The Great Soviet Encyclopedia on the Civil War in the United States (1861–65) and the Reconstruction of the South

Union and Confederate troops clash at the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee, 1864.(Library of Congress/Kurz and Allison)

Union and Confederate troops clash at the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee, 1864. (Library of Congress/Kurz and Allison)

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979).

Civil War in the United States, 1861–65, and the Reconstruction of the South

The Civil War in the United States was a natural result of the sharp worsening of antagonistic economic and political contradictions between the capitalist North and the slave-owning South.

By the mid-1850’s a revolutionary situation had begun to take shape in the United States. It became more and more evident that the contradictions between the two social systems would inevitably develop into an armed struggle for power and for the nationwide victory of one of the social systems. Slavery had become the main obstacle to the development of capitalism in the United States, and the necessity of destroying it had become inevitable. Civil war in Kansas (1854–56), the insurrection led by John Brown in 1859, and the intensified movement for the abolition of slavery were evidence of the approach of a sharp conflict.

In 1860, A. Lincoln, the candidate of the Republican Party, was elected president of the United States. For the Democratic Party, in which slave owners had a very strong influence, his election meant loss of power on a national scale. In response to Lincoln’s election, the slave owners proclaimed the secession of the southern slave-owning states from the Union and began to prepare for civil war. In February 1861 in Montgomery, Alabama, the Confederacy of slave-owning states was formed and joined by 11 of the 34 states. In April 1861 the troops of the Confederacy began the rebellion and captured forts and arsenals in the South, where the major part of weapons and ammunition had been concentrated as early as J. Buchanan’s presidency. Only Fort Sumter in South Carolina offered resistance, but after two days it surrendered on April 14.

The theater of military action was an enormous territory bordered on the north and west by the Potomac, Ohio, and Missouri rivers, on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the south by the Gulf of Mexico. The northern states had a population of 22 million. The North was covered with a dense rail network and had well-developed industry, including almost all the metallurgical, textile, and arms industries of the entire nation. About 9 million people lived in the territory of the southern states, including 4 million Negro slaves. A significant part of the population of the southern states did not support the rebels. The South did not have the essential economic base for waging a prolonged war. There were considerably fewer cities and railroads in the South than in the North. Combat operations were waged primarily along railroads and rivers, which made it easier to move and supply troops.

The size of the regular US Army was only 14,000–16,000 men. They were scattered along the western borders, where they were used primarily to pacify the Indians, and they did not represent a serious fighting force. At the beginning of the war a significant number of the officers were from slave-owning families and went over to the Confederate side. Among them was the capable general R. Lee, who became commander of the South. When war broke out, President Lincoln declared a call-up of 75,000 volunteers, and later a draft was instituted. In turn, the president of the Confederacy, J. Davis, drafted 100,000 men into the army at the beginning of the war. For the entire period of the war 2.7 million were drafted into the army of the North, and 1.1 million into the army of the South. The basic unit was the infantry division, which consisted of three brigades of two regiments each. (A regiment had ten companies of 80–100 men each.) A corps was made up of two to three divisions, and two to five corps were consolidated into an army.

The war plan of the southern slave owners was adventuris-tic. It was calculated to take advantage of surprise and to use aid from Great Britain and France. The South intended to capture quickly the states of Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia and then to attack Washington, D.C., and force the government to accept the slave owners’ conditions. The North’s plan was for passive defense. At first the North intended to restrict its troops to defense and to wage particular operations in which the troops who were being raised would gradually be prepared for offensive action.

The main issue of the Civil War was slavery. The rebel slave owners endeavored to preserve slavery as a social system and spread it to the entire territory of the USA and in the future even to the countries of South America. At the beginning of the war the Lincoln administration saw as its primary task the restoration of the Union and prevention of the spread of slavery to the new territories.

In the first stage of the war (1861–62) the North suffered a series of grave defeats. In the first period the combat operations of the main forces unfolded in the Washington-Richmond axis. In mid-July 1861 the 35,000–man army of the North led by General I. McDowell invaded Virginia and reached the Bull Run River, which at the same time was approached by a 31,000–man army of the South commanded by General Lee. In the battle of Manassas (or Bull Run) on July 21 the poorly armed and trained Northern troops were routed, and they retreated to Washington, D.C., in disorder. However, the Southerners did not take advantage of their success.

The Northern command directed its primary attention to forming a large army and establishing defensive structures. A new strategic plan was developed, the Anaconda Plan, which envisioned the establishment of a ring of army and naval forces around the southern states. This ring would be tightened gradually until the rebels were finally suppressed. Marx and Engels were severely critical of this plan, describing it as a “rebirth … of the so-called cordon system, which was used in 1792–97 against the French with such stubbornness, and always without success” (Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 15, pp. 505–506). They believed that the main thrust should be delivered against the state of Georgia. The capture of Georgia would have split the territory of the Confederacy into two isolated parts, deprived the Confederacy of economic resources, and brought the 500,000 Negro slaves in Georgia into the struggle (ibid., pp. 506–507).

In April 1862 the 100,000–man army of the North commanded by the untalented General G. McClellan again began an attempt to capture Richmond, attacking from Fort Monroe. However, at the approaches to the capital of the southern states, McClellan’s army encountered a well-prepared system of engineer fortifications. In the battle of June 26–July 2 on the Chickahominy River east of Richmond, the Northerners were defeated by an 80,000–man army of the South, and they retreated toward Washington, D.C. In September 1862, General Lee attempted to capture Washington, D.C but after an initial success (the so-called second battle of Manassas or Bull Run on August 30), he was unable to achieve victory at Antietam (September 16–17), and he was forced to retreat beyond the Potomac. The attempt of the army of the North to go over to a new offensive against Richmond was also unsuccessful; on December 11–13 the Army of the Potomac under General J. Hooker was defeated at Fredericksburg. Between June and November 1862 the Southern command made several cavalry raids under T. Jackson and J. Stuart in order to strike the enemy from the rear, but these raids did not produce the desired results.

In the western and southern parts of the Mississippi Valley military actions had a local character. Northern troops under the command of generals U. Grant and B. Butler, supported by Admiral D. Farragut’s squadron, took Memphis. Corinth, and New Orleans. The successful blockade of southern ports by the fleet of the North, which deprived the Confederacy of communications with Great Britain and France, was very important. Actions by the South’s cruisers, including the Alabama, inflicted substantial losses on the North’s merchant fleet but did not have a major influence on the course of the war.

The successes of the rebels are partially explained by their being better prepared for war. However, the main reason for the military defeats of the North was that the bourgeoisie of the North was afraid to rely on the popular masses in the struggle with the slave owners. Influential bourgeois circles in the North continued to seek ways to solve the conflict by compromise. This policy was completely hopeless from a military and a political point of view. Noting the decisive demands of the popular masses in the North to switch to revolutionary methods of waging war, Marx wrote: “If Lincoln does not give in (but he will give in), there will be a revolution” (ibid., vol. 30, p. 222). Marx expressed his firm belief that “waging war in a revolutionary way still lies in the future” (ibid., vol. 15, p. 542).

Marx’ prediction proved to be entirely correct. In 1862, under the pressure of the popular masses and military failures. Congress implemented a number of measures for the purpose of switching to revolutionary methods of waging war. A law was published confiscating the property of rebels, and the death sentence was instituted for treason against the United States. Especially important were the Homestead Act, which was adopted on May 20, 1862, and Lincoln’s proclamation liberating the Negro slaves in the rebel states. which went into effect on Jan. 1. 1863. The slaves were freed without land and without compensation to their owners.

In 1863 a new stage in the war began, which was characterized by important changes in the entire course of the country’s political life and in the strategy and tactics of the Union Army. The political activism of the popular masses increased in the North, and a number of serious attacks were made on counterrevolutionary forces. The Union Army was replenished with new worker regiments. About 190.000 Negroes. 72 percent of them from the southern states, entered the army of the North, and 250.000 Negroes served in rear units.

At the beginning of the second stage of the war (1863–65) the South still held the initiative. On May 2–4, 1863. northern troops were defeated again at Chancellorsville, but the turning point of the war followed this defeat.

In June 1863, General Lee’s 64,000–man army began to advance into Pennsylvania, and Stuart’s cavalry was sent on a deep raid. The Southerners were met by General G. Meade’s 85,000–man army. In an encounter battle at Gettysburg on July 1–3 the army of the South, deprived of cavalry support, suffered a serious defeat. A major success was achieved in the Mississippi Basin, where Grant’s army captured the upper reaches of the river and then besieged and forced the surrender of the fort at Vicksburg (July 4. 1863). The entire line of the Mississippi passed to the control of the North, and the territory of the Confederacy was split into two parts. The decisive role in achieving these successes was played by the farmers, workers, and artisans who poured into the army, fought selflessly, and gave an active character to combat operations. Negroes played an important part in the struggle against the army of the South: they did reconnaissance, attacked southern troops from the rear, and served as guides. The government of the Confederacy was forced to assign 100.000 soldiers to fight rebellious slaves.

The combat operations of the North during 1864–65 were decisive and had the character of maneuvers. General Grant, who was appointed general-in-chief in March 1864, developed a new strategic plan. General Meade’s 122,000–man Army of the Potomac would attack the South from the north, destroy the main forces of General Lee’s army, and capture Richmond. General W. Sherman’s 100,000–man army would attack from west to east against General J. Johnston’s army, which was covering the central region of the Confederacy, and would deliver a thrust against the most important economic centers of the South. At the same time. General Butler’s 36,000–man army would attack Richmond from the east. The offensive began in the first days of May 1864. Meade’s army approached Richmond but was unable to capture the city. Relying on fortified positions, the enemy offered desperate resistance and at the same time attempted to deliver a thrust against Washington, D.C. However, on Sept. 19, 1864, this attack was defeated at Winchester.

Workers of many nationalities participated on the side of the North in the Civil War, as did many revolutionaries who had emigrated to the United States from Europe (for example, J. Weydemeyer and G. P. Cluseret). The North was actively supported by the English workers, who offered decisive resistance to attempts by the British government to intervene in the Civil War on the side of the slave owners. As the war progressed, the economic and military superiority of the North was increasingly evident. The international position of the Lincoln government also grew stronger. Russian policy promoted this to a significant degreee. Russia had an interest in the existence of a unified United States opposed to Great Britain and France, which were then tsarist Russia’s chief rivals. The arrival of two Russian squadrons in September-October 1863 in New York and San Francisco was interpreted in the United States and Western European countries as a demonstration of friendship toward the Lincoln government.

The transition to revolutionary methods of waging war significantly strengthened the position of Lincoln, who was reelected president in 1864. The armies of the North continued their successful offensive operations. The “march to the sea” by General Sherman’s army was particularly important. Pursuing the retreating enemy, Sherman’s army took Atlanta on Sept. 2, 1864, and on December 21 it took Savannah and reached the Atlantic Ocean. Then Sherman turned north and on Feb. 18, 1865, captured Columbia, reaching the rear units of Lee’s army, whose position had become hopeless. On Apr. 3, 1865, Grant’s troops took Richmond. Lee’s army began to retreat to the southeast, but it was overtaken and surrounded by Grant at Appomattox. On April 9, General Lee surrendered, and on April 26, General Johnston’s troops surrendered. The remaining troops of the South had ceased resistance by June 2. The war ended with the complete defeat of the slave owners.

On Apr. 14, 1865, exactly four years after the Civil War had begun, President Lincoln was mortally wounded by the actor Booth, an agent of the slave owners and reactionary circles in the North. Lincoln’s death was a grave loss for all of progressive America.

The Civil War was bloody and expensive. The North lost 360,000 men, who were killed or who died from wounds and diseases, and the South lost at least 250,000. About 1 million soldiers and officers of the North and South were wounded. Military expenditures and destruction were assessed at many billions of dollars. However, the sacrifices were not in vain. As V. I. Lenin noted, the Civil War in the United States had “very great progressive and revolutionary significance in world history” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 37, p. 58).

The Civil War in the United States reflected new phenomena in the development of the art of war. It was distinguished by its large scope and by the participation in it of enormous armies. The transition to revolutionary methods of waging war gave combat operations an active and decisive nature, which decided the victory over the South in advance. Railroads, a steam-powered navy, and riverboats were used extensively in the war. The invention of the telegraph made it possible to maintain operational control of troops over significant distances. The large scope of the armed struggle and significant losses made it necessary to train reserves and establish reserve supplies. The development of the rifled firearm and its increased speed of fire, accuracy, and range led to large losses in the battle formations of troops who attacked in dense, deep columns. Static forms of battle and engineer preparation of the terrain became widespread. Heavy artillery preparation to neutralize enemy fire was required to overcome a defense equipped with trenches, dugouts, and barriers. Combat operations at sea were characterized by the blockade of the coast and the most important ports, and naval battles became artillery contests. The war gave impetus to the development of an armored fleet.

The working masses played the decisive role in crushing the slave owners, but the fruits of victory were enjoyed primarily by the bourgeoisie, which achieved its main goals. Slavery, which had hindered the development of capitalism, was abolished. Favorable conditions were established for the development of capitalism in agriculture by individual farmers—that is, by the American method. The creation of a single national market was begun and control over the entire economic and political life of the country was concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie. However, a powerful workers’, farmers’, and Negro movement threatened the dominance of the bourgeoisie. Under these conditions there appeared a clear-cut policy of concluding a class alliance between the bourgeoisie and the plantation owners, directed against the working people.

Reactionary circles in the North and South were especially disturbed by events that unfolded in the southern states. Led by the Radical Republicans, the Negroes and some of the poor whites began an organized struggle to obtain land for themselves and to win the right to vote for the former slaves. A true battle began in the southern states between the Negroes and bands of the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization founded in the South in 1865. The struggle of the Negroes to win equal rights with whites was revolutionary. It developed under very difficult conditions, because the federal government acted as an ally of the plantation owners. In order to thwart the movement of the popular masses in the South, A. Johnson, who became president of the United States after the assassination of Lincoln, advanced a program that amounted to a formal recognition by the former rebel states of the abolition of slavery. At the same time, under Johnson’s plan all power in the South would remain in the hands of the former slave owners. Amnesty was granted to thousands of active participants in the rebellion. By February 1867 property valued at 2 billion dollars had been returned to the plantation owners. The Negroes did not receive any rights, and they became landless agricultural workers.

Having consolidated their economic and political position in the South, the plantation owners raised the question of restoring slavery and openly laid claim to participation in federal governmental bodies. This was already a direct attempt to change the results of the Civil War, and it was an open threat to the bourgeois monopoly of state power. The Negroes offered fierce resistance to the former slave owners’ offensive. Leagues of alliance, which united Negroes and poor whites, created armed detachments, consisting primarily of Negroes. They were the bulwark of the revolutionary movement in the South. These detachments played an important part in implementing the Radical Reconstruction of the South, the beginning of which was marked by the First Reconstruction Act of Mar. 2, 1867.

The purpose of Radical Reconstruction was to carry out bourgeois-democratic reforms in the South and restrict the power of the former slave owners. All power in the South was transferred to the federal army. Active participants in the rebellion were deprived of all political rights. More than 1 million Negroes received the right to vote. The transition to Radical Reconstruction was brought about not only by the Negro struggle against the plantation owners but also by major changes that were taking place in the North. In December 1865, Congress officially sanctioned the emancipation of the Negroes by ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and in June 1866 the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution recognized the right of Negroes to vote.

With the participation of Negro voters, in the summer of 1867 constitutional assemblies were elected, which adopted new bourgeois-democratic constitutions for the southern states. The socioeconomic system of the southern states began to be restructured on new, bourgeois principles. The Negroes were an important moving force in the Reconstruction. In a number of cases they seized the lands of plantation owners, and they participated actively in the work of local governmental agencies. For the first time in the history of the country, 16 Negroes were elected to the US Congress. During Reconstruction the Negroes made great progress in public education. The number of Negro students increased more than 500 times in comparison with 1860 and reached 500,000 by the end of Reconstruction. Significant gains were made in the development of industry, transportation, trade, and organization of public services in populated areas.

However, the agrarian question remained unresolved, just as it had been during the Civil War. The overwhelming majority of the Negroes and poor whites remained in the position of agricultural workers and sharecroppers without any rights. The workers’ and farmers’ movement of the North and West did not give direct support to the revolutionary struggle of the Negroes in the South. Without this support the Negro movement was doomed to failure. This was in fact its fate. Taking advantage of racial prejudices, the plantation owners were able to split the united front of the Republicans in the South and begin taking power in one southern state after another. By 1877 the Republicans held power in only three southern states. In April 1877 the federal government withdrew its troops from these states, and power in them was immediately seized by the plantation owners. The withdrawal of federal troops from the southern states was a direct betrayal by the Northern bourgeoisie of its Negro allies. This traitorous act marked the end of the Reconstruction of the South.

Despite the restoration of the power of the plantation owners in the South, Reconstruction played an important, positive role in the history of the South and the entire country. The revolutionary struggle of the Negroes and their white allies thwarted plans to reestablish slavery in the South. The restructuring of the southern states in the interests of capitalist development completed the process of establishing a single national market. The active participation of broad popular masses in Reconstruction as well as the revolutionary methods of struggle to which they resorted gave Reconstruction a bourgeois-democratic revolutionary character. During Reconstruction attempts were made to solve problems that the Civil War had been unable to resolve. For this reason, Reconstruction is viewed as a continuation of the Civil War and as the second phase of the bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1861–77. However, unlike the Civil War, the period of Reconstruction was not marked by the formation of a united front of northern workers and farmers and southern Negroes. The active role of the popular masses and the results achieved were significantly less under Reconstruction than during the Civil War. Reconstruction was a descending stage in the second American revolution.

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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

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