[Marxism] Waging the War on Slavery

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 19 08:25:43 MDT 2010

Waging the War on Slavery
— Derrick Morrison

     Race and Radicalism in the Union Army
     By Mark A. Lause
     Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009,
     139 pages plus notes & index, $45, cloth.

THE SETTLEMENT OF Lawrence in the territory of Kansas, summer of 
1856: Pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers are trying to colonize 
the territory. The former want a slave-soil, the latter a 
free-soil state. Armed pro-slavery gangs from Missouri are 
harassing and attacking the free-soil settlers. The U.S. 
government and U.S. Army are pro-slavery.

“A few weeks later [Richard] Hinton, who had met John Brown on his 
way to Kansas, encountered him on the streets of Lawrence. At the 
time an imminent raid by the pro-slavery bands had forced an 
emergency town meeting that had bogged down over what to do in 
response. The terrified residents had sent word to the U.S. 
cavalry, which was too far away to help even if it tried, and were 
debating whether to petition Washington. Hinton rushed Brown into 
the meeting, where he exercised some forbearance before he 
‘mounted a dry-goods box’ and quietly explained what his auditors 
needed to do: keep silent until the riders came in range and then 
aim low, almost immediately those at the meeting emptied into the 
street to see to the town’s defenses.

“John Bowles, a Kentucky slaveholder turned abolitionist, placed 
himself under Brown’s command that day…. At dusk the would-be 
raiders rode into what they expected to be a defenseless community 
only to get a lively firefight…. Bowles joined Hinton as a 
lifelong defender of John Brown and his legacy.” (Race and 
Radicalism in the Union Army, 21-22.)

Thus writes Professor Mark A. Lause, in Race and Radicalism in the 
Union Army. This book can be read on several levels. The depth and 
breadth of Lause’s scholarship cannot be denied; the footnotes 
reveal an astounding amount of material consumed and digested into 
less than 200 pages.

Lause documents the events leading up to the biggest Civil War 
battle in the far West, the Battle of Honey Springs, July 17, 
1863. The battle was fought in what is now Oklahoma, but back then 
was known as “Indian Territory”. “…a little army of Indian, black, 
and white soldiers advanced against a much larger force.” (1) This 
multi-racial Union army contingent, numbering 3,000, faced a 
Confederate force of 5,700.

Thus the book can be approached as a study of this little-known 
episode of the Second American Revolution, i.e., the Civil War. In 
so doing one gets deep into the various Indian nations — the 
Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole — and how they 
were incorporated into both the Union and Confederate armies, an 
interesting story in itself.

But Lause brings into view the point most salient to the times we 
live in: the historical impact registered by the group of radical 
abolitionists who followed the example of John Brown. The group 
included Richard Hinton, James Gilpatrick Blunt, William Addison 
Phillips, Augustus Wattles, James Montgomery and John Ritchie as 
well as John Bowles.

They all fought alongside Brown in Kansas. They discussed strategy 
with Brown — using Kansas as a base to wage a small war on the 
slaveholders in Missouri, freeing slaves and slipping them North 
to Canada. They conducted these raids on occasion, as well as 
issued anti-slavery appeals to U.S. soldiers. That’s why they were 
surprised when Brown set forth the project of a direct raid on a 
U.S. Army arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Those inspired by Brown could not see the point, and declined 
participation. Many were supporters of a newly organized free-soil 
party, the Republican Party, whereas Brown disdained electoral 
politics. Lause provides a rich description of this debate. He 
also details the political shock wave of the Harpers Ferry raid 
and the organized effort of hundreds of Brown’s followers to 
rescue him from jail.
Radicals in the War

The struggle in Lawrence was writ large with the outbreak of the 
Civil War. Lawrence showed the power of a message when it 
resonates with and provides an understandable solution to 
difficulties facing a group of people.

When the slaveholders sought to use armed force to break up the 
United States, and president Abraham Lincoln responded with armed 
force to maintain the union, this provided an unprecedented 
opportunity to anti-slavery radicals and free-soil supporters, who 
all joined the Union Army.

Despite statements by Lincoln and Union Army general staff that 
the war was only about preserving the Union, the anti-slavery 
radicals and huge sections of the Republican party knew that any 
war against slaveholder power would ultimately lead to the 
destruction of the “peculiar institution.”

The U.S. Army numbered fewer than 20,000 before 1861. During the 
next four years the Union Army grew to over two million soldiers 
and sailors. Over 800,000 joined the Confederate forces. (Battle 
Cry of Freedom, The Civil War Era, James M. McPherson, 1988: 250, 386)

John Brown’s radical supporters flocked to the army in Kansas. 
They became the officer corps of the Kansas regiments and adopted 
a policy of emancipating the slaves — contrary to the official 
program. When federal policy in the winter of 1861-62 opened the 
door to Indian recruitment to the Union Army, the John Brown 
radicals used their positions to organize regiments of Indians, 
Blacks and Southern white unionists fleeing to Union lines.

One vision held that the Texas Confederacy was so shaky that an 
armed force well supplied could use the Indian Territory to launch 
a drive through Texas, recruiting Blacks, Indians and small white 
farmers, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Needless to say, top 
officials in Washington and the Union Army brass rejected this idea.

Nonetheless, when federal policy shifted in 1863 to emancipation 
of the slaves, the John Brown radicals, who had already been 
recruiting Blacks, now had the license to form whole regiments of 
“colored soldiers.”

The radicals not only experienced success, they also suffered 
reverses, due to the inconsistent at best and sometimes openly 
treacherous actions of the top Army brass. But this was typical of 
the process known as the “democratic revolution.”

Lincoln and the Republican Party leadership were essentially 
beholden to the railroad barons and big property owners of the 
North. As the war with the slaveholding power turned into months 
and then years, the federal government moved from trying to strike 
a compromise with that power to the adoption of more radical 
measures to win the conflict outright — and the most radical of 
course was the overthrow of slavery.

These measures sealed the alliance of big property with the small 
farmers, urban artisans and shopkeepers, and — most of all — the 
slaves. In addition to the John Brown radicals, there were German 
radicals, many of them refugees from the failed democratic 
uprisings of 1848 in the German lands in Europe and who formed a 
key component of the Republican party and the Union Army.

Many of these radicals had worked with Karl Marx and Frederick 
Engels in the 1848 uprisings. In St. Louis it was the German 
radicals who led the seizure of the U.S. Army arsenal in 1861, 
thus keeping the state of Missouri in the Union column. At the 
time, over half of the St. Louis population was German-born and 
German American. (The Germans In America, Theodore Huebener, 1962: 

Marx’s Insights and German Radicals

In an important earlier work, August Nimtz recounts the political 
arc traveled by these radicals in his book, Marx, Tocqueville, and 
Race in America (Lexington Books, 2003; new paperback edition 
2007). Nimtz contrasts the development of the ideas of Marx and 
Engels with that of the French political thinker, Alexis de 
Tocqueville, on the North American republic.

Nimtz’s book is anchored in events before, during and after the 
U.S. Civil War. German radicals who supported Marx’s ideas 
included Joseph Weydemeyer, August Willich, and Adolph Douai, all 
veterans of 1848. When the German-speaking population of New York 
City was, after Vienna and Berlin, the third largest in the world, 
Weydemeyer and Douai organized among German tailors and other 
workers in support of the 1860 Republican party’s presidential 
campaign. Willich was active in Cincinnati.

Nimtz notes, “Without the support of German American workers in 
key places like Illinois it is unlikely that Lincoln would have 
been nominated and elected president.” (Nimtz, 76) When Lincoln 
was on his way to his inauguration in February, 1861, he stopped 
in Cincinnati, where he was greeted by a delegation of over 2,000 
German American workers. (The German-Americans, La Vern J. 
Rippley, 1976: 65)

At the outbreak of the war, Weydemeyer served in the Union Army in 
Missouri and rose to the rank of colonel. Willich, having trained 
at the Royal Prussian Military Academy before 1848, rose to the 
rank of major general. (Nimtz, 124-125)

Of the over two million soldiers in the Union Army, close to 
200,000 were African-American; some scholars estimate that over 
750,000 soldiers were of German heritage.

Both the books by Lause and Nimtz are excellent studies of the 
U.S. Civil War. The point that comes through in Lause’s work in 
particular is how one radical, Richard Hinton, could make such a 
difference in Lawrence in the summer of 1856, and how a group of 
radicals led an army that turned the tide at Honey Springs in July 
of 1863.

Ultimately it was the adoption of a radical program, albeit 
reluctantly, that led to the victory of the biggest democratic 
revolution in history in the month of April, 1865.
Our Revolution

The owners of big urban and agricultural property in the United 
States came out of the Civil War having completed the revolution, 
establishing a system of political democracy — limited, with no 
franchise for women — and allowing unfettered activity in the 
economic arena.

Today we stand on the threshold of a new revolution, one that will 
make the leap from political democracy — which has now become 
mangled as it represents the economic interests of a super-rich 
few — to social democracy, where the working masses, the producers 
of goods and services, will become the masters of the urban and 
agricultural landscape.

To better understand this transition, Mark Lause’s book, by 
disclosing the mechanics and dynamics of a previous transition, 
becomes a necessary read.

ATC 147, July-August 2010

More information about the Marxism mailing list