April 2015 marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the US civil war. The sesquicentennial was celebrated with many commemorative activities, historical reenactments, seminars, documentaries and presentations by academic associations. General Robert E. Lee, the overall commander of Confederate forces whose Army of Northern Virginia had twice tried to invade the North and failed, finally surrendered on April 9 1865 at Appomattox Court House, Virginia to the commander of Union troops, General Ulysses S Grant. Lee’s forces had abandoned the Confederate capital, Richmond, in the face of advancing Union soldiers, and had no option but to surrender.
The year of 1864 was actually the decisive year of the American civil war, when the fate of the United States hung in the balance. Either side was still capable of winning, and the slave-owning secessionist war showed no signs of slowing down. In July 1863, General Lee’s second foray to carry the war into the North failed, with his defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg. Grant was appointed commander of all Union military forces in March 1864, and began a series of heavy, bloody battles with the Confederacy. The Emancipation proclamation, freeing around four million African American slaves, had been in effect for just over a year. Millions of former slaves flocked to the Union armies, depriving the Confederacy of essential labour power.
The Gettysburg Address by President Lincoln, along with the Emancipation Proclamation, transformed the Union’s attempts to defeat a secessionist rebellion into a revolutionary war. The economic and social underpinnings of the Southern slave-owning economy were being attacked. After all, the Emancipation Proclamation can rightly be considered the largest, government-sanctioned expropriation of private property in world history until the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
Add to that the following: in November 1864, Union General William T. Sherman launched his March to the Sea, (otherwise known as the Savannah Campaign) a military attack designed to cut the Confederacy into pieces, and destroy its economic base. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee left their supply lines behind, lived off the land, attacked the economic infrastructure of slavery and liberating thousands of slaves. Having captured Atlanta, Georgia in September 1864, Sherman’s army was well placed to launch a serious offensive aimed at destroying the Confederacy’s transport networks, industrial base, as well as military targets.
Sherman captured Savannah Georgia at the end of 1864, the Confederacy’s economy destroyed and the slaves liberated. By the end of the year, the slave-owners rebellion was in retreat. By April 1865, the civil war was over. The slave-owning Confederacy was defeated, but white racial supremacy as a political ideology was not long in recovering, and reasserting itself in a different way.
150 years later, the struggle against racism continues
Abayomi Azikiwe, writer and activist for the Workers World Party in the United States and the editor of Pan-African News Wire, wrote an article about the end of the civil war and the efforts at Reconstruction. He wrote that while formal emancipation and the defeat of the Confederacy were historic steps forward, the effort to construct a nation without racial oppression is still unrealised. The former Confederate states, having lost the military campaign, now resorted to underground and rearguard actions to preserve racial segregation. Under the Federal government’s programme of Reconstruction, former slaves acquired land, competed for jobs, sought out education, and raised money to improve their economic position. The hungry and unemployed mass of African American labourers were now looking for work and economic security. All this was done in the shadow of millions of US troops stationed at strategic points in the South.
The Southern power structures resorted to dual tactics to resist the desegregation of public life. The former Confederate general and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest founded the Ku Klux Klan to advance the cause of white racial supremacy and waged a racist terrorist war against the black communities of the South. This terror campaign targeted the Reconstruction process, and attempted to sabotage efforts at racial integration.
Democrat politicians in the South whipped up a campaign of white racial hatred against the African American community, helping to pass a series of laws that racially segregated public and economic life in the South. These laws became the basis of Jim Crow legislation, a system of racial caste laws that enforced racial segregation in the economy, education, infrastructure and in public interactions between blacks and whites.
These were the laws overturned by the Civil Rights movement decades later in the 1950s and 1960s. Lynchings and racist terror against the African American community undergirded the systematic exclusion of the later, and their enclosure into impoverished ghetto-communities. The Reconstruction process ended in 1877, and while it is not the purpose of this article go into a rigorous examination of its successes and failures here, it is important to note that American capitalism, while demolishing the secessionist basis of slavery, still needed racism in its drive for economic conquest. The American civil war – the Emancipation Proclamation and the liberation of slaves – encapsulated revolutionary ideas about equality in the social and economic spheres. These ideas are at direct odds with the underlying basis of the capitalist system as an exploitative, class-based social structures. This contradiction came to the fore in years of Reconstruction.
While the Confederacy was defeated, its cause found re-acceptance into the American family – firstly through the waging of wars against the indigenous nations of the United States, and secondly through the launch of imperialist conquests overseas.
Endless wars need and reinforce domestic racism
The sub-heading above comes from an informative article by Greg Grandin, history teacher at New York University and author of the essay “The Confederate Flag at War (But Not the Civil War)”. The Stars and Bars, the Confederate flag, was lowered after the surrender at Appomattox Court House. But it found readmission into the American family with the wars against the first nations of the Americas. In the era of westward expansion, as white settlers interacted with the native American nations, conquest and annexation were the order of the day. The ‘Lost Cause’ of the Confederacy found renewed expression in the racist wars to subjugate the indigenous populations. As Grandin states in his article:
But Confederate veterans and their sons used the pacification of the West as a readmission program into the U.S. Army. The career of Luther Hare, a Texas son of a Confederate captain, is illustrative. He barely survived Custer’s campaign against the Sioux. Cornered in a skirmish that preceded Little Big Horn, Hare “opened fire and let out a rebel yell” before escaping. He then went on to fight Native Americans in Montana, Texas, the Pacific Northwest, and Arizona, where he put down the “last of the renegade Apaches,” before being sent to the Philippines as a colonel. There, he led a detachment of Texans against the Spanish.
The crucial moment for the full rehabilitation of the ‘Lost Cause’ arrived at the end of nineteenth century, when the United States ruling class embarked upon its own programme of imperialist conquest. Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam – these were the first countries to be fully subjugated by the projection of American military power overseas, and were wrested from the control of the Spanish empire. The Spanish-American war of 1898 marked the rise of the United States as an imperialist power in its own right, and the seamless integration of the Confederate-brand of racism into the imperial project. Since the days of slavery, Cuba was viewed as a potential slave state. Now, the American army left the shores of the United States waving the Confederate flag, joined by Confederate veterans and their descendants.
In June 1898, as the United States conquered Cuba, veterans of the Confederacy were gathering for a reunion in Atlanta Georgia. The city was festooned with Confederate flags. The event was marked by speeches appreciative of the historic conquest of Cuba, valorising the heroism of the soldiers that gone to subjugate the island. Long gone were any references to equality, emancipation and liberation, ideals that permeated former President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address. Here was the language of class rule and conquest. President McKinley, on a victory tour of the South, praised the invincible fighting spirit of the American military, united as one, to vanquish foreign enemy. To quote from Grandin’s article again:
War with Spain allowed “our boys” to once more be “wrapped in the folds of the American flag,” said General John Gordon, commander of the United Confederate Veterans, in remarks opening the proceedings. Their heroism, he added, has led “to the complete and permanent obliteration of all sectional distrusts and to the establishment of the too long delayed brotherhood and unity of the American people.” In this sense, the War of 1898 was alchemic, transforming the “lost cause” of the Confederacy (that is, the preservation of slavery) into a crusade for world freedom. The South, Gordon said, was helping to bring “the light of American civilization and the boon of Republican liberty to the oppressed islands of both oceans.”
During World War One, then-President Woodrow Wilson, a Southerner, re-segregated Washington, pushing out African Americans from federal jobs, and began the annual tradition of laying a wreath at the Arlington Cemetery’s Confederate war memorial. He screened the racist film, Birth of a Nation, in the grounds of the White House with major political figures and officials in attendance. This film depicted the ‘Lost Cause’ of the South as a noble, unflagging venture against the unscrupulous racially-integrative project of the capitalistic North.
But more than that, Wilson willingly appropriated the Confederate cause into his own advocacy of militant, messianic imperialism. World War One was not just about justice, but about America going out to conquer. Confederate veterans and their descendants rallied in Washington in June 1916 to demonstrate their support for Wilson and empire-building. The conquered banner was no longer relegated to the past, but was rehabilitated as an active participant in American wars overseas. The Confederate flag was hoisted by American troops in battle fields around the world – Okinawa, northern Europe, and later in Vietnam. It was also hoisted by serving American soldiers in Baghdad in 2007. Grandin quotes African American soldiers serving in Vietnam, who witnessed the proliferation of Confederate flags among the white troops in that conflict. One African American trooper wrote home’ “and we still have some people who are still fighting the Civil War.” Two weeks after he wrote these words, he was dead – officially killed in action.
As American militarism engages in mass violence and wars overseas, whether through drone strikes, outright invasions, and the use of greater domestic repression at home, racism is not confined to one particular geographic region or economic system. It is a necessary pollutant that sustains an unjust, inequitable, and exploitative system. Imperialist wars not only eat away at the fabric of the republic, they toxify the cultural and political environment. Democratic ideals, enshrined in documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation, are shunted aside as more repressive tactics are adopted by the ruling class, and suggestions by top-level political figures for further suppression of ethnic and minority groups are considered to be quite normal.
As the capitalist system remains mired in terminal crisis, greater levels of police violence are directed against the African American community, and indeed against minority communities across the United States. We in Australia need to re-examine our political and economic directions, as we are tobogganing head-first into the American scenario. If the United States is characterised by social decay, racist violence and economic growth that benefits only the ultra-wealthy, why is this example being held up as worthy of emulation?