American Slaves and English Workingmen
People Making the Peace during the US Civil War

African-American Union soldiers during the US Civil War. Library of Congress

Heather Gray
June 15, 2020
Justice Initiative


With the ongoing world-wide protests against U.S. police killings of blacks in America, many have commented about the fact that the demonstrators are multi-cultural and of both blacks and whites. Regarding blacks and white coming together to make the peace, in his book 'Black Reconstruction in America: 1860 to 1880' W.E.B. Dubois makes reference to how the American slaves and the English white workingmen made the difference in ending the U.S. Civil War. While I have sent this article out in the past, I decided, under the circumstances, I would do so again and as slightly edited. 

(Note: At the end of this article are the addresses and letter sent to Abraham Lincoln by the International Working Men's Association in Britain regarding, and in appreciation of, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Lincoln in 1863; included also is Lincoln's response.)

In 2016, I finally read the length and breadth of W.E.B. DuBois's remarkable "  Black Reconstruction in America: 1860 to 1880". It was originally published in 1935. His seminal work altered the interpretation by mainstream "white" scholars of the reconstruction period after the Civil War. It was, therefore, transformative! For years, I have read snippets from his impressive book and articles by him and, as always, from DuBois, I learn about American history and analysis in ways that leave me enlightened, breathless and eager for more. I am also of the opinion that 'Black Reconstruction' should be required reading for all Americans. Among his vast findings and revelations in his book, he describes how, during the US Civil War, the American slaves and English workingmen saved the Union.

In addition, in 2015, the book ' The People Make the Peace' by Karin San-Juan and Frank Joyce was published referring the role of "the people" in demanding justice, supporting justice movements and in ending war. In this instance, I will briefly connect the dots between these two books ('Black Reconstruction in America' and 'The People Make the Peace') in reference to the end of the Vietnam War in the 20th century and Civil War in the 19th century. This was thanks to people's movements.
In the review of the 'The People Make the Peace' Just World Books notes:

Forty years after the Vietnam War ended, many in the United States still struggle to come to terms with this tumultuous period of U.S. history. The domestic antiwar movement, with cooperation from their Vietnamese counterparts, played a significant role in ending the War, but few have examined its impact until now. In "The People Make the Peace", edited by KarĂ­n Aguilar-San Juan and Frank Joyce, nine U.S. activists discuss the parts they played in opposing the War at home and their risky travels to Vietnam in the midst of the conflict to engage in people-to-people diplomacy.

...this collection help[s] fill in many blanks, adding essential color to the story of this astounding citizens' movement, especially the remarkable saga of the 1970-71 People's Peace Treaty. They inspire reflection that America still sorely needs.
    Todd Gitlin, Columbia University

"The book shatters stereotypes of protesters and shows the activists as thoughtful, courageous and compassionate strategists whose dedication to peaceful diplomacy helped end the war earlier..."                 
    Medea Benjamin, CODEPINK

It was the "people," therefore, who recognized the horror and injustice of the Vietnam War and who, then, played a significant role in ending the conflict. They made the peace!

In view of that analysis, the U.S. Civil War in the mid-1800's was radically altered by the slaves themselves and by the workingmen in England resulting in an end of the war and a Union victory.

The Emancipation Proclamation and its Impact

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation  on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free." (National Archives)
The ' Emancipation Proclamation' was issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It freed the slaves in the rebellious states. The result was a mammoth change in the war both domestically and internationally. In fact, this was the case more than most of us realize. In his book, 'Black Reconstruction,' DuBois explores the impact of Lincoln issuing the Proclamation and why Lincoln issued the Proclamation in the first place. Was it because of domestic or international pressure? It appears to be a combination of both.

Domestically, during the Civil War, Lincoln was having a hard time recruiting northerners to join in the fighting. Slaves were leaving the destabilized South during the war and headed northward overall to distance themselves from the oppressive slave system. Slaves were also flocking to the Union "military" lines as much as possible.  

This created problems that Lincoln needed to contend with. The northern economy was dramatically impacted by the war and the northern white workers were not thrilled with slaves from the South moving into their communities. They saw this, for one, as competition for jobs.  In some cases these whites initiated violence against the slave refugees in what is sometimes described as "race wars".  Nor would many of these whites, as mentioned by DuBois, choose to join in the war to save the Union.

So Lincoln, to repeat, had compelling problems with recruiting white soldiers in the north compared to Blacks who were willing to fight and do whatever they could to defeat the Confederacy. While there are countless interpretations as to why he did this, Lincoln nevertheless, emancipated the slaves. He was never overtly supportive of ending slavery, but it appears he saw no other option in order to save the Union.

The Emancipation Proclamation was a presidential proclamation and executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. In a single stroke, it changed the federal legal status of more than 3 million enslaved people in the designated areas of the South from "slave" to "free". It had the practical effect that as soon as a slave escaped the control of the Confederate government, by running away or through advances of federal troops, the slave became legally free. (Wikipedia)

The actions of slaves from the southern plantations, therefore, was momentous. They played a significant role in successfully inserting themselves into the responsibility of defeating the Confederacy and ending the war while, in essence, pressuring the President to free them.

Blacks could often be counted on to aid anti-Confederate whites. Deserters escaping the Confederate army could rely on slaves to give them food and shelter on the journey back home. Some blacks joined tory gangs in their war against the Confederacy. Two slaves in Dale County, Alabama, helped John Ward, leader of a local deserter gang, to kill their owner in his bed. Three white citizens of Calhoun County, Georgia, were arrested for supplying area slaves with firearms in preparation for a rebellion. Slaves in neighboring Brooks County conspired with a local white man, John Vickery, to take the county and hold it for the Union. Tens of thousands of blacks fled to federal lines and joined Union forces. Of about 200,000 blacks under federal arms, four out of five were native Southerners. Together with roughly 300,000 Southern whites who did the same, (about 200,000 of them from states of the border South) Southerners who served in the Union military totaled nearly half a million, or about a quarter of all federal armed forces. (Southern Unionism)

But the other significant players, believe it or not, were the workingmen of England. This is most definitely not something most Americans are aware of.

Understanding the Importance of Cotton and Threats of European Intervention

No analysis of the Civil War can quite be understood without looking to the importance of cotton production in the slave labor states of the South, the production of which was destabilized during the Civil War. Here is a brief description of the importance of cotton production and trade to both the northern part of the United States and its economy overall as well as in Britain and Europe in which cotton represented, as stated below,  "more than half the value of all exports from the United States".

The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed an enormous increase in the production of short-staple cotton in the South, and most of that cotton was exported to Great Britain and Europe.... By the mid 1830s, cotton shipments accounted for more than half the value of all exports from the United States....There could be little doubt that the prosperity of the slave economy rested on its ability to produce cotton more efficiently than any other region of the world....

Northern merchants gained from Southern demands for shipping cotton to markets abroad, and from the demand by Southerners for Northern and imported consumption goods. The low price of raw cotton produced by slave labor in the American South enabled textile manufacturers - both in the United States and in Britain - to expand production and provide benefits to consumers through a declining cost of textile products....When James Hammond exclaimed in 1859 that "Cotton is King!" no one rose to dispute the point. (The Economics of the Civil War)

The Civil War had significant economic impact throughout many parts of Europe, largely due to the disruption from the loss of the cotton trade. The cotton textile mills in the northern part of England, therefore, were dramatically impacted. As DuBois notes, 
"job loss, destabilization and prostitution accelerated in the textile mill communities in response to the loss of cotton from the Confederate states."

This economic impact led the English government, under Prime Minister Lord Palmerston (1859-1865), to consider supporting the Confederate states in the war. Suffice it so say, the ruling elite in the England supported the continuation of slavery. In what can only be described as inhumane greed, they saw slavery and its associated cotton production as a benefit for their economy overall and, of course, to Britain's significant textile mill  business. France, under Napoleon III, was also considering supporting the Confederacy, although there was not as strong a support for slavery among the ruling French elite compared to the English.

America's Slave Community and English Workingmen Made the Difference

DuBois notes that if the English and the French had intervened on behalf of the Confederate states, and therefore, against the Union, the Civil War would likely have been over quickly. The Union would have lost, and slavery would have been maintained for who knows how long.

What was significant here was the working men of England. In this instance, DuBois notes that even in spite of the destabilization wrought in their communities from loss of cotton and income, unlike white American workers, the English working men were elated by the emancipation proclamation. As noted below, by DuBois:

During the winter of  the 1862-1863, meeting after meeting (by the workingmen) in favor of emancipation was held. The reaction in England to the Emancipation was too enthusiastic for the government to dare take any radical step. Great meetings in London and Manchester stirred the nation, and gave notice to Palmerston that he could not yet take the chance of recognizing the South...he began to withdraw and the imminent danger of the South by England and France passed.

Perhaps the white workingmen of England would not have liked freed slaves in their communities to compete for jobs, as was the case in America. This is not something we will ever know. However, it is true that these workingmen in Britain stood on principal and profoundly supported the Emancipation Proclamation and this, along with slave responses in America, made the difference. It was a unique alliance.

As demonstrated in this article, slaves in the US and the English workingmen were significant players in the victory over the Confederacy, in ending slavery, and in preventing Britain and France from intervening by perhaps declaring war against the Union while supporting and acknowledging the Confederate states as an independent nation. Thanks to this important affinity of slaves and white workers in England the result was quite the opposite - slavery ended and the Union won.

Additional Information

Below are the following: (1) direct passages below from DuBois' book about the reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation in Britain and the 1863 address in London and Manchester sent to Lincoln and drafted by Marx; (2) the response by Lincoln; (3) Here was indeed revolution; (4) the letter, drafted by Karl Marx, and sent by the International Workingmen's Association to Abraham Lincoln in 1865, via the US Ambassador in  London, Charles Francis Adams; (5) the response from the Ambassador.

(1)  The reaction to emancipation Britain and addresses sent to Lincoln from meetings in London and Manchester. Manchester address, adopted by six thousand people!!!  (W.E.B. DuBois' "Black Reconstruction in America")

The reaction to emancipation in the North (US) was unfavorable so far as political results indicates....

Only among Negroes (in the US) and in England was the reaction favorable, and both counted. The Proclamation made four and a half million laborers willing almost in mass to sacrifice their last drop of blood for their new-found country....

The Proclamation had an undoubted and immediate effect upon England. The upper classes were strongly in favor of the Confederacy, and sure that the Yankees were fighting only for a high tariff and hurt vanity. Free-trade England was repelled by the program, and attracted by the free-trade which the Confederacy offered. There was strong demand among manufacturers to have the government interfere and recognize the Southern States as an independent nation. The church and universities were in favor of the Confederacy and all of the periodicals.

...as soon as Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the working men of England held hundreds of meetings all over the country and in all industrial sections, and hailed his action.

Ernest Jones, the leader of the Chartist movement, raised his eloquent voice against slavery. During the winter of  the 1862-1863, meeting after meeting in favor of emancipation was held. The reaction in England to the Emancipation was too enthusiastic for the government to dare take any radical step. Great meetings in London and Manchester stirred the nation, and gave notice to Palmerston that he could not yet take the chance of recognizing the South...he began to withdraw and the imminent danger of the South by England and France passed.

In the monster meeting of English working men at St. James' Hall, London, March 26, 1863... John Stuart Mill declared that: "Higher political and social freedom has been declared in the United States." Karl Marx testified that this meeting held in 1863 kept Lord Palmerston from declaring war against the United States. On December 31, 1863, at meetings held simultaneously in London and Manchester, addresses were sent to Lincoln drafted by Karl Marx. The London address said:

"Sir,  We who offer this address are Englishmen and working men, We prize as our dearest inheritance, brought for us by the blood of our fathers, the liberty we enjoy - the liberty of free labor on a free soil. We have, therefore, been accustomed to regard with veneration and gratitude the founders of the great republic in which the liberties of the Anglo-Saxon race have been widened beyond all the precedent of the old world, and in which there was nothing to condemn or to lament but the slavery and degradation of men guilty only of a colored skin or an African parentage. We have looked with administration and sympathy upon the brave, generous and uniting efforts of a large party in the Northern States to deliver the Union from this curse and shame. We rejoiced, sir, in your election to the Presidency, as a splendid proof that the principles of universal freedom and equality were rising to the ascendant.  We regarded with abhorrence the conspiracy and rebellion by which it was sought at once to over-throw the supremacy of a government based upon the most popular suffrage in the world and to perpetuate the hateful inequalities of race."

 The Manchester address, adopted by six thousand people, said among other things:

"One thing alone has, in the past, lessened our sympathy with your country and our
 confidence in it; we mean the ascendancy of politicians who not merely maintained Negro slavery, but desired to extend and root it more deeply. Since we have discerned, however, that the victory of the free North in the war which has so sorely distressed as well as afflicted you, will shake off the the fetters of the slave, you have attracted our warm and earnest sympathy.

 "We joyfully honor you, as the President, and the Congress with you, for the many decisive steps towards practically exemplifying your belief in the words of your great founders: 'All men are created free and equal.'

 "We assume that you cannot now stop short of a complete uprooting of slavery. It would not become us to dictate any details, but there are broad principles of humanity which must guide you. If complete emancipation in some states be deferred, though only to a per-determined day, still, in the interval, human beings should not be counted chattels. Woman must have rights of chastity and maternity, men the rights of husbands; masters the liberty of manumission. Justice demands for the black, no less than for the white, the protection of the law-that his voice may be heard in your courts. Nor must any such abomination be tolerated as slave-breeding States and a slave market-if you are to earn the high reward of all your sacrifices in the approval of the universal brotherhood and of the Divine Father. It is for your free country to decide whether anything but immediate and total emancipation can secure the most indispensable rights of humanity, against the inveterate wickedness of local laws and local executives.

 "We implore you, for your own honor and welfare, not to faint in your providential mission. While your enthusiasm is aflame, and the tide of events runs high, let the work be finished effectually. Leave no root of bitterness to spring up and work fresh misery to your children It is a mighty task, indeed, to reorganize the industry, not only of four millions of the colored race, but of five millions of whites.

 "Nevertheless, the vast progress you have made in the short space of twenty months fills us with hope that every stain on your freedom will shortly be removed, and that the erasure of that foul blot upon civilization and Christianity--chattel slavery-during your Presidency, will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honored and revered by posterity."

(2) Lincoln's Response

Lincoln in reply said that he knew the suffering of the working men in Manchester and Europe in this crisis, and appreciated the action of the English working men as an example of   "sublime Christian heroism,"  which  "has not been surpassed in any age or in any country."

He declared that the Civil War was  "the attempt to over-throw this government,  which was built upon a foundation of human rights, and to substitute one which should rest exclusively on the basis of human slavery."

(3) Here was indeed revolution

In the North, the Emancipation Proclamation meant the Negro soldier, and the Negro soldier meant the end of the war."  We have come to set you free!"  cried the black cavalrymen who rode at the head of the Union Army as it entered Richmond in 1864....

Here was indeed revolution. At first, this was to be a white man's war. First, because the North did not want to affront the South, and the war was going to be short, very short; and secondly, if Negroes fought in the war, how could it help being a war for their emancipation? And for this the North would not fight. Yet scarcely a year after hostilities started, the Negroes were fighting, although unrecognized as soldiers; in two years they were free and enrolling in the army.

(4) The letter, drafted by Karl Marx, and sent by the International Working Men's Association to Abraham Lincoln in 1865, via the US Ambassador in  London, Charles Francis Adams

Presented to U.S. Ambassador Charles Francis Adams
January 28, 1865 (A)

Address of the International Working Men's Association to
Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America

Written: by Marx between November 22 & 29, 1864
First Published: The Bee-Hive Newspaper, No. 169, November 7, 1865;
Transcription/Markup: Zodiac/Brian Baggins;
Online Version: Marx & Engels Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2000


We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.

From the commencement of the titanic American strife the working men of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epoch, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?

When an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders dared to inscribe, for the first time in the annals of the world, "slavery" on the banner of Armed Revolt, when on the very spots where hardly a century ago the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century; when on those very spots counterrevolution, with systematic thoroughness, gloried in rescinding "the ideas entertained at the time of the formation of the old constitution", and maintained slavery to be "a beneficent institution", indeed, the old solution of the great problem of "the relation of capital to labor", and cynically proclaimed property in man "the cornerstone of the new edifice" - then the working classes of Europe understood at once, even before the fanatic partisanship of the upper classes for the Confederate gentry had given its dismal warning, that the slaveholders' rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labor, and that for the men of labor, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic. Everywhere they bore therefore patiently the hardships imposed upon them by the cotton crisis, opposed enthusiastically the pro-slavery intervention of their betters - and, from most parts of Europe, contributed their quota of blood to the good cause.

While the working men, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.

The working men of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

Signed on behalf of the International Workingmen's Association, the Central Council:

Longmaid, Worley, Whitlock, Fox, Blackmore, Hartwell, Pidgeon, Lucraft, Weston, Dell, Nieass, Shaw, Lake, Buckley, Osbourne, Howell, Carter, Wheeler, Stainsby, Morgan, Grossmith, Dick, Denoual, Jourdain, Morrissot, Leroux, Bordage, Bocquet, Talandier, Dupont, L.Wolff, Aldovrandi, Lama, Solustri, Nusperli, Eccarius, Wolff, Lessner, Pfander, Lochner, Kaub, Bolleter, Rybczinski, Hansen, Schantzenbach, Smales, Cornelius, Petersen, Otto, Bagnagatti, Setacci;

George Odger, President of the Council; P.V. Lubez, Corresponding Secretary for France; Karl Marx, Corresponding Secretary for Germany; G.P. Fontana, Corresponding Secretary for Italy; J.E. Holtorp, Corresponding Secretary for Poland; H.F. Jung, Corresponding Secretary for Switzerland; William R. Cremer, Honorary General Secretary. (B)
18 Greek Street, Soho

[A] From the minutes of the Central (General) Council of the International - November 19, 1864:

"Dr. Marx then brought up the report of the subcommittee, also a draft of the address which had been drawn up for presentation to the people of America congratulating them on their having re-elected Abraham Lincoln as President. The address is as follows and was unanimously agreed to."

[B] The minutes of the meeting continue:

"A long discussion then took place as to the mode of presenting the address and the propriety of having a M.P. with the deputation; this was strongly opposed by many members, who said working men should rely on themselves and not seek for extraneous aid.... It was then proposed... and carried unanimously. The secretary correspond with the United States Minister asking to appoint a time for receiving the deputation, such deputation to consist of the members of the Central Council."

 (5) The response from the Ambassador

US Ambassador Adams Replies
Legation of the United States
London, 28th January, 1865


I am directed to inform you that the address of the Central Council of your Association, which was duly transmitted through this Legation to the President of the United [States], has been received by him.

So far as the sentiments expressed by it are personal, they are accepted by him with a sincere and anxious desire that he may be able to prove himself not unworthy of the confidence which has been recently extended to him by his fellow citizens and by so many of the friends of humanity and progress throughout the world.

The Government of the United States has a clear consciousness that its policy neither is nor could be reactionary, but at the same time it adheres to the course which it adopted at the beginning, of abstaining everywhere from propagandism and unlawful intervention. It strives to do equal and exact justice to all states and to all men and it relies upon the beneficial results of that effort for support at home and for respect and good will throughout the world.

Nations do not exist for themselves alone, but to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind by benevolent intercourse and example. It is in this relation that the United States regard their cause in the present conflict with slavery, maintaining insurgence as the cause of human nature, and they derive new encouragements to persevere from the testimony of the working men of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies.

I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,

Charles Francis Adams