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Marx & Engels on the Civil War

By John Laskey

(This article appeared under the same title in 'Crossfire', the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) no. 73 - December 2003)

Revolutionary icons Marx and Engels were refugees in England at the time of the american civil war. with hindsight, it might seem surprising that they were amongst the foremost supporters of the united states in that struggle

In January 1862 Karl Marx, London correspondent of the New York Daily Herald wrote that the "natural sympathy of the popular classes all over the world" might be expected to support the world's "only popular government" - the United States of America. (1)

This might sound like a passage of 'counter-factual' history. But it is not. The reputation of Karl Marx, main inspiration for 20th century communism was rather different at the time of the Civil War. Britain subsequently came to squirm over its role as haven for budding communists. Even now, it is difficult to reach behind the thick hedge of images of Red Square and Soviet-style 'heroic' art, along with wilder historians gleefully proclaiming Marxist credentials. The fact is that both Marx and his close associate and fellow -German Friedrich Engels were seriously committed revolutionaries, who looked forward to a new, classless utopia. But at the time of the Civil War they were not regarded with any suspicion by the British authorities and were very much men of their Victorian age. Marx, the respectable refugee with a growing young family and aristocratic wife ("née Baronesse de Westphalen" as he snobbishly preferred her to style herself on their calling card) (2) was a rather ailing writer, a hard-up journalist. Yet he had a phenomenal intellect and often took no account of normal working hours in order to get his work done. He had the greatest contempt for Russia, and must have been surprised if he had known that country would be the first to instill his creed. His loyal friend Engels thought of himself as something of a military man, based on his involvement in a few skirmishes around revolutionary Germany under August Willich, a future Union commander (see insert). Engels liked to underpin his military enthusiasms through his fondness for foxhunting - "the greatest physical pleasure I know" he once confided to Marx.(3)

Marx and Engels arrived in England in 1849 with Marx's young family as political refugees. Against the background of repression following the 1848 revolutions throughout continental Europe, the publication of their Communist Manifesto had made them persona non grata in every other European country where they had sought asylum. Refuge in Britain was their last hope, though made a better bet too by Engels' family's stake in a productive textile business in Manchester. Fortunately for both men, Engels did come into some useful money through the business, from which he often subsidised the growing Marx family - sometimes by putting his hand in the till.

Even in London, Prussian and Austrian spies carefully noted their habits and activities. One such reported to his masters that "(Marx) leads the existence of a real bohemian intellectual". (4) Soon after his arrival the Austrians formally sought to have Marx expelled. But in the sort of interview that might later have been familiar to Union complainants about Confederate shipbuilding activities in Britain, their ambassador got a lecture from the home secretary on British virtues of liberal magnanimity. (5) Marx and his fellow revolutionaries were safe.

The radical, anti-slavery 'New York Daily Tribune' editor Horace Greeley engaged Marx as the paper's London Correspondent. This brought in a little money, and eventually the family were able to move from their digs in Soho to the respectable, semi-rural suburbs of Hampstead, Middlesex. With his young family, he would particularly come to enjoy picnics upon the Heath, freely straying over any 'no entry' signs and dropping into the 'Jack Straw's Castle' pub - it's there still - for flagons of beer (he was fond of booze - cigars too). (6) But Marx's greatest efforts were spent upon the difficult birth of his defining work 'Das Kapital' and he sometimes had to ask Engels to 'ghost write' his newspaper articles for him. Believing fully in Marx's genius and mission, Engels did not let him down: when Marx's articles turn to matters military, the ghostly hand of Engels is apparent. Engels wrote at least two articles on the war under his own name. For the (delightfully bourgeois-sounding) 'Volunteer Journal, for Lancashire and Cheshire' he argued at length for the Union system of an established, professional and regular army that would be capable of inducting a much larger body of volunteers in an emergency (7). In a second article, he wrote with equal enthusiasm for what must then have been a striking novelty of modern war: the battle of the (ironclad) rams outside Memphis, Tennessee on 6 June 1862 (8). has assembled Marx's Civil War articles in an Internet 'Marx/ Engels Archive'. These cover the period for the outbreak of the war to November 1862. By this time Marx had become increasingly preoccupied with his research for Das Kapital, and distracted by events in Europe, which he was even able to visit again in that year.

I have collected some of the main points featured in these articles under general headings, in order to highlight their thoughts upon particular aspects of the conflict. The full texts are well worth a read. 'Das Kapital' may be the book that even the most earnest of revolutionaries give up on page 1, but Marx (and Engels) the journalists are lucid, opinionated and skilful in their deployment of key facts, while Marx is amusingly barbed at times. It is interesting to see these formidable intellects being trained on the early part of the war when the outcome, including Britain's own role in it, was far from clear. I was particularly struck how often Marx correctly predicted the outcome of events, even from the early stages of the conflict. For example, he fully understood that Lincoln's Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (9) in September 1862 would change the nature of the war and he foresaw the decisive impact of black troops. He also never believed Britain would go to war over the 'Trent Incident' (1861). And he had a keen eye for strategic matters, arguing for example that the Confederate capital of Richmond did not compare in strategic significance to the major Southern seaport of New Orleans.

His Political Overview

Marx argued skillfully in plain, striking language that the perception in the contemporary British press of the War

as one of an offensive by the North against the South was in fact the reverse. He held that the Southern bombardment of Fort Sumter was a provocation to war - the Federal fort had indicated it would surrender, he argued, if were not relieved by a fixed time. He held that "Thirty Thousand slaveholders in the Old South", the exporters of slaves to other parts of the emerging American nation had instigated the war. On the election of Lincoln to the Presidency, which is generally taken as the point where Southern secession became reality, Marx pointed out that it was the North/ South split within the Democratic vote primarily brought about this victory by the Republican candidate. (10) He analysed the conflict as one of "slavery versus free labour" and dismissed the Confederate states as not a country but a "battle slogan", the war one of Southern conquest in order to spread and perpetuate slavery. As early as November 1861 Marx was predicting that the forcible ending of slavery in occupied Confederate territory might be used as a decisive weapon by the North for disrupting Southern wealth and war production. (11)

The Trent Incident (November - December 1861)

Marx argued at some length that that Britain had no legal basis for initiating an armed conflict with the USA over the seizure of the Confederate envoys to Britain from the British mail-packet Trent. His view was that the US had acted properly by seizing both the Confederate emissaries and their dispatches as 'contraband', and was indeed acting within legal principles that had been recognised under Britain's own maritime laws. (12) As the tide of legal opinion in Britain ebbed and flowed, Marx relished pointing out how the initial clamour for war by the public and the restraint of the press seemed to swap their respective positions, as Prime Minister Palmerston held out against compromise. He also took some mischievous delight in highlighting Palmerston's (albeit rather slight) familial relationship with envoy James M. Mason (13) Marx criticised Palmerston roundly for allegedly conniving at the suppression from the public of a peace note from Seward (14) Indeed, he was consistently scathing of Palmerston, to the extent that he was later hoodwinked into a preposterous conspiracy theory that the aging British Prime Minister was, in fact, in the pay of Russia. (15) To his American readers Marx decried Palmerston's pretexts for war, and roundly criticised what he called England's 'misalliance' over the affair with France, in particular through the two rivals' joint military expedition to Mexico, to recover debts from that government (16) He doubted France's motives in its offer to mediate after the fall of New Orleans and scoffed at untypical French press support for Britain over the Trent. (17). As the clamour for war continued, Marx warned that the effective US privateering of the Anglo-American War of 1812 could be repeated in the event of any outbreak of hostilities with disastrous consequences for British trade, while a British blockade of American ports in winter conditions would, he believed, be impossible. In support of his economic arguments against a war, he quoted one Liverpool cotton merchant's view that it would be cheaper to provide relief to English cotton workers for 3 years than fight the US for one. By January 1862 Marx (rightly as it turned out) concluded that war over the Trent seizure was "out of the question"(18)

Interestingly Marx harboured some antipathy to Union Secretary for War Seward, who happened to be another friend of Horace Greeley, describing his maneuverings as the 'Republican Richelieu' (not a flattering remark coming from such an atheistic man). In particular, Marx found Seward's handling of the Trent Incident tactless; a "self-conscious weakness simulating strength". (19)

On British Public Opinion

Marx contrasted the broad public support for Britain's war in the Crimea against Russia (1854-56) to overall opposition to any war with the USA. (20) He pointed out to his German readers how organised public meetings of working men in England, even those in the 'Confederate' city of Liverpool, fully supported the North. With sentiments that must surely have made a 'patriotic' historian such as Sir Arthur Bryant glad, Marx (or perhaps Engels writing for Marx) said: - "this is a new brilliant proof of the indestructible staunchness of the English popular masses ... which is the secret of England's greatness and ... made the common English soldier seem a demi-god during the Crimean War and the Indian (Mutiny)". (21)

Marx expressed admiration for the 'disenfranchised' workers (few had the vote at this stage) who were able to utilise public meetings and the petitions issuing from them to effectively influence national policy.

The Blockade and 'Cotton Crises'

Marx held that the crisis for British cotton manufacturers was primarily the result of textile over production in Britain, which had lead to damagingly low prices. His point seems to anticipate a central argument in 'Das Kapital' about the inevitable failure of the capitalist system through its inability to properly value the produce of the labourer, but to rely instead upon unsustainable profits for growth. And he warned things would only get worse because the growing competition with Britain's cotton trade from its own, newly industrialised colonies was supported by Britain's own enthusiasm for the principles of free trade. Quoting at length a meeting during 1861 of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, Marx artfully shifted the blame for the sufferings of unemployed cotton workers onto the capitalist system itself, while not failing to miss the opportunity for another sideswipe at Palmerston for the latter's introduction of tariffs upon the import of British cotton into India directly after the Mutiny (1857). (22) As for the effects of the continuing Union naval blockade of Southern ports, Marx followed closely a motion introduced to Parliament in March 1862 for the withdrawal of recognition of it by the MPs Gregory and Bentinck. This could have opened the way for Britain to declare the Southern ports open to trade, making a clash with the Northern states inevitable. Marx scornfully pointed out the central contradiction in Gregory's argument: that the blockade should not be recognised because it was ineffective, but that it was effective enough to cause hardship to the British cotton industry. Gregory had produced figures that, his Confederate associates argued, showed large numbers of ships successfully evading the Union patrols. Marx carefully dissected these as exaggerations: he noted with satisfaction that the motion had been defeated. (23)

On Slavery

It may be an uncomfortable fact to some of Marx's more modern adherents that his doctrines showed no presentiment of what we now call racial equality. Indeed he was typically Victorian in the assumption that his doctrines applied to a 'civilised' - that is, the western, industrialised world. His attitude to race is even more evident from his unhappiness when one of his daughters married a Creole political activist. He confided in Engels that his son-in-law suffered "...a blemish commonly found in the Negro tribe - no sense of shame ... in making a fool of oneself." (24)

Whatever his private attitude to race, Marx had a very clear view about how abolition would be the first step for enabling slaves in America to be effectively mobilised by the Union to overcome the old order, which he saw represented not only by the Confederate states themselves but also those pro-Union 'border states' in which slavery was still legal. Without abolition, he argued practically, the Confederacy would be able to mobilise all of its able-bodied men into military service. He was impatient with Lincoln's diplomacy for keeping the Northern 'border states' in the war on the Union side, advocating force be used to make abolitionism a declared Union war aim, while simultaneously transforming the struggle into "revolutionary waging of war". Marx must have felt fully vindicated when the first black troops entered into the Union service shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863). He also hailed the thaw in Britain's relations with the US in the wake of the Trent Incident, to the extent that the two countries signed a treaty in 1862 for jointly suppressing the slave trade. (25)

Military Matters: On General McClellan

Marx was an early critic of the Union's first General-in-Chief, George McClellan and his failure to take the Confederate capitol of Richmond in the - otherwise tactically inspired - Peninsula campaign. "A war" Marx fumed "has never yet been so wretchedly waged" by a general whom he concluded had "irrefutably proved that he is a military incompetent", waging war "not to defeat the foe, but rather not to be defeated by the foe". (26) Lincoln would surely have agreed, at least privately, sacking McClellan in favour of the impulsive General John Pope shortly afterwards. Of interest to those who like to track parallels with England's own civil war some 200 years previously, Marx compared McClellan with the English Parliament's first and equally cautious general, the Earl of Essex. Quoting the English historian Macaulay, he noted that the "...military errors (of Essex) were produced for the most part by political timidity. He was honestly, but by no means warmly, attached to the cause (of Parliament); and next to a great defeat he dreaded nothing so much as a great victory". (27)

Like Essex before him, Marx saw McClellan as "free from revolutionary tendencies", noting with suspicion his close association with Southern sympathisers and his harsh discouragement of anti-slavery activities in his Army of the Potomac.

There was some consolation to Marx in the conduct during the Peninsula Campaign of Union General Heintzelman, victor of the battle at Williamsburg (May 1862). The General was, he observed proudly, of German descent, and he laid the blame for the Union failure to follow up this minor victory at McClellan's feet.

Kentucky and Tennessee Campaigns, 1861-62

Marx criticised General Winfield Scott's 'Anaconda' plan for encircling and strangling the South, arguing for the strategic importance of Georgia, as the heart of the Confederacy. No effective action would be taken to subdue Georgia until 1864, when General Sherman's tactic of destroying all in his path would alter the war's character. Marx also wondered about the real military significance of Richmond at a time when all Union efforts were set to capture it as a decisive stroke. But he particularly admired the conduct of the Kentucky and Tennessee campaigns. (28) In particular the result of the battle of Perryville (which was actually indecisive, but lead to a permanent Confederate withdrawal). Marx made much of this as a 'turning of the tide', while looking forward to the effects of conscription in the North, including from those recruits from the increased flow of emigration from Britain. (29)

New Orleans

Marx hailed the fall of New Orleans (April 1862) as a decisive event in the war, and proof of the skills in Union arms. He took some delight in contrasting the pessimism with which this event was reported in the Southern press, i.e. "The capture of New Orleans by the Federals is the most extraordinary and fateful event of the whole war" - (Petersburg Press) with the scepticism of the Union achievement within Britain's own papers (30). "The English press", he later scoffed "is more Southern than the South itself" (31). He was scathing about the Parliamentary and public outrage caused by General Butler's proclamation to the women of New Orleans, that they would be treated like prostitutes (i.e. flogged) if they insulted Union soldiers. He wondered, with some irony, why actual floggings of women by Russian troops in Poland and by various British colonial governors had not been similarly denounced (32) As mentioned, Marx was quite convinced that Palmerston was in league with Russia, despite the evidence to the contrary of his aggressive prosecution of the Crimean War.


By November 1862 Marx noted the continuing pessimism of the Southern press and avoidance of conscription there. He contrasted this need for coercion with the notion of 'States Rights' that the South claimed had lead to the war. By the end of his period of article writing on Civil War matters, he noted growing Republican strength in the North and moves of the party to fully accommodate the war aims of the abolitionists.


Marx's settled, albeit permanently financially challenged life in England was changed following his outspoken support for the revolutionaries who took control of Paris in 1871, in the wake of France's catastrophic defeat by Prussia. Before its own bloody repression by French Republican forces, this 'Communard' regime had executed many hostages, including priests and political opponents. While Engels had profited by writing military commentaries for the Pall Mall Gazette on the Franco-Prussian War, Marx - provocative as ever - thought that the establishment of these latter-day Jacobins " will be for ever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society " (33). Marx's notoriety quickly snowballed. There was renewed pressure by European governments for Britain to 'do something' to curb this revolutionary firebrand in its midst. In 1874 his application for British nationality was turned down on political grounds. (34) The International Working Men's Association, which he effectively lead, became divided over the methods of revolutionary struggle and collapsed totally in 1876, ironically after agreeing to Marx's motion that it be moved to New York. (35)

Marx died, penniless, in 1883. After his death, Engel's completed 'Das Kapital' and would forever be associated with his mentor. The days of their greatest impact lay in the twentieth century, though their contribution was to be forgotten again by the twenty-first.


The Duel on the Beach

Duelling remained a tradition among German students long after it had been made illegal in other parts of Europe. Karl Marx was no exception, and bore the scars on his face from a duel from his days as a young blood at Bonn University. Years later, when accusing the editor of the London Pall Mall Gazette of a libel, Marx hinted darkly that, were they living on the Continent, he would have challenged him to a duel! (36)

Another German exile and revolutionary, August Willich (right), was the ex-Prussian officer whom Engels had served in Baden during his 1840's revolutionary skirmishing. He too was disposed towards duelling as a means of settling slights. Willich was also rather too fond of Marx's wife and Marx, who instinctively disliked Willich as a show-off, got into a heated exchange with him at one of the Communist League meetings in London, during which he denounced Willich as an "uneducated, four times cuckolded jackass". What then followed is disputed, but an enthusiastic young acolyte of Marx, Conrad Schramm, picked up the gauntlet on Marx's behalf. Schramm sailed over to Ostend (where dueling was legal) to fight Willich and in the exchange was knocked senseless by Willich's pistol ball. The injury was not however serious, much to the Marx family's relief. Willich travelled on to America, and eventually settled amongst a German speaking community in Cincinnati, where he played an active role in propounding revolutionary ideas through his German language newspaper. His previous military experience must have been a factor when he was commissioned to raise the (German) 32nd Indiana Regiment. At the head of this unit, Willich fought at Shiloh, Stones River (where he was captured, but soon exchanged) and Chickamauga. He was taken off active duty after being injured at Resaca, Georgia. Though he attempted to offer his services to the King of Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) Willich was - unsurprisingly - not trusted by the authorities there, and he returned to America for good.

In spite of Marx's near miss by proxy, he conceded after the war that he had been impressed by Willich's physical courage during the conflict. This seems to have extended to a general admiration for those of German descent who fought (at least for the North) during the war. Another fellow revolutionary Marx hailed in his writings was Joseph Weydemeyer, who also fought in the Union cause. He was to become a founder of United States labour movements, though dying the year after the war ended.



Primary Sources:

Marx/Engels Collected Works, Volume 19 (Progress Publishers, Moscow 1964) - Online Version: 1999

Wheen, Francis - 'Karl Marx' (4th Estate Ltd, 2000)

Quigley, Mike - 'Heart of a Communist, Mind of a Prussian' (May 2003) © Mike Quigley

(Unless otherwise stated, the following references refer to the papers in the 'Marx/Engels Collected Works' noted above).

1) 'English Public Opinion'- New York Daily Tribune - 11 January 1862

2) Wheen, Francis 'Karl Marx' p.334

3) Wheen p.266

4) Wheen p.170

5) Wheen p.164

6) Wheen p.221

7) (Engels) -'Lessons of the American War'- The Volunteer Journal, for Lancashire and Cheshire - 6 December 1861

8) (Engels) 'The American Civil War and the Ironclads and Rams'- Die Presse - 3 July 1862

9) 'The Situation in the American Theatre of War' - Die Presse - 30 May 1862

10) 'The North American Civil War'- Die Presse - 25 October 1861

11) 'The Dismissal of Frémont' - Die Presse - 26 November 1861

12) 'The Trent Case' - Die Presse - 2 December 1861

13) 'English Public Opinion' - New York Daily Tribune-11 January 1862

14)'More on Seward's Suppressed Dispatch' Die Presse-18 January 1862

15) Wheen p.207. One throwaway passage in 'Progress of Feelings in England' - New York Daily Tribune - 25 December 1861 - underscores Marx's deep conviction about this strange theory: "...the Nord of December 3 - a Russian paper, and consequently a paper initiated into Palmerston's designs" (author's italics)

16) 'French News Humbug - Economic Consequences of War' - Die Presse - 4 January 1862

17) Ibid

18) 'English Public Opinion'- New York Daily Tribune- 11 January 1862

19)'The Trent Case' -Die Presse - 2 December 1861

20) 'English Public Opinion'- New York Daily Tribune - 11 January 1862

21) 'A London Workers' Meeting' - Die Presse - 2 February 1862

22) 'On the Cotton Crises' Die Presse - 8 February 1862

23) 'The Secessionists' Friends in the Lower House - Recognition of the American Blockade' - Die Presse - 12 March 1862

24) Wheen p. 291

25) 'The Situation in the American Theatre of War'- Die Presse - 30 May 1862

26) Ibid

27) 'American Affairs'- Die Presse - 3 March 1862

28) 'The American Civil War'- Die Presse - 26/27 March 1862

29) 'The Situation in North America'- Die Presse - 10 November 1862

30) 'The English Press and the Fall of New Orleans' -Die Presse - 20 May l862

31) 'Symptoms of Disintegration in the Southern Confederacy'- Die Presse

- 14 November 1862

32) 'English Humanity and America'- Die Presse - 20 June 1862

33) Wheen p.330

34) Wheen p.356

35) Wheen p.337

36) Wheen p.335

Secondary Sources

TimeTraders ® 'The Civil War Card Set: Series One'

McPherson, James M. - 'Battle Cry of Freedom' (Penguin Books, 1990).

Picture Credits

Picture courtesy of

© ACWRT(UK) 2003


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