Monday, April 06, 2015

The 150th Anniversary Commemoration Of The American Civil War –In Honor Of The Abraham Lincoln-Led Union Side- The  Hard Years Of War- A Sketch-Wilhelm Sorge’s War-Take Three


From The Pen Of Frank Jackman


I would not expect any average American citizen today to be familiar with the positions of the communist intellectuals and international working-class party organizers (First International) Karl Mark and Friedrich Engels on the events of the American Civil War. There is only so much one can expect of people to know off the top of their heads about what for several generations now has been ancient history.  I am, however, always amazed when I run into some younger leftists and socialists, or even older radicals who may have not read much Marx and Engels, and find that they are surprised, very surprised to see that Marx and Engels were avid partisans of the Abraham Lincoln-led Union side in the American Civil War. I, in the past, have placed a number of the Marx-Engels newspaper articles from the period in this space to show the avidity of their interest and partisanship in order to refresh some memories and enlighten others. As is my wont I like to supplement such efforts with little fictional sketches to illustrate points that I try to make and do so below with my take on a Union soldier from Boston, a rank and file soldier,Wilhelm Sorge.  


Since Marx and Engels have always been identified with a strong anti-capitalist bias for the unknowing it may seem counter-intuitive that the two men would have such a positive position on events that had as one of its outcomes an expanding unified American capitalist state. A unified capitalist state which ultimately led the vanguard political and military actions against the followers of Marx and Engels in the 20th century in such places as Russia, China, Cuba and Vietnam. The pair were however driven in their views on revolutionary politics by a theory of historical materialism which placed support of any particular actions in the context of whether they drove the class struggle toward human emancipation forward. So while the task of a unified capitalist state was supportable alone on historical grounds in the United States of the 1860s (as was their qualified support for German unification later in the decade) the key to their support was the overthrow of the more backward slave labor system in one part of the country (aided by those who thrived on the results of that system like the Cotton Whigs in the North) in order to allow the new then progressive capitalist system to thrive.       


In the age of advanced imperialist society today, of which the United States is currently the prime example, and villain, we find that we are, unlike Marx and Engels, almost always negative about capitalism’s role in world politics. And we are always harping on the need to overthrow the system in order to bring forth a new socialist reconstruction of society. Thus one could be excused for forgetting that at earlier points in history capitalism played a progressive role. A role that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and other leading Marxists, if not applauded, then at least understood represented human progress. Of course, one does not expect everyone to be a historical materialist and therefore know that in the Marxist scheme of things both the struggle to bring America under a unitary state that would create a national capitalist market by virtue of a Union victory and the historically more important struggle to abolish slavery that turned out to be a necessary outcome of that Union struggle were progressive in the eyes of our forebears, and our eyes too.


Furthermore few know about the fact that the small number of Marxist supporters in the United States during that Civil period, and the greater German immigrant communities here that where spawned when radicals were force to flee Europe with the failure of the German revolutions of 1848 were mostly fervent supporters of the Union side in the conflict. Some of them called the “Red Republicans” and “Red 48ers” formed an early experienced military cadre in the then fledgling Union armies. Below is a short sketch drawn on the effect that these hardened foreign –born abolitionists had on some of the raw recruits who showed up in their regiments and brigades during those hard four years of fighting, the last year of which we are commemorating this month.


As he looked for the millionth time at the photograph in the heart-shaped locket presented to him by Miss Lucinda Mason which he kept in his blue shirt pocket when not viewing Wilhelm Sorge thought about what hell and damnation had brought him in the year of our lord 1863 to be standing alongside of this godforsaken road headed toward Gettysburg. A long dusty road filled with sweating blue uniformed men, sweating to  high stink white men that hot sultry summer day, filled with sweating horse and dust creating artillery carriages, a few the bore the markings of James Smith & Company, Boston a place where he had worked before enlisting in this blue-coated army several months before. At least the War Department would have no cause to investigate James Smith for “shoddy,” work, for cannon the wrong size for the canisters at hand, like those at the Lynn foundry of Harrison and Barnes who took the money and ran for the west from what he had heard. Or for thread bare uniforms which hardly lasted a worthy march or the horrible worm-infested rations. Those Smith markings though made his think forlornly of the events of the previous year, a year filled with thoughts of love more than thoughts of war, but a year where those thoughts of love became enmeshed with thoughts of war. As his father Friedrich, now practically a recruiting agent for Old Abe, not only among the Germans in Boston but out in the Midwest, Wisconsin and Ohio, some in Chicago, and among the German settlers in “secesh” Texas, “such are the times.” Thoughts too of how he was corralled into enlisting his services in the Army of the Potomac, and now assigned through the vagaries of war and necessity to the 20th Massachusetts Regiment, the one formed up by the grandees at Harvard, or maybe formed by the grandees but their sons were doing the bleeding, and not bitching about it either which surprised since their papas had plenty of currency to get a “substitute” for junior, but no, the juniors were volunteering and not crying about it. Which had the effect on Wilhelm of toning down his complains about being dragooned into service. Yeah, the 20th had taken it fair share of beatings, had taken several beatings along the road south and as they headed north was being filled up these days, like lots of regiments who had seen action and had been decimated necessitating the consolidation of some regiments by anybody who could carry a rifle, or think about carrying a rifle.        


And, no for the millionth time no, Wilhelm Sorge had not become some great believer in “high abolitionism,” some Captain John Brown vision of slaves freed by servile insurrection launched at benighted Harper’s Ferry, like his father, Friedrich, or like Lucinda’s father Abbott. Nor had he changed his enraged mind about the tough fate of Sanborne and Son, cotton merchants, who had gone out of business when Southern cotton bales stopped piling up in their warehouses on the Boston docks due to the Union embargo (and the British refusal to seriously run the blockade leaving it to swashing-buckling Southern privateers and freebooters to give the Union admirals pause) they had had to let Wilhelm go. Nor, damn, double damn nor had he gotten used to the idea of Negro sweats and that body stink that offended his very being (although truth to tell he was now wary of white men, clean white Harvard men too, who were sweating up a storm just now on this road north. Hell, a couple of times when there was no undefended river or nothing more than a scum-filled pond he hated his own smell).


No, what had gotten Wilhelm’s dander up, what had turned him from a passive, or better, indifference Union man, although no doughface, was the fact that the Confederacy, those states that had wished to be free to form their own country in the South and he wished well, had made a serious error in judgment, Wilhelm’s judgment. They, in order to break out of what appeared to be an “anaconda” strategy, a Union strategy created to encircle and shrink their land mass, to squeeze the life out of their homeland by attrition had decided to bring the war north, to scare the wits out of Northerners enough to have many on the sideline like Wilhelm arguing for the Union government to sue for peace and a return to the status quo. The Rebs had erred when they decided to bring old Massa Linchink (that was the way the Negro sutlers said it and he picked the up words in mockery like he had with the free blacks who worked the Sanborne warehouses with their Massa this and that) to his knees, bring his father’s (and Lucinda’s too) way of life down. That possibility got to him more than a little.


Those thoughts all counted for a lot of Wilhelm’s thinking, no question, he was his father’s son in his interest in politics if not in activism, any activism. But what really brought Wilhelm to this ironic Pennsylvania crossroad, what had made him walk slowly down to Tremont Street and the Union recruiting office, what made him get on that train south to the encampments before Washington, what made him endure weeks of early morning rises, awful food, hours of drill, and plenty of extra duty when some surly drill sergeant did not like the cut of his jaw was that young woman looking back at him in that heart-shaped locket, Lucinda Mason. 


Lucinda had made it clear at that last Union League dance to raise funds for the Sanitation Department which had been overwhelmed with the mass casualties and the grievous wounds coming into the rear hospitals (and in DC for the most serious long-term wounded)  clear as day, that if one German-American young man did not have the “guts” (she had actually used that unladylike word) to fight for the Union (and to abolish slavery although she did not press that issue with him) like her brothers and cousins when Johnny Reb was on the march then Wilhelm Sorge could go right back to Cologne, or Berlin, or wherever his family had come from. He had half-heartedly argued that he had no fight with Johnny Reb, had no desire to free the ill-gotten slaves and no desire to lose life or limb for Old Abe or any new president either. That “no desire to lose life or limb” comment got the coldest stare that he had ever received from Miss Lucinda Mason. Since we already know from the million look heart-shaped locket and the dusty road he found himself on that Wilhelm Sorge was crazy about Miss Lucinda Mason and had done his duty the very next day once he knew the writing was on the wall. Just then as his surly sergeant started toward him with God knows what assignment and as he put his treasure in the left shirt pocket we know exactly why Wilhelm was standing looking at her locket on that dusty old road.     


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