Waging the War on Slavery

Against the Current, No. 147, July/August 2010

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: 111)

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


  1. [The following letter was submitted by E. Haberkern in Berkeley, California.]

    DERRICK MORRISON’S REVIEW of Race and Radicalism in the Union Army by Mark A. Lause, in the July/August issue of Against the Current, leaves out one important episode in the civil war within the civil war which Lause and August Nimtz describe. That is the formation of a new, openly anti-slavery, party — the Radical Democrats – which ran John Charles Frémont against Lincoln in 1864.
    It was this party, in which Marx and Engels’ American friends and comrades like Joseph Weydemeyer and August Willich played prominent roles, that forced a reluctant Lincoln administration to face up to the issue of emancipation. The only serious treatment of this episode that I am aware of is a German doctoral dissertation, Fremont contra Lincoln by Jörg Nagler. It is not that this history has been filed down the memory-hole. It has, instead, been reduced to a footnote, which amounts to the same thing.
    Similar treatment has been applied to another, related, incident. That is the 1861 Emancipation Proclamation issued by Frémont when he was Commander of the Army of the West. Weydemeyer was his adjutant at the time. Frémont’s decree differed from Lincoln’s three years later in that it actually freed some real live slaves.
    Frémont confiscated the property of Missouri slave owners at a time when that state was part of the Union. Lincoln’s proclamation freed the slaves
    owned by slave owners in Confederate states. The property of freedom-loving Union slaveowners was safe.
    As Morrison points out, Lincoln and the commanding heights of the Republican Party feared setting a precedent with the kind of massive expropriation of
    wealth that the abolition of slavery entailed. It is no accident that not only
    Marx and Engels’ old comrades, but many political leaders who would go on to play a role in the formation of the American Socialist Party, were founding members of the Radical Democrats.
    But there is something else going on. Official American history of the period has been based, at least since the 1920s, on what can only be called Lincoln-olatry. Recently a book has appeared — Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream by Lerone Bennett Jr. (Johnson Publishing Company, 2000) — which emphasizes Lincoln’s personal hostility to African American slaves.
    Lincoln was for emancipation because, like many of his middle and working class supporters, he feared their competition. His solution was forcible repatriation of slaves to Africa.
    It is for this reason that establishment scholars like James M. McPherson ignore this whole issue of Lincoln’s ambiguity when faced with the necessity of emancipation. To raise the question is to undermine the standard interpretation. It is a shame that Nagler’s book has not been translated.
    (A slightly extended treatment of these issues can be found in Appendices B and C of Hal Draper’s Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: Volume V.)


  2. Ernie Haberkern has some interesting views, but views based on factual errors–errors corrected in Nimtz’s book.
    Lause’s book gives a political history of the John Brown wing of the abolitionist movement. Nimtz gives a political history of the German and German-American wing of the abolitionist movement. And inextricably linked with this wing are the views of Marx and Engels.
    On Fremont’s candidacy against Lincoln in 1864–Marx, Engels, Weydemeyer and other German radicals opposed Fremont. Nimtz documents this whole episode on pages 122, 123, and 124 of his book. Sure, Marx, Engels, and the German-American radicals had reservations about Lincoln’s conduct of the war–but Lincoln’s one redeeming quality was his willingness to fight the slaveholder regime. It was this quality found lacking in the German bourgeois figures during the 1848 revolutions in the German states. They were not resolute against the feudal and monarchical foe. Lincoln proved his resoluteness, going thru one general after another until he found Grant. Marx, Engels, and the German-American radicals came to see Fremont’s candidacy as sowing division in the face of the slaveholder enemy. By getting Fremont to withdraw, the German-Americans made a crucial contribution to the unity of the Republican party and the eventual success of the 2nd North American Revolution.
    Yes, Lincoln had a lot of bad ideas about Black folk, but the bottom line was his prosecution of the war against the enslavers of Black folk, which included the organization of Blacks into armed combat against the Confederate foe.
    Lause and Nimtz didn’t just write scholarly books, but books that distill the lessons of the democratic revolution, lessons that we today must absorb to become effective fighters in the unfolding class struggles of US working people.

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