East and the Rocky Mountains and beyond (the Far West), assumed entirely new characteristics.

Being in the main individualist farmers, of a hardy and stubborn nature, the pioneers undoubtedly had more in common with the southern planters; not least because many of them had come originally from the South. Environmental conditions were not, however, such as to permit the cultivation of cotton, tobacco and sugar cane. Conditions more resembled the north-east, and the most suitable activities would prove to be the cultivation of maize, wheat and cattle rearing. All of these were activities which required very few workers and which for the most part could be carried out by the farmer’s own family. Cattle rearing too required very little investment in labour (the famous cowboys). Thus, in these new States (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, etc.,) conditions for a large labour force were not created, and slavery didn’t take root. The essentially agricultural nature of the economy caused the frontiersmen to feel a deeper affinity with the South in any case, and the democratic party long enjoyed strong support from the region.

The superabundant frontiersmen would achieve their first success with the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828. With him the control of the democratic party would pass out of the hands of the southern planters and into those of the men of the west. Whilst this signified a move towards democratisation of the country, the principal consequence of which was universal suffrage; and if indeed the Central bank was liquidated, favouring the southern autonomists; nevertheless, in 1832, at the beginning of Jackson’s second term, it also brought a rise in customs duties. Whilst this was one of the North’s perennial requirements, needed in order to protect the young industries from low price foreign imports, it was nevertheless fiercely opposed by the South because damaging to the exportation of cotton and other agricultural products. But in the Midwest and South-west not everyone agreed, including the sheep farmers.

Sensing that it had been betrayed, the South reacted, and South Carolina, which had always been the most rebellious State of all, declared the relevant ordinances as invalid within its state frontiers. The government sent in troops; South Carolina mobilised its militia; and then, as on other occasions, a compromise was reached.

But the burning question had been forcefully posed: from whence came the autonomy of individual states, and from whence came the unquestioned authority of the central government? Obviously the vision of an autonomist and federalist society suited the agricultural interests of the south, whilst a centralised society was ideal for the nascent industrial bourgeoisie of the North. Ten years later History would give its answer to this question. Meanwhile Midwest and South had been reconciled because the former was annoyed by the North’s attempts to pass laws preventing the acquisition of land by the pioneers, intended as a measure to staunch the flow of labour from the cities of the East. And yet still to come were those mass migratory waves of a few years later referred to in Capital: The enormous and ceaseless stream of men, year after year driven upon America, leaves behind a stationery sediment in the East of the United States, the wave of immigration from Europe throwing men on the labour-market there more rapidly than the wave of emigration westwards can wash them away. The growing stream of Germans and Irish in the decade which followed would create just such conditions, providing sufficient labour for the factories, and thereby rendering less serious this point of friction between frontiersmen and the industrialists of the North-east.

Meanwhile, the Whigs of New York and Boston had to mark time whilst the democrats celebrated their victory in the war against Mexico; a war which had provided the Union, and agricultural expansionism, with an enormous territory stretching from Texas to California.

None of the fundamental problems had been resolved however: the South continued to survive in its own way, perpetuating a system of production which was incompatible with the historical advance of the American continent. By now crisis lay around every corner, and even this latest victory posed an inevitable question which appeared in the form of a bill presented by a Northern congressman: why not exclude slavery from the territories which had been seized from Mexico? Such a measure, passed off as humanitarian, would keep the Southerners away from the recently conquered territories. The South, naturally, rose up in protest, even threatening to secede. The Wilmot Proviso, as it was called, would be withdrawn, but in this case, too, a new conflict, adding to all the other sources of internal friction existing amongst the different sides, had emerged into full light of day. The men of the Midwest had fought to conquer the South-west, but that was because it was open to free labour, not slave labour; in other words, not to the southern farmers. This would make the frontiersmen turn against slavery, not for humanitarian reasons, but, as in the case of the Yankees, out of carefully calculated self-interest.

Thus, in the twenty years or so preceding the civil war, economic and social conditions in the United States were heading in a direction which would change the balance of forces between these three souls which existed within society; up to the point where a republican president was elected; up to the secession of the South.

We won’t go into the prodigious growth of industrialisation in the North in any great detail, but suffice to remark that it was towards the end of this period that the capital invested in industrial activities overtook that invested in the whole of American agriculture, both North and South. The South would inevitably lose ground, even in agriculture, to the North and West. The North was becoming richer and richer, the West was expanding in size and becoming more productive, with ever greater quantities of goods crossing the prairie for the Northern ports, or for Chicago – the new metropolis of the Midwest – on the railways, which were rarely of any interest to the South.

The North had two main problems it needed to resolve, that of manpower which, as we have seen, it counted on solving with the hordes of immigrants who were arriving in ever greater numbers, and that of custom tariffs, which it sought to resolve by passing appropriate laws, even if by means of extremely protracted parliamentary struggles. The problem of customs tariffs would only be definitively resolved after the war. Indeed, even if industrial development after 1850 was extremely rapid, for some products, nevertheless, such as iron and textiles, acute difficulties arose towards the middle of the decade preceding the war. Towards the end of 1854, stockpiles of iron were starting to build up in all the world’s markets. Most of the American factories had to close down. In the textiles sector, Lancashire had brought its costs down below New England’s, and between 1846 and 1856 its exports of printed and dyed cotton had jumped from 13 million to 114 million yards, and that of rough calico from 10 to 90 million yards. In 1857 there was a fairly serious financial crash. The tariffs approved for that year, bowing to Southern pressure, didn’t rise, in fact, in real terms, for these two manufactured articles, they went down. These facts aroused angry indignation amongst the industrial circles of the North.

Meanwhile the Midwest established closer and closer links with the industrial North and became increasingly bound up in its development. On the other hand, the disagreement between the frontiersmen and the South was rapidly taking more definite shape. The latter could survive only by exporting its agricultural system, based on large holdings and slave labour, to the West, whilst the West, if it didn’t have a problem with slavery to the east of the Mississippi, was totally resistant to slavery spreading towards the west coast where they considered the land should be available for small farmers. And not just available, but free, or at a very low price, for whoever was ready to turn the soil and make it productive, after, to be sure, having removed any boulders, cut down trees, and uprooted any stumps – and any Indians – they might find there.

The southerners were quick to oppose the movement, known as free-soilism, which consisted, in any case, mainly of people from the North-East. The North, meanwhile, in the fifties, had no reason to oppose it. There was therefore a notable slackening of that strong bond which had united the farmers of the South and West over the previous ten years: the consequence of this separation, which also had repercussions on the Democratic Party, and which effectively turned the South into a foreign body within the Union, would soon be felt.

§ The 1850s - The Decisive Years

In the ten years between 1850 and 1860 matters would come to a head and there would be a radicalisation of all the issues which had set the two spirits within the Union against each other. The economic and political conditions, responsible for the friction between North and South, could only but develop according to their own inexorable logic. By now, the South had come to understand that it couldn’t relent on any of its key positions under pain of undermining the cornerstones of its economic system, and thereby incurring total subjection to the North. The North was unable to put a break on its drive to expand because propelled by the relentless and inexorable forces of a young and exuberant capitalist system; which allowed no restraints, barriers or conditions to stand in its way, and whose intention was to maintain and develop the enormous domestic market (an initial requirement for any nascent capitalism) which the United States was rapidly becoming. Over and beyond any nationalist, democratic or humanitarian rhetoric, these were the real forces which lay behind the decisions; decisions which were forced on them, which led to war, both in the North and the South. By now, every disagreement between the two sides became a crisis, every struggle resulted in drastic measures, and every time, in the South, someone would conjure up the spectre of separation from the Union. In fact by this time it was already a case of there being two economic systems with divergent interests; interests which could not be addressed without one of the two sides suffering serious damage. Thus the ever more intransigent retreat of the two sides into their respective positions; thus the encroaching sense of hitting a dead end.

The decade would begin with a new dispute over the introduction of slavery into the new state – this time rather important – of California. A slavery, of course, which the Californians didn’t even want. The South rebelled, convoking a convention in Nashville to identify those provisions which would be required to safeguard the interests of the southern States. Already the word secession was passing from mouth to mouth. However a compromise was reached yet again: California wouldn’t be a slave state, and some concessions would be made to the South, including a more effective law for recuperating slaves which had escaped to the North. It would prove to be a very counter-productive step. The Fugitive Slave Law would only serve to irritate the northerners, including at the popular level, and the organised assistance to escaped slaves known as the Underground Railway would continue to grow; it was around this time too that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, rounding off the moulding of Northernist public opinion against the South, and against slavery.

A particular feature of the 1850s was the development of the Midwest as an entity, of the Frontier, which continued to expand ever westward. New territories wanted to be admitted to the Union. Soon, along with a new problem, there arose a new crisis: that of the Nebraska territory. According to the Missouri Compromise, this territory couldn’t be a slave state, but the South, having only a few years before had to bite the bullet whilst it saw California succumbing to Northern influence, maintained that the terms of the Compromise had now expired. The leader of the Democratic party at the time was Steven Douglas, a midwesterner from Illinois. In those years he would find himself taking on the role of mediator between the two forces within the party: the frontiersmen, who wanted a systematic State ordering of the territories, free land, and no slavery, and the Southern planters, who were for free-exchange and slave-holding and were anti-centralist. Douglas, with his presidential ambitions, didn’t want to alienate himself from either of the two sides, and yet the law which he passed would have the opposite effect. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act created two States, Kansas to the South and Nebraska to the North. The Missouri compromise was abolished, and all questions pertaining to slavery would be decided by the resident populations. The law was interpreted as betrayal in the Midwest, and as capitulation in the South. Instead of seeing a growth in his electoral following, Douglas would see it drop sharply even in his home territory, and his chance of getting into the White House would be definitively compromised.

In an article entitled The North American Civil War, written on 20 October 1861, Marx showed how he viewed the important question of slavery: "The cultivation of the Southern export crops, i.e. cotton, tobacco, sugar, etc., by slaves is only profitable so long as it is conducted on a mass scale by large gangs of slaves and in wide areas of naturally fertile soil requiring only simple labour. Intensive cultivation, which depends less on the fertility of the soil and more on capital investment and on intelligent and energetic labour, runs contrary to the nature of slavery. Hence the rapid transformation of states such as Maryland and Virginia, which in earlier times employed slavery in the production of export commodities, into states which raise slaves in order to export them to states lying further south. Even in South Carolina, where slaves form four sevenths of the population, the cultivation of cotton has remained almost stationary for years due to the exhaustion of the soil. Indeed South Carolina has become partly transformed into a slave-raising state by pressure of circumstances in so far as it already sells slaves to the states of the deep South and South-west to a value of four million dollars annually. As soon as this point is reached the acquisition of new territory becomes necessary, so that one section of the slave-holders can introduce slave labour into new fertile estates and thus create a new market for slave-raising and the sale of slaves by the section left behind. There is not the least doubt, for example, that without the acquisition of Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas by the United States, slavery would long have disappeared in Virginia and Maryland. In the secession Congress at Montgomery one of the Southern spokesmen, Senator Toombs, strikingly formulated the economic law that necessitates the constant expansion of the slave territory. In fifteen years more, he said, without a great increase in slave territory, either the slaves must be permitted to flee from the whites, or the whites must flee from the slaves (…).

"As a result of economic laws, then, to confine slavery to the limits of its old terrain would inevitably have led to its gradual extinction; politically it would have destroyed the hegemony exercised by the slave states by way of the Senate; and finally it would have exposed the slave-holding oligarchy to ominous dangers within their own states from the poor whites. With the principle that every further extension of slave territories was to be prohibited by law the Republicans therefore mounted a radical attack on the rule of the slave-holders. Consequently, the Republican victory could not help but lead to open struggle between North and South. However, as has already been mentioned, this election victory was itself conditioned by the split in the Democratic camp (…)

"The slave-holders’ party, with Breckinridge as its candidate, asserted that the Constitution of the United States, as the Supreme Court had declared, made legal provision for slavery; slavery was in actual fact already legal in all territories and did not require special naturalization. Thus, while the Republicans prohibited any growth of slave territories, the Southern party laid claim to all territories as legally warranted domains. What they had tried, for instance, with Kansas – imposing slavery on a territory against the will of the settlers themselves, by way of the central government – they now held up as a law for all Union territories (…) On the other hand Douglas’s settlers sovereignty’ could not satisfy the slave-holders’ party (…)

"The Union was only of value for the South in so far as it let it use federal power as a means of implementing its slave policy. If it did not, it was better to break now than to watch the development of the Republican party and the rapid growth of the North-west for another four years, and to begin the struggle under less favourable conditions. The slave-holders party, therefore, now staked its all! When the Northern Democrats refused to play the role of the Southern poor whites any longer, the South brought about Lincoln’s victory by splitting the votes and used this victory as an excuse for drawing the sword.

As is clear, the whole movement was and is based on the slave question. Not in the sense of whether the slaves within the existing slave states should be directly emancipated or not, but whether the twenty million free Americans of the North should subordinate themselves any longer to an oligarchy of 300,000 salve-holders; whether the vast territories of the Republic should become the nurseries of free states or of slavery; finally, whether the foreign policy of the Union should take the armed propaganda of slavery as its device throughout Mexico, Central and South America.

Elsewhere Marx would reassert that the war for the South was a war of conquest, aimed at extending and perpetuating slavery.

Having been instructed in the letter of the law, the country mobilised to prevent Kansas from falling into the hands of the South (with Nebraska remaining firmly opposed to slavery). The Missouri southerners were the first to invade Kansas, staking an illegal claim to vote and creating an illegal Assembly which passed pro-slavery legislation: meanwhile, in New England, associations were formed to favour emigration to Kansas. It was clear that the North, due to the more powerful migratory thrust which characterised it, would eventually win out; and hence the activism of the southerners. The fact that it wasn’t really about slavery but was rather another episode in the battle between North and South is shown by the fact that there were only two slaves living in the entire state even in 1860.

The free-soilers, in just as illegal a way, would go on to elect a second assembly; there was no chance for the dust to settle, especially since the government, and president Pierce, clearly supported the southerners. It was therefore inevitable that the situation would lead to armed conflict, with all the violence and bloodshed which that entailed. And it was in this setting that the name of captain John Brown began to circulate, surrounded by an aura of terror. In the end, as was predictable, the free-soilers would get the better of the situation, but a rift had opened up between Midwest and South which would never be mended, on the contrary, thanks to subsequent events, they would draw even further apart. In 1858 the Kansas case would lead Douglas to line up against the Southerner president Buchanan, thus sanctioning the split in the Democratic party.

Indeed, in the 1856 elections the democratic candidate had only won thanks to divisions in the enemy ranks. Buchanan (the democrats having preferred another candidate to Douglas this time as well), took advantage of the weakness of the Whigs and the inexperience of the new party, the Republican party. This new party, composed of ex-Whigs and remnants of various other movements, defended a programme which, behind its ideological smokescreen, consisted of prohibition of slavery in the new states, the construction of a trans-continental railway, and included the political-economic demands of both the new financial and industrial oligarchy in the North, and the frontiersmen. It was a party which for the first time in the history of the country would manage to bring together the whole of the North (both East and West) against the South.

On the other hand the Democratic party was national only in a nominal sense, and since it was obliged to intransigently defend the interests of the South it gradually alienated other parts of the country. We’ve already seen the split with the frontiersmen; now it was a matter of deciding what the Democratic party’s stance would be towards the Atlantic states – and particularly towards Pennsylvania, a centre of iron and steel production which was increasingly feeling the pressure of English competition. Who ought it try and please, the Southern free-exchangists, or the capitalists and workers in the steel industry, all of whom were faithful Democratic party supporters? The South opted for the former. The same negative stance was taken towards the free homesteads by deploying both the majority in the Senate and the presidential veto. Proposals to improve the navigability of the lakes of the North-west were also greeted with a resounding No. Turned down as well were proposals for the trans-continental railway, the request by Kansas, now pacified and a non-slavery territory, to join the Union, and the project to open agricultural colleges in the West. Virtually all these refusals hit the Midwest, and they could hardly fail to turn it into a sworn enemy of the South. Before long the consequences would be seen in the presidential elections of 1860; whose electoral programmes, whether for or against, would be centred on these unresolved issues, with slavery acting as the cement binding all the various elements opposed to the South.

§ The last year of peace

In 1860, the fundamental causes which sparked off the war appeared in definitive form and the battle lines would be drawn up. It was also the year in which the idealised justification for the conflict was hyped up and delivered to a people not in fact very convinced by the Liberation of the Slaves slogan. Towards the end of 1859 there has been another event to inflame the soul: John Brown’s failed coup de main, followed by his execution.

John Brown was a combative, visionary romantic who had made the liberation of slaves into his mission. He belonged to that strand of eighteenth century revolutionaries who believed that exemplary actions were capable of rousing people to action and prompting widespread revolt. In Italy there had been similar people, who Brown knew of, such as the Bandiera brothers, Piacane, and of course Garibaldi; and it was a tradition which would be maintained by anarchists, tailing off in the second half of the century.

The military action at Harper’s Ferry went badly, but it is doubtful if the slaves would have massed under the banners of their liberators, considering their behaviour in the years that followed, when their masters would be challenged by an extremely powerful army.

And yet the execution of John Brown would have a considerable impact on hearts and minds in the Northern towns, where he was seen as a martyr at the hand of the evil slave-owners. But whereas the watchword of anti-slavery was broadly supported by the middle-classes, who were now aligned with the financial, industrial and mercantile capitalists, the proletariat, as we will see later on, was far less convinced by it.

Any military massacre which the bourgeoisie drags the proletariat into always has some moral justification or other to conceal its true aims: no state has ever gone to war saying it is doing so to enrich the dominant classes. In 1861, war was fought in the name of anti-slavery, in 1914, it was irredentism and anti-absolutism; in 1939, it was in the name of democracy and anti-fascism; and nowadays, following the demise of Russian communism, improvidently subjected to euthanasia, war is being fought in the name of anti-terrorism.

In fact, even at that fatal historic turning point, the majority was unaware of the much more complex and deeper reasons lying at the heart of the conflict. It was really a matter of establishing if the Union could survive as two distinct nations and economic regimes, or if one of them would have to accept a subordinate position in relation to the other. The time for compromises had definitely passed, and with one controversy after another following in quick succession, the North could no longer postpone the assumption of full power and the restructuring of the state according to its own requirements.

By the middle of February 1860, the question of the free homesteads was already back on the agenda. This was a particularly pressing issue in the Mid-West, but now also of concern to the Atlantic bourgeoisie, insofar as the upshot would be an enormous growth in the market for industrial goods produced in the North. The South, worried about the prospect of further immigration bolstering the North even more, and with president Buchanan’s help, wrecked the law, thereby incurring the permanent hostility of the Midwest.

And all the other important measures which favoured both the North-east and the Midwest (public works on the waterways of the Great lakes, protective tariffs for the textile industry, agricultural colleges, the transcontinental railway, admission to the Union of Kansas, which was now non slave-holding, etc.) would also be blocked by the South’s majority in the Senate. Whilst the North wanted to turn the entire Union into one big market, the South forcefully opposed this tendency, seeing it as sounding the death knell for its own economic, cultural, and social system.

§ The 1860 elections

1860 was the year of the presidential elections as well, and therefore, as it still is today, of conventions to nominate the presidential candidates. Similar to today, too, the contest was between the Democratic Party, which was in theory a national party but increasingly centred on the interests of the South, and the new Republican Party, which clearly represented the interests of the industrial North.

Of the two conventions the Democratic one was the harder fought, due to the fact that the two souls composing it, those of the Midwest and the South, would clash, and, in short, go their separate ways, putting up two separate presidential candidates, Douglas and Breckinridge. The point at issue cited as cause for the split was whether or not slavery should continue in the new territories; but this was just a symbol, in itself of scant significance which, as we have seen already, masked a struggle which was to do with altogether different issues. Indeed, if, as now seemed inevitable, secession were to take place, the South would have no further territory within which to establish the right to install slavery, even if the colonists wanted it.

In fact, in 1860, no-one was actually threatening the institution of slavery already in existence in the Southern states. No-one seriously believed that the peculiar institution, seemingly hackneyed and destined to fizzle out over time, could ever spread to the North from the South. And yet if the mob in the North feared a slavocracy invading the North, the South feared the perceived threat to their wealth, insurrections and massacres of whites and so on. A Richmond newspaper wrote: Even if there were not one slave between Arostook to Sabine, the North and South could never agree on a permanent basis.

All this would appear very clear in the course of the Republican convention which was held in Chicago. Abraham Lincoln, a man from Illinois (Midwest) but born in the South (Kentucky), was chosen as the presidential candidate; in other words a compromise candidate with a not too marked political personality who could garner votes from all sides. And what is more the party’s political programme was already written, and Lincoln for his part would conduct a very muted political campaign. Although possessed of a not entirely insignificant personality, he was but a modest instrument of history, and maybe he was aware of that fact.

In the Republican platform the ideological reasons for abolitionism, relating to the situation in 1856, were now redundant. It would restrict itself to declaring that the principal, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that all men were created equal, was essential for the conservation of our republican institutions, something with which even the Southerners could concur given that it had been written by Jefferson, a born and bred Southerner himself. And to admit that blacks had been created equal didn’t mean, incidentally, that they couldn’t later on become different. In practice, there was to be no meddling in the affairs of the individual states with regard to slavery, even to the extent the possibility that it could be introduced into the new territories wasn’t ruled out. The substance of the platform, therefore, didn’t revolve around the question of slavery, but was to be found in a paragraph which stated quite baldly that the Union was inviolable, and that any secessionist proposal had to be considered as a treasonable project, which it was the duty of an indignant people to forcefully reject and silence for ever. There then followed all those measures so dear to the hearts of the Midwest and East which the South would reject: The Homestead Act, railway subsidies, protectionism for industry, a daily postal service and federal public works in rivers and ports.

Thus the electoral campaign took place in a highly charged atmosphere. Lincoln, pulled in different directions by the party’s competing souls, didn’t take up a decisive position. Legend has it that he stood up to the party, and, rather than being partisan, i.e., pro-North, he took up instead a national position. Well, we are quite happy to leave that for the biographers to decide: all we know is that he couldn’t have done other than follow the imperatives of the time, and allow himself to be swept along on the tide of history like any decent battilocchio.1

On November 6, the day of the elections, four candidates would enter the lists and although Lincoln would get less than a majority of the popular votes, he gained a majority in the electoral college. The vote was very polarised insofar as his support was all derived from north of the Mason-Dixon line.

It was a case of the historic transfer of power from the Democratic Party to a party which openly represented the interests of the North. This would have, even if long expected, a devastating effect on the South and the most ardent advocates of secession wouldn’t hesitate to fan the flames. The upshot would be, on December 12, that South Carolina would declare for secession, and, over the course of the following two months, they would soon be followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.

§ Secession

Whereas in Washington nothing much would happen, because, pending the inauguration of Lincoln on March 4, Buchanan didn’t dare lift a finger, in February 1861 a convention of the secessionist states would meet in Montgomery, Alabama. On February 7, a new state entity, the Confederate States of America, was declared, with Jefferson Davis, ex-Mississippi senator, as president. A new constitution would be launched as well which, naturally enough, reflected the principles and priorities of the South.

But there was more, and Marx wouldn’t hesitate to give his incisive verdict: "The oligarchy of 300,000 slave-holders used the Montgomery Congress not only to proclaim the separation of the South from the North; it also exploited the Congress to overturn the internal system of government of the slave states, to completely subjugate that part of the white population which had still maintained some degree of independence under the protection of the democratic Constitution of the Union. Between 1856 and 1860 the political spokesmen, lawyers, moralists and theologians of the slave-holders’ party had already tried to prove not so much that Negro slavery is justified but rather that colour is immaterial and that slavery is the lot of the working class everywhere.

"It can be seen, then, that the war of the Southern Confederacy is, in the truest sense of the word, a war of conquest for the extension and perpetuation of slavery. The larger part of the border states and territories are still in the possession of the Union, whose side they have taken first by way of the ballot-box and then with arms. But for the Confederacy they count as the South and it is trying to conquer them from the Union. In the border states which the Confederacy has for the time being occupied it holds the relatively free highland areas in check by means of martial law. Within the actual slave states themselves it is supplanting the democracy which existed hitherto by the unbridled oligarchy of 300,000 slave-holders.

"By abandoning its plans for conquest the Southern confederacy would abandon its own economic viability and the very purpose of secession. Indeed, secession only took place because it no longer seemed possible to bring about the transformation of the border states and territories within the Union. On the other hand, with a peaceful surrender of the contested area to the Southern Confederacy the North would relinquish more than three quarters of the entire territory of the United States to the slave republic. The North would lose the Gulf of Mexico completely, the Atlantic Ocean with the exception of the narrow stretch from the Penobscot estuary to Delaware bay, and would even cut itself off from the Pacific Ocean. Missouri, Kansas, New Mexico, Arkansas and Texas would be followed by California. Unable to wrest the mouth of the Mississippi from the hands of the strong, hostile slave republic in the South, the great agricultural states in the basin between the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghenies, in the valleys of the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio, would be forced by economic interests to secede from the North and to join the Southern Confederacy. These North-western states would in turn draw the other Northern states lying further east after them – with the possible exception of New England – into the same vortex of secession.

"The Union would thus not in fact be dissolved, but rather reorganized, a reorganization on the basis of slavery, under the acknowledged control of the slave-holding oligarchy (…)

The present struggle between South and North is thus nothing less than a struggle between two social systems: the system of slavery and the system of free labour. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer peacefully co-exist on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.

Could a State, legally, secede? The Union had been established between equal colonies in a voluntary association, and there was no clause in the Constitution which forbade having second thoughts. Naturally enough bourgeois historians and lawyers have expended rivers of ink on the subject, as though historical events, before they happened, had to ask themselves first if they were legitimate. Lincoln himself, in his inaugural address, attempted to demonstrate that there was no such right to secede; but of course his aim wasn’t to convince the Southerners, but to show that they were rebels who had placed themselves outside the law, and were to be treated as such.

Secession had happened because the Southern States were sure they could hold the North at bay, perhaps even win a short war, by counting on a series of favourable national and international events, and on the initial advantage obtained by the Buchanan administration (Marx spoke rightly of a secessionist conspiracy, prepared in the previous years), and, later on, the opportunity presented by Lincoln’s lack of resolution during his first year in office. Only a few dreamers thought that a war of long duration could be won.

On March 4, 1861, the new president of the United States took office, and from his very first speech it became very clear what the real reasons for the conflict were: indeed Lincoln allayed any concerns about threats to citizens’ property by declaring, I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. However, mind you, I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual, hence I shall take care… that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States.

The die was cast, and in the following month there would be no second thoughts. The bombardment of Fort Sumner, a Federal fortress near the mouth of Charleston harbour in South Carolina, would start on April 14. The war had begun. Lincoln announced there had been an insurrection and called on the government militias to repress it. But the most important consequence of the bombardment was that the North would suddenly flare up against the South, thus creating the psychological conditions for much wider mobilisations.

Four other Southern states now took the plunge and declared their secession, Virginia (with West Virginia breaking away to form a separate state on the Northern side), Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina; Kentucky declared itself neutral (although it wouldn’t be spared the horrors of war), whilst Maryland and Missouri were still torn by rival factions. It is important to recall that Washington, the federal capital, lay in a territory between Virginia and Maryland; the capital of Virginia, meanwhile, would become the Confederate capital. At sea the South offered letters authorising the running war against the Northern merchant marine, while Washington proclaimed the naval blockade of the South. The state of war was officially declared on May 29 by the Confederates.

§ The deployment of forces

At the outbreak of the war the population of the 20 Northern states stood at around 19 million. In the 11 Southern States there were just a half million whites (actually 9 million – red texts), and 3 and a half million Negro slaves. The population of the 3 border States numbered about 2.5 million whites and half a million slaves; these States would generally remain faithful to the Union, with all the strategic and military advantages which that would involve; but their white population would be divided, providing volunteer forces to both sides in equal measure.

With regard to the Negro population, one might think they would have constituted a further threat to the South, but such an eventuality, apart from a few events of negligible impact, was never realised. Not only did the slaves not revolt, but their labour, involving even activity in the Corps of Engineers, would allow a large number of whites to enrol without essential economic activities suffering as a result. The North didn’t have such enormous resources available to it and the greater part of its production work was increasingly performed by women. This was another aspect of the civil war which anticipated the World Wars of the following century.

But the real weakness of the South didn’t lie in a lack of manpower, for although the Northern armies certainly had numerical superiority, it was never overwhelming. Rather their weakness lay in the meagreness of its industrial productive apparatus and railway network. With ten times more workers, industrial production in the North (textiles, metallurgical, iron and steel, etc,) was eleven times greater than in the South, not to mention its bank deposits and gold reserves. The South’s capital was for the most part tied up in slaves, and thus the only way it could be freed up was as labour. Also, the railway network in the North was three times more extensive. But the area in which the South was most woefully inadequate was on the maritime front: the South’s merchant navy was simply derisory in comparison with New England’s huge fleet, which also provided its navy with sailors; a navy ready for war which was almost non-existent in the South.

As regards resources in the primary sector, that was clearly the South’s strong point. Producing mainly tobacco, cotton, sugar and rice for exportation, such exports, in theory, should have allowed the South to acquire all the industrial products it lacked, but there was the small problem of Northern naval blockade. The North, on the other hand, with its abundant production of maize and wheat, and meat, would never be likely to have serious problems with its food supply. In the light of these facts it is difficult to understand the harshness, and long duration, of the conflict, and the reasons for this were many and various.

In the first place, the two camps entered into the war unprepared: the regular army of the United States amounted to 16,000 men, and remained unorganised due to the lack of decision about which side its component parts, above all the officers, wanted to fight on. Although each State had its own militia, their main purpose was official parades and an excuse for wining and dining. Troops and armaments, therefore, had to be entirely improvised, and in this the respect the South was much quicker and more efficient than the North.

The actual number of soldiers deployed by the two sides during the war is a matter of some disagreement, but the following figures are probably near enough:

Date North South
1861, July 186,000 150,000
1862, June 918,000 675,000
1865, March 990,000 175,000

According to these figures the North’s numerical superiority was, at the start, fairly narrow, and was more than counter-balanced by other factors. First and foremost there was the fact that the South was fighting a defensive war, with shorter lines of communication and the possibility of moving forces through internal borders; it also had better knowledge of the terrain; and there was the fact that the Southerner, who lived in the countryside, was better at improvising as a soldier than the worker, who didn’t know how to shoot or ride a horse (although the North took advantage of a large number of immigrants, mainly Germans, who were refugees from the revolutions of 1848-9). Furthermore the Southerners were initially better led, thanks to an entrenched military tradition in the South, and they would find excellent commanders right from the start (Lee, Johnston, Jackson and Forrest, etc). The North, on the other hand, had to try out, and then get rid of, several commanders-in-chief before finding the winning team in Grant, Sherman and Sheridan.

The blockade, which should have been a winning card, took a long time to take effect. The number of ships crossing from the Southern ports fell from 6,000, in 1860, to 800 the following year. The Southerners had time to convert agriculture to the production of essential foodstuffs, and industry to war production. If, on the whole, civilians in the South suffered from the consequences of war much more than in the North, the Southern soldiers rarely found themselves short of weapons and essential supplies. The armaments of the infantry were roughly equivalent with artillery as the North’s only significant advantage.

All things considered, therefore, even if Marx saw the result of the war as foregone conclusion (although not all his contemporaries did), the duration of the war is understandable.

§ Total War

There are various distinctive characteristics of the American Civil War which make it stand out from all wars which went before, and make it the precursor to the military conflicts of the following decades.

The sheer scale of the conflict was exceptional. An immense theatre of operations, the millions of soldiers employed, the huge numbers killed (600 to 700 thousand) and wounded (half a million), and four years of uninterrupted war make it the first great war.

It was a war fought and won in the first place by infantry, and yet a number of important technical innovations would set it apart from all previous wars. The main one concerned guns, which now had rifled barrels and were therefore much more accurate and with a far longer range. If, in the past, the old smooth-bore muskets had allowed courageous mass attacks and close quarter fighting with bayonets, guns like the Springfield carbine were capable of stopping the advance of entire battalions from a considerable distance. Despite the fact that frontal assaults would thenceforth only prove effective in extremely rare cases, the military strategists would nevertheless continue over the course of the war to hurl wave upon wave of men against the enemy strongholds. Whilst previously it was a case of having to face not-very-accurate enemy fire over a hundred metres or so before directly impacting with the enemy, now it was often a matter of having to traverse a kilometre or so in the face of firepower which was capable of mowing men down in their hundreds. Losses were enormous, up to 25-35% of the forces employed, figures which were unheard until that point. Enemy positions now had to be swept clear of artillery before the attack, or it was an impossible undertaking. The initial response to this tactical revolution was the prioritising of defence over attack, and the birth of the trench. The American generals wouldn’t fully grasp the significance of this tactical revolution; and even 50 years later the same lesson was still being learnt in the same blood-soaked way during the Great War. Even in 1940 there were those who would rave about millions of bayonets.

Another important consequence of the introduction of rifles was it became far more difficult to use artillery on the battle-field. This was because the gun crew had now become easy targets, whilst the smooth-bored cannons became less efficient if set further back. On the other hand, rifled cannons hadn’t been adapted for tactical use due to the reduced calibre to weight ratio, and therefore they were not much use for case shot (incidentally, the machine gun would also be introduced during this conflict). But rifled cannons did gain in range and precision, and here too there use was revolutionary: instead of being constantly moved onto the battlefield, they started to be used to bombard enemy positions from afar, concentrating the fire of several batteries even when they were set far apart.

Another innovation of the Civil War, due in part to its extent, was the greater logistical requirements of the two armies, which resulted, for the first time in modern history, in the systematic destruction of the enemy’s economic and productive resources assuming strategic importance. And, in order to prevent a partisan war setting in (which nevertheless did happen), or stop it developing further, it was but a short step from there to out and out terror. The acceptance of such a policy of annihilation would come about almost as an intrinsic, fatal necessity, and it indeed it ran counter to the intentions of the politicians and generals themselves. On the third day of the war President Lincoln had given the Southern States his sincere assurance that We will take every care (…) to avoid any destruction, any interference with regard to private property, as well as any disturbance to peaceful citizens throughout the country. General McClellan, who had succeeded Scott, apologised to a Virginia gentleman for the damage he had suffered, saying I do not come here to make war against the defenceless, the non-combatants, private property, nor against the domestic institutions of the country; in other words, he had no intention of freeing slaves, a nightmare for Southerners who still remembered the revolt by the slave, Nat Turner, thirty years before.

But when Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of the Federal forces in February 1864, he understood the necessity of destroying the economic resources and productive capacity of the South. Typical of the orders he gave to General Sherman was: You need to remain in Jackson (Mississippi) as long as it is necessary to destroy it as a railway centre and manufacturing city producing military supplies. And to General Sheridan: If the war is to last a further year, we would rather the Shenandoah valley were to become a desolate and sterile land. And Sheridan would give Grant no cause for complaint in this respect. In October 1864 he informed Grant that he had destroyed 2,000 farmsteads filled with grain, oats and agricultural equipment, 79 corn mills full of flour, 4,000 head of cattle and 3,000 sheep in the Shenandoah valley.

Another sector revolutionised by military technology, along with the engineers corps which assumed a hitherto unknown importance, was the cavalry. The cavalry’s irresistible charges had been rendered very resistible indeed by advent of the rifle barrelled gun, and it as well would have to be reorganised. Here adaption occurred very rapidly. Once the now suicidal charges were abandoned, the cavalry was used for several new purposes: tactically, to provide an impenetrable screen against enemy scouts when the army was on the march; for near and long-distance scouting expeditions; and for audacious attacks, sometimes far behind the enemy lines, against vital logistical objectives. It became a mobile troop, capable of moving with surprising speed and of fighting either on horse or foot. This was a very modern combination of functions which, at the beginning, the Southerners knew how to exploit to the full.

Finally, at sea, there was another great innovation: the new ironclad battleships. Impervious to the cannon shot then available, they would, in their turn, initiate a new phase of naval warfare.

From whatever standpoint one regards it, the American Civil War presents a spectacle without parallel in the annals of military history. The vast extent of the disputed territory; the far-flung front of the lines of operation; the numerical strength of the hostile armies, the creation of which hardly drew any support from a prior organisational basis; the fabulous cost of these armies; the manner of commanding them and the general tactical and strategic principles in accordance with which the war is being waged, are all new in the eyes of the European onlooker. Thus did Marx begin a famous article on the American Civil War dated 21 March, 1862. And from the strategic and tactical points of view as well, there are other distinctive features of the war which are worth briefly examining in order to understand it better.

The South, even if the aggressor, had no choice, once it had lost the advantage of surprise, but to adopt a defensive strategy, even though offensive episodes in enemy territory weren’t entirely excluded, whether for tactical reasons or to improve morale behind the lines. The South placed its hopes in holding on until the tide turned in its favour: firstly, there might be diplomatic or armed intervention in support of the South by the European powers (initially it was believed that the English economy wouldn’t be able to withstand the shortage of American cotton); secondly, Northern public opinion might get disillusioned – and indeed there were many in the North, faced with a war of attrition involving much sacrifice and an increasing death toll, who already opposed the war.

The North, on the other hand, had no choice but to fight an offensive war. The political objective of the Washington Government was the restoration of the Union: the secessionist States were seen as rebels and the Confederate government considered as non-existent. The Union’s general strategy was to disperse and destroy the armed forces of the secessionists, to shatter the Southerners’ desire to resist and rebel and indeed it could not have been otherwise. No mediation or concession was possible, and this was another reason why the war was beyond compare. That the North was only too aware of its terrible power is clearly shown by the attitude of Lincoln himself: the tremendous confidence with which he called on the South to submit to terms of surrender only on the North’s terms proved that it had no fear of armed confrontation, and in fact welcomed it.

Conscious of its formidable conquering power, the young national bourgeoisie certainly wouldn’t have allowed any obstacles to stand in its way.

The absolutist princes of the 18th Century had to content themselves with wars with restricted objectives; in part due to sound judgement (why threaten the entire system of which they were a part?), in part through necessity (professional soldiers were costly, and difficult to replace by combatants who were equally effective; the manufacturing works of the time weren’t up to arming, equipping or feeding a mass army, even allowing it were possible to have conscripted them) and they had always avoided all-out war, for reasons of domestic stability too.

But for the bourgeois democratic world things were very different. Here the nation was declared to be common patrimony: and on whom could the sacred duty, of taking up arms to defend it, devolve if not on its citizens? On such principles was the mass levy of the French Revolution based, and on these same principles would conscription be based, introduced in America by the Southerners shortly after the outbreak of hostilities.

In the North the situation was different. There it didn’t take long for the State governments to realise that whereas the ordinary citizen was ready to take up arms in a Hannibal ad portas2 scenario (which for good or bad was the fate of the South) it was reluctant to fight for anything else. The national governments therefore soon discovered that even if, in theory, they had unlimited human resources, these resources couldn’t be mobilised without recourse to a new and powerful weapon: war propaganda, a weapon which in the next century would be refined and extended, even in time of peace, in preparation for war. The business of the latter was to describe the enemy as menacing, cruel, abject, and only fit to be wiped out as quickly as possible; only thus, against the hated enemy, could an army of citizens be made to march off to war. War propaganda would inculcate in soldiers and citizens the determination not to give up until the enemy had been totally annihilated.

The North had an enormous task before it, not least because it only had an overwhelming numerical superiority in the latter phases of the war when the fate of the South was already sealed. At best the ratio oscillated between 1.5 and 1.75 to 1, whereas Clausewitz envisaged a ratio of at least 2 to 1, or even greater, as necessary to ensure victory. If we also take into account the fact that the North didn’t have a Napoleon, and that the South enjoyed the advantages of fighting a defensive war, we can see that the outcome of the war certainly wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The North, however, had excellent river and railway communications in its favour which allowed long lines of communication between the front and the rear, without which the entire enterprise, at least in the theatres of war in the West, would not have been possible.

The war front was in fact incredibly long, more than 3,500 kilometers as the crow flies, 500 kilometers longer, that is, than the German front in Russia in 1942 stretching from Finland to Stalingrad. In fact it was a composite front, composed of various theatres of war. If we take these in order, going from East to West, we have: North-East Virginia, in the relatively restricted territory between Washington and Richmond, the two capitals, and including the Shenandoah valley (it was here the bloodiest battles and most of the fighting took place); the bitterly fought central zone, straddling Kentucky and East Tennessee; the course of the Mississippi; and the biggest sector of all, to the West of the great river, an area which was