Battle of Gettysburg: History in the Making 150 years ago

by John Reimann

“Residents cowered in cellars as artillery shells screamed overhead. The southern end of town became a no man’s land as Confederate snipers hidden in houses traded fire with Union snipers around Cemetery Hill. Out in the fields and forests — within view of Gettysburg streets and homes — the two armies slaughtered each other” Thus does one article describe the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War – a key battle whose 150th anniversary is marked this week. Over 50,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in that battle, and as a newspaper of that time, the Gettysburg Compiler put it, “Every name is a lightning strike to some heart, and breaks like thunder over some home.”


Pickett’s Charge – Battle of Gettysburg

All wars are brutal, bloody affairs by their very nature, but civil wars are especially so as they involve the entire population. The American Civil War, the first war fought with guns with rifling in the barrels, was especially so. The modern day equivalent of seven million were killed in that war. And so, as we consider the Battle of Gettysburg, it is useful to consider the significance of the American Civil War itself.


Dead Civil War soldier – “Every name is a lightning strike to some heart.”

Abraham Lincoln

Several months later (November 1863), President Lincoln gave what was to become one of the most famous speeches in US political history – his “Gettysburg Address” in which he commemorated that bloody battle. The speech was so eloquent because it expressed a resolve to prosecute the war through to the finish – a resolve that had been absent for many years before.


What Led to the Civil War

One of the best sources for reading about the struggles that led up to the Civil War and the course of the war itself is Karl Marx, who lived at the time and wrote extensively on this issue. As he put it, American slavery was “the meanest and most shameless form of man’s enslaving recorded in the annals of history.” He also explained that because this form of slavery harshly depletes the soil, it must continually expand to new territories – thus the battle over whether the Europeans’ expansion into the West would be on a slave or “free labor” basis. But as Marx explained, the slaveowners really dominated the federal government for decades and progressively expanded their powers. Originally, slavery was to be confined below the “Mason-Dixon Line” – a line surveyed running east to west north of Virginia. This line was subsequently extended all the way out West. Then, under the “Kansas-Nebraska Bill” any new state which so voted would be accepted as a slave state. Then, under the Supreme Court’s “Dredd Scott decision”, a slave owner could bring a slave into any state and that slave would remain a slave, meaning all states would be slave states. As Marx wrote: “If the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had extended the geographical boundary-line of slavery in the Territories, if the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 had erased every geographical boundary-line and set up a political barrier instead, the will of the majority of the settlers, now the Supreme Court of the United States, by its decision of 1857, tore down even this political barrier and transformed all the Territories of the republic, present and future, from nurseries of free states into nurseries of slavery….” (Marx was referring to the 1857 Dredd Scott Decision, under which a slaveowner could bring his slaves into a free state and keep them as slaves there.)


Dredd Scott

Origins of Republican Party

One of the aggressions of the slave owners was to form a guerrilla/terrorist band of thugs who raided the settlers in Kansas in order to force slavery on that new state-to-be. Armed defense of these settlers was organized, and out of this a new political party – the Republican Party – was formed. (The present-day Republican Party does not talk about their origins as the vanguard of an armed struggle against Southern racists!) Despite these origins, Lincoln’s position as president was that he was perfectly willing to allow slavery to remain in the then-present slave states, just so long as it did not expand. However, the prohibition of expansion meant the death knell of slavery, and the slaveowners thus turned to armed conflict. Their goal was not simply preservation of this “most shameless” form of slavery; it was to be able to expand throughout the entire continent – not only to what is now western United States, but also into Mexico and Central America, as was shown by their military adventures into those regions before the Civil War.


Northern Generals – traitors to the North

The popular myth today is that in the first year or so of the war, the US was led by a series of generals who were somewhat incompetent or at least overly cautious. Again, we can turn to Marx for the truth. In explaining the replacement of General McLellan by Lincoln, Marx wrote: “McLellan and most of the officers of the regular army who got their training at West Point are more or less bound by esprit de corps to their old comrades in the enemy camp…. In their view the war must be waged in a strictly business-like fashion, with constant regard to the restoration of the Union on its old basis, and therefore must above all be kept free from revolutionary tendencies and tendencies affecting matters of principle…. The Washington Star, McLellan’s special organ, declares in one of its latest issues: ‘The aim of all General McLellan’s military combinations is to restore the Union completely, exactly as it existed before the outbreak of the rebellion.’ No wonder, therefore, that on the Potomac, under the eyes of the general-in-chief, the army was trained to catch slaves!”

McLellan was not alone in his desire to maintain slavery. In fact, when General Fremont declared that all slaves in Missouri were free, he was dismissed by President Lincoln.

It was only the determination of the slave owners that forced the Northern capitalists to realize that this was an all-or-nothing proposition, that there was no turning back, that a “house divided against itself” (as Lincoln put it in his Gettysburg Address) could not stand and must be either all “free” (meaning capitalist) or all slave.


Military History of Civil War

In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July of 1863, the Southern troops reached the height of their advance. Somewhat isolated from their stronghold and somewhat cut off from their supply lines, they were dealt a severe defeat from which they never could recover. Their further setbacks continued despite the ridiculous “anaconda” military strategy of the North for some time. This amounted to surrounding the South and gradually tightening the coils like an anaconda does. Again, Marx submits this to a withering critique and clearly explains what a winning military strategy would be – a strategy that ultimately was more or less carried out, especially by the Northern General Sherman.


Role of Slaves


These former slaves joined the Union Army

As for the slaves themselves, they were by no means the passive victims that modern history makes them out to be. Especially following John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, there was a series of slave uprisings. Then, during the Civil War, they increasingly deserted en masse, with many thousands flocking to the Northern armies with which they wanted to fight against their former oppressors. This had a major role in forcing Lincoln’s hand to declare all slavery abolished.


British Working Class

Despite their efforts, and despite the superiority of capitalism (wage slavery) over human slavery, the South might yet have won the Civil War…. because the British capitalists wanted to intervene on the side of the South. Had they done so, and had the South won, then all of world history would have developed differently.

That the British capitalists did not intervene we owe to the role of the British working class, who staged mass demonstrations against British intervention and, in effect, in favor of the Northern cause.



Today, as we consider the significance of the American Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg, we should draw some conclusions. The rise to power of capitalism was a progressive step over what came before it – feudalism and, in the case of the United States, even slavery. However, it was accompanied by blood and gore beyond belief, as the Native Americans can well testify. In addition, at every step of the way, the capitalist class sought to compromise and reach an accord with the former ruling classes – the US slave owners for example. It was only due to the determination of the oppressed masses – from the slaves in the South to the wage workers in Britain – that the abolition of slavery in the United States was ultimately accomplished. Even here, though, much, much more is left to be accomplished, as racist oppression went from slavery to official segregation to the present-day mass incarceration of black people.

No wing of the representatives of the modern day capitalist class – nor any of the apologists for any wing of these representatives – will be able to resolve this oppression. Only an independent movement of the working class itself, conscious not only of its own economic needs, but of the necessity to eliminate all forms of special oppression, will ultimately accomplish this task.


From Karl Marx

Note: One of the very best sources for an understanding of the struggle in the United States between the slave owners and the capitalists is none other than Karl Marx, who followed the issue closely. We include here some of his observations:


On Slavery and the Role of the Slaves

American slavery is “the meanest and most shameless form of man’s enslaving recorded in the annals of history….”

“In my opinion, the biggest things that are happening in the world today are on the one hand the movement of the slaves in America started by the death of John Brown, and on the other the movement of the slaves in Russia…. I have just seen in the Tribune that a new revolt of slaves took place in Missouri and was naturally suppressed. But the signal has now been given.”

On the Domination of the Slave Owners Before the Civil War

“If the Missouri Compromise of 1829 had extended the geographical boundary-line of slavery in the Territories, if the Kansas-Nebraska bill of 1854 had erased every geographical boundary-line and set up a political barrier instead, the will of the majority of the settlers, now the Supreme Court of the United States, by its decision of 1857 (the Dredd Scott Decision), tore down even this political barrier and transformed all the Territories of the republic, present and future, from nurseries of free states into nurseries of slavery….”

On the continental expansionism of the slave owners

In the foreign, as in the domestic, policy of the United States, the interest of the slaveholders served as the guiding star…. Under (President Buchanan’s) government northern Mexico was already divided among American land speculators, who impatiently awaited the signal to fall on Chihuahua, Coahuila and Sonora. The unceasing piratical expeditions of the filibusters against the states of Central America were directed no less from the White House at Washington. In the closest connection with this foreign policy, whose manifest purpose was conquest of new territory for the spread of slavery and of the slaveholders’ rule, stood the reopening of the slave trade, secretly supported by the Union government. St[ephen] A. Douglas himself declared in the American Senate on August 20, 1859: During the last year more Negroes have been imported from Africa than ever before in any single year, even at the time when the slave trade was still legal. The number of slaves imported in the last year totaled fifteen thousand.

Armed spreading of slavery abroad was the avowed aim of national policy; the Union had in fact become the slave of the three hundred thousand slaveholders who held sway over the South. A series of compromises, which the South owed to its alliance with the Northern Democrats, had led to this result. On this alliance all the attempts, periodically repeated since 1817, to resist the ever increasing encroachments of the slaveholders had hitherto come to grief. At length there came a turning point.

3 replies »

  1. Thanks for this poem. In a sense I agree with you, but in another sense I disagree. The British capitalists supported the slave owners during the Civil War. This means that if the 13 colonies had not won their independence from Britain during the Revolutionary War, that slavery would have lasted far longer than it did. This in no way contradicts the fact that US capitalism was born through slavery, genocide and brutal exploitation of child labor, etc. As Marx said, “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

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