Toward A New Narrative

Unleashing a New Revolution


Black soldiers in the Union Army

The Civil War started as an effort to put down a rebellion against the Union, and many in the North may have viewed slavery as secondary. Many soldiers at first, with mixed views about slavery and some disdain for Blacks, did not see themselves as abolitionists. But Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were quite lucid on the matter and argued for a deep understanding of the revolutionary character of the war that would soon arise. Under Marx’s byline, they wrote a hundred or more articles appearing in the main Northern newspapers, explaining much of the political economy of slavery and its impending crisis. Their followers in the U.S., immigrant German socialists and communists for the most part, quickly joined the Union army and recruited others to do so.

Opposition to the slavocracy had other enemies within than German socialist immigrants in border regions like Missouri. Within the Deep South, in thickly wooded or hilly areas unsuited to cotton, those without slaves resented secession and voted against it. These ‘Unionists’ also resisted conscription into the CSA army or deserted. They staked out pro-Union counties, declaring their own independence from the CSA. The most famous of these was ‘The Free State of Jones,’ which lasted throughout that war and into Reconstruction. (A recent Hollywood movie rescued the story from the memory hole).

The region that eventually became the state of West Virginia separated from Virginia and aligned with the Union during the Civil War. West Virginia was admitted to the Union in 1863 and played a significant role in the conflict. The decision to split from Virginia was driven by various factors, including economic differences and pro-Union sentiments among the region’s residents. While not as pronounced as West Virginia, parts of eastern Tennessee were also known for their pro-Union sentiment, and several counties in the region actively opposed secession. The region experienced a significant internal conflict as Unionists clashed with Confederate sympathizers, and the area was under military occupation for much of the war.

It soon became apparent to Lincoln, his GOP supporters, Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists, and Lincoln’s best generals that victory required, first, the emancipation of the slaves and, second, the recruitment of Black soldiers into the Union armies. The 13th Amendment came first, while Lincoln was still alive, soon to be followed by the 14th, guided by Thaddeus Stevens and the Radical Republicans, and the 15th under President Ulysses Grant.

As with the Declaration, it’s worth looking a the first draft of the 13th Amendment: “All persons are equal before the law, so that no person can hold another as a slave; and the Congress shall have the power to make all laws necessary and proper to carry this declaration into effect everywhere in the U.S.” As we can see, it lacks the loophole in what was later adopted, a loophole that caused much grief later on: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson attempted a sham reconstruction. He quickly tried to bring the old CSA elites back into power, with their effort to rule paired up with ‘Black codes’ that re-subjugated Blacks to the state of slavery in all but name. The Radical Republicans, however, were 75% of the House. Led by Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, they saw to it that Congress quickly rejected the seating of any Southern delegations of this sort. The GOP then passed a Civil Rights Act and overrode Johnson’s vetoes. The 14th Amendment was also passed, establishing citizenship for all born or naturalized in the jurisdiction of the U.S. (The Dred Scott decision thus bit the dust). Its ratification was required by any former CSA state seeking a return to Congress.

The Radical Republicans then moved to impeach Johnson on various charges, which passed in the House. However, a guilty verdict in the Senate required a two-thirds vote, and Johnson escaped by a margin of one vote. One reason he may have squeaked through was the fear by some in Congress that his next-in-line successor would be Benjamin Wade, President Pro-Tempore of the Senate. Wade was not only a stalwart Radical Republican but also a strong trade unionist, equal rights for Blacks advocate, and supporter of women’s rights. Wade was the far left in Congress.

In 1865, prominent Black abolitionists met in upstate New York and formed the National Equal Rights League. Spreading rapidly to other Northern states, the NERL reached beyond abolition to begin the all-around advocacy for the ballot, equal rights, and economic reform at the core of Radical Reconstruction. But again, one divides into two. William Garrison took a different course and ceased publishing The Liberator in December 1865, asserting its work was done. He also tried to dissolve the American Anti-Slavery Society for the same reasons but failed. Frederick Douglass joined the NERL, and Wendell Phillips continued advocacy of Reconstruction, adding the importance of land reform—’40 acres and a mule’- for the Freedmen.


South Carolina legislature during Black Reconstruction. DuBois called it ‘the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,’ since its core comprised Freedmen and ‘Scalawags,’ i.e., pro-union poor whites.

Thus, the ‘Reconstruction Amendments’ and the support of the ‘Freedman’s Bureau’ enabled the rise of Black-led, interracial worker democracies in the South during the post-Civil War era. Approximately 2,000 Freedmen were elected to various public offices in over ten states, ranging from local sheriffs to U.S. senators, and had pro-Union Southern white workers and farmers as allies. These ‘poor whites,’ labeled as ‘scalawags’ by former Confederates, were about 20% of white voters. The legislation passed during this time, known as Radical Reconstruction, remains some of the most progressive legislation in Southern history to this day.

However, the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist groups, calling themselves ‘Redeemers,’ launched violent campaigns and lynchings to overthrow Radical Reconstruction. In response, the Black-led governments organized their own armed forces from Black veterans of the Civil War and received assistance from U.S. troops stationed in the South. President Ulysses S. Grant ordered troops to oppose the use of violence against Blacks trying to form new governments.

In the wake of our bloody national Civil War, then, a second civil war immediately unfolded across the South to reverse the verdicts of the first. Once more, one divides into two. The two contending political blocs were the White Redemptionists, anchored in the former enslaver class, on the one hand, vs. the Multinational Reconstructionists, anchored in Black laboring people and their white Unionist allies, on the other hand. The Freedmen and poor whites also had other less reliable allies in the North.

Reconstruction shamefully was not supported by emerging labor unions in the North, which excluded Blacks as ‘competitors for our jobs.’ Nonetheless, the defense of these governments entailed a deep class struggle of a political character, and the two primary contenders have been locked in an ongoing struggle to the death, to one degree or another, to this day.

However, the decline of the Radical Republicans during Grant’s second term and the rise of the moderate ‘Liberal GOP’ and Northern Democrats led to a lack of interest in defending Freedmen political rights and civil rights. The controversial 1876 election, where the GOP’s Rutherford Hayes ran against Democrat Samuel Tilden, was challenged since neither got a majority of Electoral College votes. (The outcome in a few Southern states was contested). The result was a brokered but informal deal (a betrayal in many eyes) in which Tilden agreed to concede in favor of Hayes in exchange for withdrawing all federal troops from the South. This arrangement allowed ex-Confederates, the ‘planter’ class, and their paramilitaries, including the KKK, to seize power and launch prolonged repression. It marked the beginning of ‘white redemption’ and the ‘Jim Crow’ era. Next Page