Marx, Engels, and the American Civil War – II

We finished the last section of our discussion of Marx, Engels, and the American Civil War with their joint article on the state of the war and its prospects in March 1862, in which they remarkably accurately analyzed and predicted the course the war would follow for it to result in Union success. The Confederacy in the meantime was resorting to much more severe measures against ‘liberty’ than it would ever have accepted of a Union government, and which led to much dissension: first, the introduction of the first ever draft in the Americas in April 1862, and subsequently a severe tax on agricultural produce, which was enforced by a suspension of habeas corpus. Those people who accuse Lincoln of dictatorial tendencies in his repression of the pro-Southern dissenters in Maryland are well advised to take this into account. The Confederacy also increased its bureaucracy beyond any foreseen proportions to some 70.000, more than the Union and vastly more than ever before. This was mere necessity to have a chance at full mobilization and achieving the war aims.(1) The Union eventually also introduced conscription of sorts, and what’s more, its industrial expansion was aided greatly by the war, while inflation destroyed real wages, leading to much worker resistance. This would combine with fear of labor competition to form some virulent anti-war sentiment in places like New York City, but we shall see more about this later.

The capture of New Orleans had tempted the French government to offer ‘mediation’ in the conflict, i.e. intervention in the Confederacy’s favor. This was all the more to be averted because of the hypocritical hullabaloo created about General Ben Butler’s decision to repress the Southern women’s mistreatment of Union occupying troops. Marx ferociously agitated against this pretext for intervention:

General Butler issued a proclamation in which he notified them that they should be treated as streetwalkers, if they continued to act as street-walkers. Butler has, indeed, the makings of a lawyer, but does not seem to have undertaken the requisite study of English statute law. Otherwise, by analogy with the laws imposed on Ireland under Castlereagh, he would have prohibited them from setting foot on the streets at all. Butler’s warning to the “ladies” of New Orleans has aroused such moral indignation in Earl Carnarvon, Sir. J. Walsh (who played so ridiculous and odious a role in Ireland) and Mr. Gregory, who was already demanding recognition of the Confederacy a year ago, (…) interrogated the Ministry to learn what steps it intended to take in the name of outraged “humanity”. Russell and Palmerston both castigated Butler, both expected that the government at Washington would disavow him; and the so very tender-hearted Palmerston, who behind the Queen’s back and without the foreknowledge of his colleagues recognised the coup d’état of December 1851 (on which occasion “ladies” were actually shot dead, whilst others were violated by Zouaves) merely out of “human admiration” — the same tender-hearted Viscount declared Butler’s warning to be an “infamy”. Ladies, indeed, who actually own slaves — such ladies were not even to be able to vent their anger and their malice on common Union troops, peasants, artisans and other rabble with impunity! It is “infamous”.

Among the public here, no one is deceived by this humanity farce. It is meant partly to call forth, partly to fortify the feeling in favour of intervention, in the first place on the part of France. After the first melodramatic outbursts, the knights of humanity in the Upper and Lower House, as if by word of command, discarded their emotional mask. Their declamation served merely as a prologue to the question whether the Emperor of the French had communicated with the English government in the matter of mediating, and whether the latter, as they hoped, had received such an offer favourably. Russell and Palmerston both declared they did not know of the offer. Russell declared the present moment extremely unfavourable for any mediation. Palmerston, more guarded and reserved, contented himself with saying that at the present moment the English government had no intention of mediating.

The plan is that during the recess of the English Parliament France should play her role of mediator and, in the autumn, if Mexico is secure, should open her intervention. The lull in the American theater of war has resuscitated the intervention speculators in St. James and the Tulleries from their marasmus. This lull is itself due to a strategic error on the part of the North. If, after its victory in Tennessee, the Kentucky army had rapidly advanced on the railway junctions in Georgia, instead of letting itself be drawn South down the Mississippi on a side track, Reuter and Co. would have been cheated of their business in “intervention” and “mediation” rumours. However that may be, Europe can wish nothing more fervently than that the coup d’état should attempt ‘,to restore order in the United States” and “to save civilisation” there too.


The failure to follow up on the victories in the West underlined once again the need for McClellan’s strategy to be abandoned, especially in the face of Confederate conscription and counterattacks in Tennessee. Marx and Engels once again hoped that Lincoln would now be moved by events and his own natural sympathies to proceed more systematically to uproot the Southern system. As they expressed it somewhat exasperatedly after Milledgeville:

At the present moment, when secession’s stocks are rising, the spokesmen of the border states are making even greater claims. However, Lincoln’s appeal to them, in which he threatens them with inundation by the Abolition party, shows that things are taking a revolutionary turn. Lincoln knows what Europe does not know, that it is by no means apathy or giving way under pressure of defeat that causes his demand for 300,000 recruits to meet with such a cold response. New England and the Northwest, which have provided the main body of the army, are determined to force on the government a revolutionary kind of warfare and to inscribe the battle-slogan of “Abolition of Slavery!” on the star-spangled banner. Lincoln yields only hesitantly and uneasily to this pressure from without, but he knows that he cannot resist it for long. Hence his urgent appeal to the border states to renounce the institution of slavery voluntarily and under advantageous contractual conditions. He knows that only the continuance of slavery in the border states has so far left slavery untouched in the South and prohibited the North from applying its great radical remedy. He errs only if he imagines that the “loyal” slaveholders are to be moved by benevolent speeches and rational arguments. They will yield only to force.

So far, we have only witnessed the first act of the Civil War — the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand.

(3) What was this ‘revolutionary waging of war’? Some indication is given by the fact Marx continues this article with a positive evaluation of the Homestead Act, which the Unionist Congress had been able to pass now that they no longer were blocked by Southern obstinacy. Moreover, the same Congress abolished slavery in the District of Columbia, be it with compensation – the only time that such abolition with compensation would actually be passed anywhere. It also abolished slavery in all the territories of the United States, and accepted West Virginia into the Union as a ‘free state’. Needless to say, these were the sort of measures that undermined fundamentally the slavery-based capitalism of the Confederacy and replaced it with the ‘free labor’ capitalism of the Union, which Marx and Engels unequivocally considered an improvement. The intent behind these laws was itself made explicit by Congress in their final act, in which they recognized the independence of Liberia and Haiti, both black-ruled ex-slave states. Marx enthousiastically concluded: “Thus, no matter how the dice may fall in the fortunes of war, even now it can safely be said that Negro slavery will not long outlive the Civil War”.(4)

To get an impression of how bad things looked by this point, and therefore how quick Marx was to underline his enthousiasm for the new turn as against McClellan’s cautious approaches, it is unnecessary to go further than to point to the second battle of Bull Run. After having been driven out in the Seven Days’ Campaign, McClellan had once again taken up a defensive posture outside Washington. Here, the military genius of Robert E. Lee defeated him once again, and drove his troops into the capital and beyond it. The British and French upon hearing this news were poised once again to recognize and even support the Confederacy, but were restrained by ever wily Palmerston, who wanted to be certain of betting on the winning horse. He therefore decided to wait for the result of the battle directly following this one – if it were to succeed for the Confederacy, they would be assumed to be on the winning hand. Lee decided on a campaign to invade Maryland and so perhaps incite the people of that state and of rural Pennsylvania to rise up for the Confederacy, since he believed there to be much pro-Southern sentiment there. Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith had been sent by Jefferson Davis to undertake similar morale-based campaigns in Kentucky. Engels predicted the Unionist loss at Bull Run or second Manassas, and wrote despairingly of the McClellanite ‘flabbiness’ of the Union in a letter to Marx (from this point on, their main bulk of writing would be ad hoc correspondence closely following events in America):

They shrink from conscription, from resolute fiscal measures, from attacking slavery, from everything that is urgently necessary; everything’s left to amble along at will, and, if some factitious measure finally gets through Congress, the honourable Lincoln hedges it about with so many clauses that it’s reduced to nothing at all. It is this flabbiness, this wilting like a pricked balloon under the pressure of defeats, which have destroyed an army, the strongest and the best, and left Washington virtually undefended, it is this complete absence of any resilience among the people at large which proves to me that it is all up. The occasional mass meeting, etc., means nothing at all, and doesn’t even rival the excitement of a presidential election.

Add to that a complete want of talent. One general more stupid than the other. Not one who would be capable of the slightest initiative or of an independent decision. For 3 months the initiative has again rested wholly with the enemy. Then, the fiscal measures, each one crazier than the last. Fecklessness and cowardice everywhere except among the common soldiers. The same applies to the politicians — just as absurd, just as much at a loss. And the populus is more feckless than if it had idled away 3,000 years under the Austrian sceptre.

For the South, on the other hand — it’s no use shutting one’s eyes to the fact — the affair is a matter of life and death. Our not getting any cotton is one proof of this. The guerrillas in the Border States are another. But, in my view, what clinches the matter is the ability of an agrarian population, after such complete isolation from the rest of the world, to endure such a war and, having suffered severe defeats and the loss of resources, men and territory, nevertheless to emerge victorious and threaten to carry their offensive into the North. On top of that, they are really fighting quite splendidly, and what remained of union feeling, save in the mountain districts, will now, with the re-occupation of Kentucky and Tennessee, undoubtedly evaporate.

If they get Missouri, they will also get the territories, and then the North might as well pack up and go home. As I have already said, unless the North instantly adopts a revolutionary stance, it will get the terrible thrashing it deserves — and that’s what seems to be happening.

Marx, however, did not see things quite so grimly. Focusing on the Western theater, he saw that in that theater the Confederacy had little possibility for gaining anything lost before. Moreover, the string of losses, he hoped, would force Lincoln to abandon McClellan and proceed with a more radical approach to the war, just like Engels pointed out was needed. He wrote back reassuringly:

I don’t quite share your views on the American Civil War, I do not believe that all is up. From the outset, the Northerners have been dominated by the representatives of the border slave states, who were also responsible for pushing McClellan, that old partisan of Breckinridge, to the top. The South, on the other hand, acted as a single whole right from the very start. The North itself turned slavery into a pro- instead of an anti-Southern military force. The South leaves productive labour to the slaves and could thus take the field undisturbed with its fighting force intact. It had a unified military leadership; the North did not. That there was no strategical plan is evident if only from the manoeuvrings of the Kentucky Army after the capture of Tennessee. In my view, all this is going to take another turn. The North will, at last, wage the war in earnest, have recourse to revolutionary methods and overthrow the supremacy of the border slave statesmen. One single nigger regiment would have a remarkable effect on Southern nerves.

The difficulty of raising 300,000 men is, I should say, purely political. The North-West and New England wish to and will compel the government to abandon the diplomatic warfare they have waged hitherto, and are now making terms on which the 300,000 men shall come forth. If Lincoln doesn’t give way (which he will, however), there’ll be a revolution.

As regards the lack of military talent, the choice of generals, hitherto dependent purely on diplomatic and party chicanery, has hardly been calculated to bring it to the fore. However, I should say that General Pope was a man of energy.

Several weeks later, after the second battle of Bull Run/Manassas, he added to this:

As to the Yankees, I am firmly of the opinion, now as before, that the North will win in the end; true, the Civil War may pass through all kinds of episodes, perhaps even ceasefires, and be long-drawn-out. The South would or could conclude peace only on condition that it gained possession of the border slave states. In that case, California would also fall to it, the North-West would follow suit and the entire Federation, with the exception, perhaps, of the New England states, would again form one country, this time under the acknowledged supremacy of the slaveholders. It would be the reconstruction of the United States on the basis demanded by the South. But that is impossible and won’t happen.

The North, for its part, can conclude peace only if the Confederacy is restricted to the old slave states, and then only to those bounded by the Mississippi River and the Atlantic. In which case the Confederacy would soon come to a happy end. In the intervening period, ceasefires, etc., on the basis of a status quo could at most occasion pauses in the course of the war.

The way in which the North is waging the war is none other than might be expected of a bourgeois republic, where humbug has reigned supreme for so long. The South, an oligarchy, is better suited to the purpose, especially an oligarchy where all productive labour devolves on the niggers and where the 4 million ‘white trash’ are flibustiers by calling. For all that, I’m prepared to bet my life on it that these fellows will come off worst, ‘Stonewall Jackson’ notwithstanding. It is, of course, possible that some sort of revolution will occur beforehand in the North itself.

It is clear from this discussion that although they agreed on the fundamentals, they had different estimations at that point of the likelihood of success. Engels, who was always the military analyst of the two and had been trained as an officer in the Prussian army as well as having friends in the Union officer ranks, saw the situation as quite dire and going nowhere on the basis of McClellan’s approaches. Marx on the other hand focused on the border states and the Western theater, and saw the situation as more rosy for the Union there – and without the border states the Confederacy, whether in war or peace, could not hold out since it would be blocked from expanding and the slave-holders feared nothing worse than being locked up with their human chattel. In retrospect we can say that they were perhaps too rough on McClellan himself, who indeed failed to see that the political side of the war demanded things that the strategic side did not, but who did quite successfully acquit himself of the duty to repel the Confederate maneouvres with as few losses as he could. After all, it was the ‘man of energy’ Pope who failed at second Bull Run. However this may be, all this would decisively change after the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, perhaps the most important battle of all the Civil War.

Lee’s strategic intervention into western Maryland was repelled by McClellan himself one last time at Sharpsburg, MD, generally known as the battle of Antietam. It would prove to be the bloodiest battle of the entire US Civil War: the losses amounted to some 22.000 in just one day, fairly evenly shared among both sides. Lee’s invasion was repulsed and he was forced to withdraw back into his old position, making it a strategic Union victory. However, the great cost and McClellan’s failure to follow up to destroy Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia led to two major decisions on Lincoln’s part. First, he finally replaced McClellan by Ambrose Burnside. Second, he issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all the slaves not actually under Union military control or in the border states – as always, Lincoln went merely as far as events pushed him. The great number of ‘contraband’ runaway slaves seized by Union armies as support for the Confederate war effort forced Lincoln to make a decision in this matter. But he still wished to not offend the border states, in particular Kentucky, more than was necessary, and preserved the property of those who had been ‘loyal’ to the Union, despite this property being in slaves. The victory at Antietam as well as this measure assured that Britain and France would now not intervene, and await further developments. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was as carefully weighed and as conservative as he could make it, but this did not diminish its real import: it still announced that Lincoln was finally prepared to meet the radical Republicans in Congress and wage the war ‘on a revolutionary footing’. As Marx described Lincoln’s proclamation:

The fury with which the Southerners are greeting Lincoln’s acts is proof of the importance of these measures. Lincoln’s acts all have the appearance of inflexible, clause-ridden conditions communicated by a lawyer to his opposite number. This does not, however, impair their historical import and does, in actual fact, amuse me when, on the other hand, I consider the drapery in which your Frenchman enwraps the merest trifle.

In his “Comments on the North American Events”, one of his last articles for Die Presse on the American Civil War, Marx expanded further on this theme:

The short campaign in Maryland has decided the fate of the American Civil War, however much the fortune of war may still vacillate between the opposing parties for a shorter or longer time. As we have already stated in this newspaper, the fight for the possession of the border slave states is a fight for the domination over the Union, and the Confederacy has been defeated in this fight, which it started under extremely favourable circumstances that are not likely ever to occur again. (…)

The Maryland campaign has thus proved that the waves of secession lack the power to roll over the Potomac and reach the Ohio. The South has been reduced to the defensive, but offensive operations were its only chance of success. Deprived of the border states and hemmed in by the Mississippi in the west and the Atlantic in the east, the South has conquered nothing — but a graveyard.

One must not forget even for a moment that, when the Southerners hoisted the banner of rebellion, they held the border states and dominated them politically. What they demanded were the Territories. They have lost both the Territories and the border states.

Nevertheless, the invasion of Maryland was risked at a most favourable conjuncture. The North had suffered a disgraceful series of quite unprecedented defeats, the Federal army was demoralised, Stonewall Jackson the hero of the day, Lincoln and his government a universal laughing-stock, the Democratic Party, strong again in the North and people expecting Jefferson Davis to become president, France and England were openly preparing to proclaim the legitimacy — already recognised at home-of the slaveholders. “E pur si muove.” Reason nevertheless prevails in world history. (…)

Lincoln’s proclamation is even more important than the Maryland campaign. Lincoln is a sui generis figure in the annals of history. He has no initiative, no idealistic impetus, cothurnus, no historical trappings. He gives his most important actions always the most commonplace form. Other people claim to be “fighting for an idea”, when it is for them a matter of square feet of land. Lincoln, even when he is motivated by, an idea, talks about “square feet”. He sings the bravura aria of his part hesitatively, reluctantly and unwillingly, as though apologising for being compelled by circumstances “to act the lion”. The most redoubtable decrees — which will always remain remarkable historical documents-flung by him at the enemy all look like, and are intended to look like, routine summonses sent by a lawyer to the lawyer of the opposing party, legal chicaneries, involved, hidebound actiones juris. His latest proclamation, which is drafted in the same style, the manifesto abolishing slavery, is the most important document in American history since the establishment of the Union, tantamount to the tearing tip of the old American Constitution.

Nothing is simpler than to show that Lincoln’s principal political actions contain much that is aesthetically. repulsive, logically inadequate, farcical in form and politically, contradictory, as is done by, the English Pindars of slavery, The Times, The Saturday Review and tutti quanti. But Lincoln’s place in the history of the United States and of mankind will, nevertheless, be next to that of Washington! Nowadays, when the insignificant struts about melodramatically on this side of the Atlantic, is it of no significance at all that the significant is clothed in everyday dress in the new world?

And so on and so forth.(9)

The beginning of the year 1863 did not however make everything seem like an obvious new dawn for the Union had risen. After all, the Union was only basically back where it began, and this after great loss in blood and treasure and some one and a half year of fighting. Engels expressed this frustration when he remarked: “I must confess I feel no enthusiasm for a people who, faced with an issue as colossal as this, allow themselves to be beaten again and again by a force numbering 1/4 of their own population and who, after 18 months of war, have gained nothing save the discovery that all their generals are jackasses and their functionaries, crooks and traitors. Things must assuredly take a different course, even in a bourgeois republic, if it is not to be landed completely in the soup.”(10) Nonetheless, the ‘revolutionary war’ paid off. Thousands of blacks volunteered (or were impressed) to join the Union forces; although not often used in battle because of the savage reprisals of Confederate troops, they performed mightily at the siege of Fort Wagner in Charleston, SC in 1863. Marx reported that Rosecrans’ victory at Corinth, MS, which finally took the railway nexus there, was considered by the Confederate papers to be “the most exceptional stroke of ill-luck to have befallen them since the call to arms”, and that the various Confederate states had started asserting ‘states’ rights’ against the Confederacy out of irritation with its enforcing of the war economy.(11)

From this point on, Marx and Engels would in their almost daily exchange of letters constantly refer to events in the Civil War. Marx’s last major article on the Civil War was a discussion of the midterm elections of 1862: here he remarked on the especially Irish resistance to the war, which he described as the fact that “the Irishman sees the Negro as a dangerous competitor. The efficient farmers in Indiana and Ohio hate the Negro almost as much as the slaveholder. He is a symbol, for them, of slavery and the humiliation of the working class, and the Democratic press threatens them daily with a flooding of their territories by “niggers””.(12) But although the Democrats made gains in the elections, Marx pointed out the Republicans were now practically equivalent to abolitionists, precisely the situation the Confederacy had feared would happen and through their secession did happen. Given that fact, the Republican reduced majority was in fact a quite progressive result. More of a shock was Burnside’s great defeat at Fredericksburg. Burnside had attempted to undertake the counteroffensive that McClellan so long had neglected to do, but he had to wait forever for the materiel to cross the rivers to show up. This allowed Lee to reposition himself, and Burnside was foolish enough to attempt his attack anyway. The Union troops were easily repelled, and their losses great (some 12.500). This would not of itself have been so bad, since Marx wrote it off as at least preventing a retraction of the Emancipation Proclamation given after Antietam – although he did not make clear why such a move was to be expected anyway. The subsequent major defeat at Chancellorsville, where Burnside’s successor Joseph Hooker also went down against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia by a surprise attack under ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, was a even more severe setback. Jackson’s own death resulting from the battle was a relief for the Union, but the impact of Chancellorsville was great, since most eyes in Europe were fixed entirely on the Eastern theater, despite Marx’s repeated warnings that it was the West where the war would be decided. 30.000 or so died over the period of a week’s battle, making it extremely costly also.

Marx and Engels’ friendship had around this time come under the greatest strain it would suffer. Mary Burns, Engels’ long-time girlfriend, herself an Irish working girl who had provided Engels with much of the information about working class areas in his book The Condition of the Working-Class in England, died early in 1863. Marx was too preoccupied with his own monetary and domestic troubles to respond seriously to the impact on Engels this inevitably had, and as a result, Engels first did not reply to his correspondence at all, and later only very coolly. Given Marx’s general egocentric attitude towards other people, their friendship almost snapped, which would have been a great loss not only in the human sense but also to history. Fortunately Marx intervened just in time and recognized his grave mistake, and added a contrite letter where he expressed his grief over Burns’ death and his unintended insult added to the injury. Engels graciously accepted this, and their partnership continued until Marx’s death unabated. For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that this small personal affair distracted them temporarily from the events in America, so that the frustration did not mount as much as could be expected after these two serious defeats. Perhaps for the better, because when they turned their eye on the Civil War again things started to look up again for the Union, leading Engels to revive his faith in the Union efforts (with Marx in the meantime concentrating mainly on writing his notebooks for Capital). Ulysses Grant used the late spring of 1863 to brilliantly campaign against John Pemberton’s Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, the last great citadel on the Mississippi. Engels described it with great pleasure:

In America things are in a pretty pickle. Fighting Joe’s rodomontade has made him look a frightful ass, Rosecrans slumbers and Grant alone is performing well. His move on Vicksburg from the south-west to the north-east, his isolation of the relief army, his repulse of the same, then the rapid advance on Vicksburg and even the energetic if fruitless assaults, are all first-class. I do not believe it will be possible to muster enough relief troops on time.

Grant most importantly not only took Vicksburg but also inaugurated the idea in America of plundering enemy territory for maintaining one’s army, which freed the Union armies of their dependence on exposed supply lines in many parts of the Confederacy and made further conquest of the Southern heartland easier. To distract from this, Lee was ordered to attempt another assault northwards and perhaps himself attempt the same sort of exploitation campaign against the Union, but he was beaten in a ferocious battle at Gettysburg around the same time as the fall of Vicksburg: July 4, 1863, the national holiday of the United States. Gettysburg would become America’s most popular Civil War site by far, and it was a great victory that assured that the Union was now in a position to solely bring the war to its enemy rather than vice versa. The Confederacy in the meantime was forced to repress several food riots, and desertions rapidly increased, numbering almost one-third of the total army on paper by the end of 1863.(14)
This is less surprising once one realizes by far most Confederate troops were draftees, whereas only 7% of Union troops were draftees.(15)

We find ourselves back with our bearded friends again in the year 1864, the year of Lincoln’s re-election. Early 1864 did not see much combat except Colonel Chivington’s genocidal campaigns against various Indian peoples in the West, largely unnoticed at the time by the general public. George H. Thomas had won Chattanooga for the Union in November 1863, this being the last railroad connection and Confederate stronghold before the heartland was open. Union troops under the feared and brilliant commander W.T. Sherman, just like Grant convinced of the necessity to strike at the foundations of the Confederacy itself and not just to maneouvre against their forces, invaded Georgia in the early summer of 1864. Grant had been appointed commander in Virginia, and now tried to force the war in that theater also by simply using the numerical majority of the Union to grind the enemy into oblivion. Unlike McClellan or his successors, he both understood the necessity of destroying the Army of Northern Virginia under Lee and was also capable of implementing it. Nonetheless, his massive direct assaults were immensely bloody. Twice, at The Wilderness and at Spotsylvania, his hammer blows were repelled with great cost to both sides. In June 1864 he assaulted once again Lee’s forces at Cold Harbor; this frontal assault was so costly in men that 12.000 died in just a few hours, shocking even Grant into admitting that this was a grave failure.(16) Nonetheless, it destroyed Lee’s capacity to undertake any counterattacks against such a numerically overwhelming force, and drove him back to Richmond. It became obvious to Engels as well as everyone else that a battle for Richmond was soon to come:

I’m very anxious to see how things go in Virginia. The sides still seem to be almost evenly matched and mere chance, the opportunity of scoring an isolated victory over just one of Grant’s corps, might restore Lee’s superiority. The battle before Richmond may be fought under quite different circumstances, for Butler is certainly weaker than Beauregard, otherwise he wouldn’t have let himself be forced on to the defensive and, even if one were as strong as the other, Lee, if he linked up with Beaur. at Richmond, would certainly be stronger than Grant and Butler combined. For Lee can debouch with his entire force from his fortified camp on each side of the James River, whereas Grant must detach part of his troops (to the south side of the river). But I am hoping that Grant will, nevertheless, go through with the affair; at all events, there can be no doubt that, after the first battle in the Wilderness, Lee has shown little further inclination to engage in decisive encounters in the open field, on the contrary, he has always kept his main force in fortified positions and only committed himself to brief attacks. I also like the methodical pace of Grant’s operations. On such terrain and with such an opponent it’s the only correct method.

After this, it was just a matter of time – but how much time remained to be seen. Farragut’s navy was to attack Mobile from the coast, the last great port in Confederate hands, while Sherman with 100.000 men went for the assault upon Atlanta. Surveying the situation, Engels wrote to Marx on the fourth of September, 1864:

Lee is making masterly use of his fortified camp at Richmond, and small wonder, this being already the third campaign to revolve around it. He is pinning down Grant’s massive force with comparatively few men and is employing the better part of his own troops for offensive action in West Virginia and as a threat to Washington and Pennsylvania. A first-class object-lesson for the Prussians, who could learn from it down to the last detail how to conduct a campaign centred upon the fortified camp of Coblenz, but who are, of course, far too arrogant to learn anything from these improvised generals. Grant — discharged from the army for drunkenness 6 years ago when a lieutenant, subsequently a bibulous engineer in St. Louis — has much unity of purpose and considerable contempt for the lives of his cannon-fodder; he would also seem to be very resourceful as a small-scale strategist (i.e. day-to-day operations), but I look in vain for any signs that he has enough breadth of vision to be able to survey the campaign as a whole. (…)

Whether Sherman will cope with Atlanta seems doubtful, but his chances are, I think, rather better. Skirmishing by guerrillas and cavalry to his rear are unlikely to do him much harm. The fall of Atlanta would be a hard blow for the South, Rome would fall at the same time and that’s where their gun foundries, etc., are; in addition, the railway connection between Atlanta and South Carolina would be lost.

Farragut is the same as always. The fellow knows what he’s about. But whether Mobile itself will fall is very doubtful. The town is very strongly fortified and can, so far as I know, only be taken from the landward side, since vessels of deep draught can’t approach near enough. But how stupid to split up the attacking forces on the coast, where Charleston and Mobile are being attacked simultaneously instead of one after the other, but each time with all available forces.

I don’t set much store by the peace-talk that is now so prevalent. Not even by the negotiations allegedly conducted direct by Lincoln. All this I regard as an electioneering ploy. As things now stand, I should say that Lincoln’s re-election is fairly certain.


For indeed Lincoln’s election campaign was coming up, and much of it would depend on the successes achieved in the field, of course. The Union was winning, there was no doubt about it. But the pace of victory mattered, lest conservative elements be tempted into signing some ‘honorable’ peace with the Confederacy rather than forcing its surrender. Moreover, no incumbent had been re-elected in the United States since 1832, and Democrats chose the disgruntled McClellan to campaign against him as “Abe the nigger-lover” and calling for armistice. The Republicans renominated Lincoln, but on the condition that he accept a program which called for the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy and would support an amendment abolishing slavery altogether.

The Confederate troops under J.E. Johnston retreated skilfully from Grant’s superior armies, but Jefferson Davis saw the Confederacy’s only chance in a successful battle. Hood was appointed to attack him instead. The first attack at Peachtree Creek, prepared by Johnston, failed miserably and cost many rebel lives. At Decatur, the Confederates were defeated again, though with great difficulty and at the expense of the second commander, McPherson. Sherman then besieged Atlanta and after capturing Macon forced Hood to withdraw from the city and evacuate its population, though Hood protested fiercely. With the capture of Atlanta, the Confederacy had lost their second largest industrial city, and the re-election of Lincoln was virtually assured. Sherman continued his march, destroying all in his wake, to the coast at Savannah, then moving virtually unopposed through the Carolinas until early 1865. Lincoln was duly re-elected, with an impressive 55% of the popular vote in the Union domains, in 1864 and the radical Republicans won as well. Lee, in the meantime, had dug in in Petersburg, Virginia, just south of Richmond. There, Grant besieged him for the better part of the year.

It is important to note the interesting decision that Marx was involved in relating to Lincoln’s re-election. The International Working Men’s Association, generally called the First International, decided to actually send Lincoln a telegram of congratulations upon his re-election, to be submitted through the Union ambassador in Britain. On January 28, 1965, the Internationale presented to Charles Francis Adams the following memorable letter:


We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.

From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epopee, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?

When an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders dared to inscribe, for the first time in the annals of the world, “slavery” on the banner of Armed Revolt, when on the very spots where hardly a century ago the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century; when on those very spots counterrevolution, with systematic thoroughness, gloried in rescinding “the ideas entertained at the time of the formation of the old constitution”, and maintained slavery to be “a beneficent institution”, indeed, the old solution of the great problem of “the relation of capital to labor”, and cynically proclaimed property in man “the cornerstone of the new edifice” — then the working classes of Europe understood at once, even before the fanatic partisanship of the upper classes for the Confederate gentry had given its dismal warning, that the slaveholders’ rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labor, and that for the men of labor, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic. Everywhere they bore therefore patiently the hardships imposed upon them by the cotton crisis, opposed enthusiastically the proslavery intervention of their betters — and, from most parts of Europe, contributed their quota of blood to the good cause.

While the workingmen, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world. [B]

Signed on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association, the Central Council:

Longmaid, Worley, Whitlock, Fox, Blackmore, Hartwell, Pidgeon, Lucraft, Weston, Dell, Nieass, Shaw, Lake, Buckley, Osbourne, Howell, Carter, Wheeler, Stainsby, Morgan, Grossmith, Dick, Denoual, Jourdain, Morrissot, Leroux, Bordage, Bocquet, Talandier, Dupont, L.Wolff, Aldovrandi, Lama, Solustri, Nusperli, Eccarius, Wolff, Lessner, Pfander, Lochner, Kaub, Bolleter, Rybczinski, Hansen, Schantzenbach, Smales, Cornelius, Petersen, Otto, Bagnagatti, Setacci;

George Odger, President of the Council; P.V. Lubez, Corresponding Secretary for France; Karl Marx, Corresponding Secretary for Germany; G.P. Fontana, Corresponding Secretary for Italy; J.E. Holtorp, Corresponding Secretary for Poland; H.F. Jung, Corresponding Secretary for Switzerland; William R. Cremer, Honorary General Secretary.

And Adams responded on behalf of Lincoln:


I am directed to inform you that the address of the Central Council of your Association, which was duly transmitted through this Legation to the President of the United [States], has been received by him.

So far as the sentiments expressed by it are personal, they are accepted by him with a sincere and anxious desire that he may be able to prove himself not unworthy of the confidence which has been recently extended to him by his fellow citizens and by so many of the friends of humanity and progress throughout the world.

The Government of the United States has a clear consciousness that its policy neither is nor could be reactionary, but at the same time it adheres to the course which it adopted at the beginning, of abstaining everywhere from propagandism and unlawful intervention. It strives to do equal and exact justice to all states and to all men and it relies upon the beneficial results of that effort for support at home and for respect and good will throughout the world.

Nations do not exist for themselves alone, but to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind by benevolent intercourse and example. It is in this relation that the United States regard their cause in the present conflict with slavery, maintaining insurgence as the cause of human nature, and they derive new encouragements to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies.

I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,

Charles Francis Adams


This exchange is undeservedly rather unknown to many people, and yet it illustrates perfectly the attitude not just of Marx and Engels, but of the organized European working class in general to Lincoln and to the Union cause more generally. This completely destroys the ‘left’ arguments against the Civil War or the Union’s participation in it by pointing out how the war destroyed slavery, so unleashes capitalism more fully, and makes by means of free labor the conditions for the abolition of capitalism itself possible; it points out how in the long run the Union victory and its results must bring about destruction of the race barrier, at least to such extent that the workers shall no longer be divided along racial lines before they are divided among class lines through the invidious system of co-optation into the ‘white race’; and finally it points the way to how the enormous capacities and energy of the United States can be used in favor of socialism, even though the writers were under no illusion that Lincoln actually had any ideas as radical as that. Lincoln was of course opposed to racial integration and for the longest time supported resettlement of blacks elsewhere, and perhaps such a separation would have done both races more a favor than the bitter years to come would do, as Lincoln all too correctly feared. But it was not under any terms feasible, and the necessary corollary of abolitionism therefore became the victory of the radical Republicans in favor of racial equality, and the Reconstruction period. The brilliance of the Marxist method is shown here in the way in which Lincoln, by no means more than a liberal bourgeois of good will, is praised for his real accomplishments, and yet this praise reveals by implication inexorably his shortcomings and the way in which politics must move if America is to go further. Marx himself had much less scruples about praising people not up to some sectarian standard of socialist behavior or policy than many of his later followers would be: his only criterion was the real movement of politics.

Enfin, we can now wrap up the remainder of the war rather easily. Engels quite rightly observed early 1865 that

In America, the start of the Richmond campaign in March or April will probably be decisive for the whole year. If Grant succeeds in driving Lee out, the Confederacy is played out, their armies will break up, and only bandit-warfare, like that already rife in West Tennessee now and in general nearly everywhere, will remain to be overcome. In reality, the only army the Southerners now have is Lee’s; everything depends on its destruction. Now we can already assume that the area from which Lee procures his supplies is confined to South Virginia, the Carolinas and at most part of Georgia.


Lee failed to break out of Petersburg and eventually lacked the capacity for any assaults whatsoever. On April 2, he abandoned Richmond and Petersburg and withdrew to the western section of the James River. Here, short of supplies and with 30.000 men left, he surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. A mere five days later, Lincoln was assassinated in a coup attempt against his entire government, led by Southern fanatic John W. Booth. Only the attack on Lincoln succeeded, but the result was the elevation of his Vice-President, Andrew Johnson, who would prove to be the bane of any serious attempts at Reconstruction and came closest to being impeached of all American Presidents save Nixon. The total losses of the American Civil War were over 1 million, on a population of 31 million; about two-thirds of those were due to disease and other attrition. Government spending had increased as a percentage of GDP from some 2% to about 26%. And America had a free path to becoming a capitalist industrial powerhouse ready to match the other great powers in the world.(21)

What conclusions can we draw from all this? First, that Marx and Engels carefully followed the events of the war as they unfolded, and wrote rather expansively about it. In fact, there are few wars that they covered in more depth than the American Civil War. It proves that they did not hesitate at all in supporting the Union, despite the fact that they, as all socialists, generally opposed war and also had no illusions about the Union being socialist. One can conclude from this certainly that Marx and Engels would have taken sides in wars where one side clearly represented a historically progressive power against an economically historically retrograde power. But it is important to emphasize the economic aspect, since continuously they justify their support for the North by referring to the way slavery hinders the full development of working class within and against capitalism by its pseudo-feudal fetters; they do not support the Union’s war effort merely because of the moral backwardness of slavery, which in their analysis is seldom a sufficient argument for war.
A second conclusion one can draw is an analogous one, in their support for Lincoln. Lincoln of course was not a socialist, in fact a man of left-liberal sympathies but of a conservative temperament. But Marx and Engels supported him anyway, recognizing how he was more importantly a man who was capable of recognizing the needs of the moment and did not fear to act accordingly, something more valuable than any number of ideological statements. They also recognized that this was enabled through the constant pressure and interests of the free farmers of the northern and (mid-)western segments of the Union, which enabled the radical Republicans to do what they did. Again, the radical Republicans, bar perhaps Thaddeus Stevens, were not to be taken for egalitarians, but Marx and Engels at no point demanded this of them as long as they would move forward politically enough to allow the real socialists to come onto the scene. Lincoln would not abolish slavery except to save the Union, since this meant taking property, which he as a liberal would not do. But none of that mattered, as long as the fact happened anyway. As Marx famously put it: “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes”.(22)
Finally, it is important to note the meaning of these events for the aftermath. Several of Marx and Engels’ friends and acquaintances fought as immigrants in the Union armies; the German sections of the Union forces were generally the most radical Republicans. Engels’ officership during his campaign to support Baden against the Prussian tyranny in 1848 had taken part under the command of August von Willich, who became a Colonel in the Union forces and made it to brevet Major-General. His direct assistant, Franz Siegel, led the Missouri militia who drove out the pro-Confederate troops from St. Louis and surroundings. Frémont’s radical political wing was actively supported by Marx and Engels’ close friends, Adolf Sorge and Joseph Weydemeyer, both of whom had moved to America and represented the ‘Marxist’ tendency there. And finally, some famous abolitionists like Wendell Phillips and Lyman Trumbull later drew the same conclusions about capitalist private property under Lincoln’s beloved ‘free labor’ conditions as under slavery, and became active socialists.

As Hal Draper quite justly describes it, Marx and Engels supported the American ‘progressive’ capitalists, with Lincoln at their head, as long as they were indeed progressive.

A slave holders victory would postpone indefinitely, perhaps forever, the development on the continent on bourgeois lines. (…) The implications for Europe were equally serious. Instead of a political and moral example and an economic base for the progressive classes of Europe, America would become a vast pool of unfree labor. (…) [Marx] really believed that slavery could triumph and set back for the foreseeable future any hope for progress. Marx’s passionate support for the Union was not based simply on a visceral reaction against slavery. (…) [Marx and Engels] saw the role of the working class as forcing a reluctant bourgeoisie to fight wholeheartedly in its own interest. (…) They made no secret of the fact that, in their opinion, this assault on an antiquated form of exploitation would immediately put a question mark over the bourgeoisie’s own system of exploitation. Like the German Liberals of the Frankfurt Assembly, Lincoln hesitated when faced with the choice to wage revolutionary war or risk defeat.

But contrary to the Frankfurt Assembly, Lincoln did decide to wage ‘revolutionary war’ from a liberal perspective. As a result, the Union effort in the American Civil War was one of the only two times since 1848-49 that Marx and Engels supported a nonsocialist party in a war. This makes their commentary on the Civil War, and that “first rate second rate man”, all the more worth considering.

1) Norton et al., A People and a Nation (Boston, MA 2008), p. 404.
2) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “English Humanism and America”, in: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, MECW Vol. 19 (London 1984 [1862]), p. 209.
3) Karl Marx, “A Criticism of American Affairs”, in: Marx and Engels 1984, p. 226.
4) Ibid.
5) Friedrich Engels, Letter to Marx (30 July 1862), in: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, MECW Vol. 41 (London 1985 [1862]), p. 386.
6) Karl Marx, Letter to Engels (7 August 1862), in: Marx and Engels 1985, p. 399.
7) Karl Marx, Letter to Engels (10 September 1862), in: Marx and Engels 1985, p. 415.
8 ) Karl Marx, Letter to Engels (29 October 1862), in: Marx and Engels 1985, p. 419.
9) Karl Marx, “Comments on the North American Events”, in: Marx and Engels 1984, p. 248.
10) Friedrich Engels, Letter to Marx (5 November 1862), in: Marx and Engels 1985, p. 422.
11) Karl Marx, Letter to Engels (17 November 1862), in: Marx and Engels 1985, p. 429.
12) Karl Marx, “The Election Results in the Northern States”, in: Marx and Engels 1984, p. 263.
13) Friedrich Engels, Letter to Marx (11 June 1863), in: Marx and Engels 1985, p. 476.
14) Norton et al., p. 420-421.
15) Norton et al., p. 422.
16) Norton et al., p. 428.
17) Friedrich Engels, Letter to Marx (9 June 1864), in: Marx and Engels 1985, p. 539.
18) Friedrich Engels, Letter to Marx (4 September 1864), in: Marx and Engels 1985, p. 558.
19) George Odger et al., “Address of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America”. The Bee-Hive Newspaper, No. 169, November 7, 1865.
20) Friedrich Engels, Letter to Marx (7 February 1865), in: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, MECW Vol. 42 (London 1987), p. 81.
21) Norton et al., p. 430.
22) Karl Marx, Letter to V. Bracke (5 May 1875), in: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Marx-Engels Selected Works Vol. 3 (Moscow 1970), p. 11-12.
23) Hal Draper and Eduard Haberkern, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. V (Alameda, CA 2005), p. 220, 222.


If this was the world history taught to us in school, the whole progressive movements of the 60’s would have had a more powerful energy.

“one of the only two times since 1848-49 that Marx and Engels supported a nonsocialist party in a war.”

What was the second time?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *