Consider this sentence from an advert for a recent AWL public meeting on Sacha Ismail’s pamphlet, Workers Against Slavery: “When the war began, both sides, North and South, said they would preserve slavery. What changed? One thing was mass action by the slaves themselves, forcing their way into the conflict and helping to transform it into a battle against slavery.”
Really, this is mysticism. Lincoln was obliged to re-set the Northern war aims in late 1862, declaring a war to abolish slavery, because he felt that was necessary in order to win. The slaves played no role in Lincoln’s policy shift whatsoever. They were slaves, after all. And those former slaves, who had managed to reach Union lines, were politically marginalised, oppressed, largely unorganised and powerless.
Sacha made a similar statement in an exchange of letters in Solidarity in 2013, following a film review by Eric Lee. He wrote, “I am not denying the role of the US army in the US Civil War. Nonetheless, American slaves played a central role, perhaps the central role, in their own emancipation.” Sacha cited Marx who reported a slave rising in Missouri and claimed more generally that, “more and more slaves escaped their masters and pushed their way into Northern lines [and] forced the US army to accept them, first as workers and then as soldiers.”
In my view Eric Lee was completely correct to claim, “It wasn’t Black slaves who brought down slavery... [but] a mostly (though not entirely) white army led by a white man.” And I responded in Solidarity, supporting Eric, by noting that, “many slaves were able to run away. But they were able to do so because of the power of the Northern state, and the pressure of the Union armies. And running away from a master is not the same thing as a mass, armed slave rebellion.”
Sacha also believes that the British workers had a role in stopping the British government from joining the war on the South’s side: “Faced with a government that wanted to intervene militarily in favour of the slave-owners, thousands of British workers across the country mobilised in mass protests against intervention and against slavery.” He declares that the British workers were “a factor” in stopping the government intervening.
I’ll make three clear propositions, and then if we’re going to discuss, at least we might have some clarity.
• There was no “mass action” by slaves “forcing their way into the [US civil war].” There was a very important mass Black movement in the South, but only after the civil war, among freedmen, during Reconstruction.
• The military impact of Black troops was late and marginal (although the Black troops were much more than of marginal political importance). The slaves were freed by a white President and (mostly) white armies and a bourgeois revolution from above.
• The British workers did not stop the British ruling class joining the war on the side of the South.
The British did not join the war because Palmerston calculated that, on balance, war was too risky. The British workers had nothing to do with Palmerston’s calculations - certainly in 1861 and 1862, when war was considered. Palmerston was concerned by Northern power, not British workers.
So, I am arguing against comrades who overestimate the role of the progressive, plebeian forces.
Of course, it would have been much better if the slaves had liberated themselves, as Marx had hoped, and that the British workers had been stronger. But we should not manufacture history according to what we would like to read.
British workers during the American civil war
Even if it could be shown that the British workers were solidly for the North, and the ruling class solidly for the South, that would still not amount to showing that the workers were the force that prevented Britain joining the war against the North. And even if it was possible to demonstrate the British ruling classes were for the South, this is not the same thing as being willing to go to war for the South.
But anyway, at the start of the war, the British workers’ movement, was not solidly for the North. And the British ruling classes were never unanimous for the South.
According to Phillip Foner in ‘British Labour and the American Civil War’, for nearly a century, up until the late 1950s, there was consensus among British and American historians who accepted that the British ruling classes were for the South and the British workers backed the North. In the late 1950s this view began to be contested by pro-Southern revisionists. Despite the political bias of those who attacked the consensus a useful result was discussion on the facts of the matter.
At the start of the American civil war the British ruling class was divided, as were the workers’ leaders. At the top of government Palmerston was for the South, although less clearly than Gladstone and the Foreign Secretary, John Russell. A group of about twenty in the Commons were active for the Confederacy and most of the aristocracy was for the South. However, also in Cabinet were the Duke of Argyll, Charles Villiers and Thomas Milner Gibson, who supported the North. The manufacturers John Bright and Richard Cobden vigorously denounced the South in Parliament.
Palmerston disliked the radical democracy of the North and considered the North’s vast armies a threat to Britain’s interests in Canada. However Palmerston was no friend of slavery. He had played an active part in the suppression of the international slave trade. And he had been one of the most prominent public figures to welcome Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when she visited England in 1853.
Mainstream biographers of Palmerston write that he had no intention of going to war with the North: “Though Palmerston’s sympathies were with the South, he did not wish to go to war with the North.” (Palmerston, Jasper Ridley). Ridley quotes a memo from Palmerston from October 1861: “Operations of the war have as yet been too indecisive to warrant an acknowledgement of the Southern Union.” Palmerston was pragmatic; he did not want to back the losing side.
If Palmerston had recognised the South and gone to war he calculated large grain imports from the North would be cut off and serious damage would be done to sizable British financial interests in the North. Britain’s possessions - in particular Canada - would be vulnerable to Northern military power. So Palmerston moved 11000 troops to Canada in 1861 as a defensive measure. Such a number of troops could never be anything other than defensive, against enormous and rapidly expanding Union armies.
If Britain was going to go to war with the North it would have done so in 1861 or 1862. By the end of 1862 several factors had shifted against siding with the Confederacy: the South had begun to suffer serious military setbacks; Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, coming into force on 1 January 1863, which put the Northern war on a new, explicitly anti-slavery basis. The clear anti-slavery basis for the North’s war meant a great increase in popular support for the North in Britain.
However, before the Emancipation Proclamation, the most serious crisis was the Trent Affair, at the end of 1861, when the North seized two Confederate representatives from a British ship. “However much he blustered Palmerston knew that it was important to avoid a real conflict,” (Palmerston – a biography, by David Brown) and a fudge settled the dispute.
We’ve seen, recently, at the time of the Iraq war, that a million people on the streets, thousands of protest meetings, substantial parliamentary opposition and many sympathetic editorials in the national press were all unable to stop Blair going to war in Iraq. It takes a lot to stop a government determined to fight.
For the British workers to have been a force capable of stopping (or being “a factor” in stopping) an allegedly war-hungry Palmerston and Gladstone they would have had to make massive mobilisations. And yet in the early 1860s British workers did not have the vote, or a political party of their own. Their unions were relatively new, weak, and craft based. The London Trades Council had been founded in 1860, but the TUC was not set up until 1868. The International Workingmen’s Association was not founded until 1864. The ruling class had seen off the Chartists more than a decade before.
On the other hand the government was strong – not invulnerable against American power, but nonetheless strong and confident; their Empire stretched across the world.
Philip Foner quotes academic research on the number of pro-Union meetings held by British workers during the US Civil War. There were five in 1862, fifty-six in 1863 and eleven in 1864.
So the high point of the British workers’ mobilisation for the North was in and after 1863, by which time the pro-Southerners in our movement had been marginalised; this was an important moment in the British working class’s political development, but fifty-six workers’ meetings in 1863 was nothing like the scale required to force the British ruling class to back-down from war if it really wanted a fight. And, anyway, by 1863 the ruling classes clearly had no intention of fighting the North.
The war and the slaves
There were three well-known attempts at slave rebellions in the US in the first part of the 19th Century: Gabriel’s rebellion in Richmond (1800), the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in Charleston (1822), and Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia (1831). There were many other lesser known, smaller-scale events.
Turner’s rising was the most important. Nat Turner and five followers started an uprising which had no clear goal. After twelve hours 80 slaves had joined the rebels and 60 white people had been killed. The uprising was eventually repressed by 3000 armed whites.
All three conspiracies were led by people influenced by the Bible, who had some education, and took place in areas (cities, villages) that offered more freedom than the plantations.
In the aftermath of the Nat Turner rebellion the Virginia legislature tightened the slave codes, limiting further the movement of slaves. In 1832 in Alabama it became illegal to teach a slave to read, write or spell with a fine of $250-500; meetings of five or more slaves became illegal. A similar law was passed in Virginia against educating slaves. Black gatherings, including church meetings, were prohibited without the presence of white people.
Across the South the slaves were to be kept ignorant and atomised. By 1865 only 5% of Black Americans could read and write.
Mass rebellion became almost impossible. In fact the basic methods of resistance to slavery were smaller acts of resistance – slow work, damaging property, running away.
During the civil war anti-slave repression in the South became even more severe. Tens of thousands of slaves crossed to Union lines. But there were no mass risings. The conditions of life made mass conspiracy very difficult.
It became legal for Black troops to enrol in mid-1862. Lincoln finally agreed to include Black recruits in the Union armies not because of pressure from former slaves, but because the numbers of white recruits was slowing down, and he was beginning to understand he had to use every possible resource to win the war. Black slaves crossed the lines, but mainly towards the end of the war, especially as the Union armies smashed through the South in 1864.
Eventually 179 000 Black men joined the Union’s army, or 9% of the total.
In total 360 000 men died fighting for the North, 110 000 in battle. Around 37 000 Black soldiers died, 26 000 from disease, 3000 died in battle. 15 000 deserted. Black troops were used less often – because of racism – than whites.
About half of the 179 000 Black recruits were former slaves from the South, a quarter were from pro-Union border states, and the final quarter were free Black men from the North.
The 1860 census shows 3.9 million slaves and 488 000 were free. So, proportionately many more free Black men signed up than former slaves. Necessarily most former slaves signed up in 1863, or after.
The shift in the North’s policy was from direct necessity not pressure from former slaves.