The U.S. Civil War was the ‘unfinished revolution’

The slightly edited two chapters below are from a 1974 essay written by a Workers World Party founding member, Vincent Copeland, who reintroduced the pamphlet, “A Voice from Harper’s Ferry,” by Osborne P. Anderson, a former enslaved Black man, who wrote a firsthand account in 1861 about the raid on Harpers Ferry, led by John Brown in 1859. Anderson was one of the few survivors of the raid. Go to to download or to order the 2000 edition of the book.

Much has been written about the Harpers Ferry raid. But Osborne P. Anderson’s story — in the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, “the most interesting and reliable account of the raid” — has a special significance that has been too long neglected.

First, Anderson was one of the actual participants, and being Black, he might be expected to have a somewhat different view of the affair than even the most inspired white supporters of John Brown.

Second, he apparently wrote the pamphlet with the hope of encouraging a general slave insurrection.

And third, he obviously expected other whites to imitate the action of John Brown and help supply the arms for the insurrection, as well as take up arms themselves.

He was interested, like most other Black and white abolitionists of that very revolutionary period, in continuing the revolution that John Brown’s band had begun. But he seems to have based his optimism upon the possibilities of a slave insurrection, rather more than upon white support, which he must have thought of as an important auxiliary force rather than as the main body of struggle.

He took pains to emphasize the number of slaves who accepted guns the moment guns were offered to them. He pointed out what few subsequent narrators of the event have: namely that of the seventeen revolutionaries who died at Harpers Ferry (before the legal lynching of Brown and the others after the trial), nine were Black. Eight whites and two Blacks of the original band were killed in the conflict in addition to the hastily armed seven Black slaves. Two other Blacks were executed with Brown.

History has finally given Brown tremendous credit for what was indeed a tremendous feat. But Brown had been planning it for decades and the others in the band had been thinking for months and for years about how to strike this dramatic blow.

What about the seven nameless Black people who died for Black freedom with no prior notice whatever? They, too, no doubt, had thought for years about freedom — their own freedom. They had lacked all possibility, all weapons, all communication for struggle. But confronted with an opportunity given them by strangers, most of whom were of the same race as the hated master class, they gave their lives in a moment and apparently without a qualm.

History, even revolutionary history, treats them as fillers of blank spaces. Did they simply take the guns and shoot and get shot like so many extras in the movies?

Anderson did not think so. Although he does not expand upon the facts when he refers to the number of “colored” men killed, his emphasis upon the number is obviously not due just to his racial pride.

It must always be borne in mind that he was speaking to a generation to which this incident would conjure up an extremely earthshaking perspective. And even the slightest emphasis would go a long way.

A different Civil War

The Civil War may have begun by the time his story was published, but it is clear from the text that it had not begun when he wrote it. It is also clear that he was not thinking of that kind of civil war; he had a different concept of how the war would be fought, who would fight it, and who would lead it.

The war that Anderson had in mind would have required not just a few Black and white guerrillas, no matter how brave and ready to die, but an all-out participation of the slave population, along with fairly massive support from the North. He must have felt — and with good reason — that this would paralyze the U.S. government (which was already divided between “free soil‘‘ and pro-slavery forces) so that especially with Lincoln now president, it would not be able to intervene powerfully on the side of the South, as it had done in the case of Brown’s raid.

What actually happened was that the South seceded before such a war could get started and in effect, started its own counterrevolutionary war. When the fighting erupted, it was counterrevolutionary war.

When the fighting erupted, it seemed at first to have very little to do with slavery. The official battle cry in the North was not “Liberate the Slaves,” but “Preserve the Union.”

Right up until Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, it must have appeared to Anderson (and many thousands of other passionate Black and white abolitionists in the North) that the Northern capitalist government would never fight. Even after Lincoln’s election and even after several states had seceded, it must have appeared that the U.S. government would never wage ruthless war against the slave owners of the South.

The formal Confederacy was already established before Lincoln was inaugurated. And Lincoln waited more than a month before he acted. And even then he acted only under the prod of South Carolina’s provocative attack on Sumter. It was, of course, a war against slavery when it did come, regardless of the will of most of its official leaders.

In spite of its defects, it was a revolution against the slavocracy that had ruled the whole country. It was a revolution that destroyed forever the power of the slave owners as a class and chattel slavery as a system. But it was a revolution most unsatisfactory to the slaves themselves. The ending of slavery as an institution, as is well known, did not lead to any real amelioration of the actual conditions of life, particularly the economic conditions, for the vast majority of Black people at that time.

What would the conclusion have been if the war had been fought as a revolution from start to finish?

First, the slaves would have been freed simply by striking off their own shackles. Second, they would have enforced their freedom by expropriating the plantations of the masters and dividing up the land. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, if they took that form, would merely have been legal afterthoughts.

The former slaveholders could never have made a comeback of the proportions they actually did, and the whole system of racial inequality that prevails today would have no material basis at all.

We are apt to think of the United States as being the capitalist country, as completely money-oriented, nonfeudal, dynamic, etc. But in the more historical sense, it is not so purely capitalist after all.

Probably no bourgeois revolution in history was a completely “finished” one that definitively settled all questions of bourgeois democracy and made social and political conditions thoroughly consistent with bourgeois revolutionary ideas.

But the Southern United States, and in fact the whole United States, in spite of some small and temporary advances during Reconstruction, is to this day a classical example of the most unfinished of all bourgeois revolutions. And one of the fundamental reasons for this is that there was no general, thoroughgoing slave insurrection, no division of the land.

V. Copeland

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V. Copeland

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