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  • From the Rhine to the MississippiProperty, Democracy, and Socialism in the American Civil War
  • Andrew Zimmerman (bio)

From within the common national, gradualist, and liberal narrative of emancipation, Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont’s August 30, 1861, proclamation freeing all the slaves of disloyal Missourians appears as a recklessly premature step threatening to derail the progress of freedom in the United States.1 Frémont’s proclamation, however, was not simply a misstep in the national process of legislating emancipation. Rather, it reflected, and perhaps attempted to justify, extralegal processes of emancipation already taking place in the trans-Mississippi West. These were the self-emancipatory efforts of slaves, the ongoing antislavery guerrilla warfare of Kansas Jayhawkers, and the military strategies of European, especially German, revolutionary socialists. This essay focuses only on the last group, the European socialists, to highlight how the Civil War, arguably the central turning point in U.S. history, was also an important episode in a larger revolutionary drama pitting plebian proponents of democracy against concentrations of wealth, whether of slaveholders or of capitalists, and also against concentrations of elite power in the limited, liberal state.

Revolutionary émigrés gave Frémont’s command much of its political character. Anyone taking command in Missouri in 1861 would have had to work with foreign-born soldiers and officers, but Frémont sought out European commanders with revolutionary backgrounds.2 On his way to assume command in Missouri, Frémont traveled through New York City, both to purchase weapons and supplies and also to recruit as his chief of staff one of the great revolutionary exiles living in that city, Alexander Asboth (originally Sándor Asbóth), as well as a number of other Hungarian and Italian officers. Asboth was one of the many Hungarian revolutionaries who accompanied Louis Kossuth to the United States in 1851. In Missouri, Frémont collaborated with many more revolutionary émigrés, most prominently the German Franz Sigel. Sigel and Asboth had already worked together on revolutionary military affairs, jointly purchasing a bulk order of percussion caps from an arms dealer in New York in 1852, [End Page 3] presumably to send back to comrades in Europe. Frémont also offered a place on his staff to the Irish Fenian Thomas Francis Meager, who evidently did not accept the position.3 When Frémont later commanded in Virginia, he brought along many members of his Missouri staff and added Gustave Paul Cluseret, a well-known French revolutionary who would later serve with distinction in the Paris Commune.4 Frémont did not neglect the native-born, and among his numerous aides-de-camp were three antislavery radicals from Congress: Owen Lovejoy of Illinois, John A. Gurley of Ohio, and John P. C. Shanks of Indiana.5

Frémont’s successor as commander of Western Department, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, like most subsequent conservative commanders in Missouri, sought to contain radicalism as a narrow foreign doctrine, born of political naiveté, ethnic pride, un-American political ideas, and military incompetence. Too often, historians have echoed these politically motivated judgments rather than analyzing the political and strategic conflicts out of which they emerged. In Missouri, these conflicts proceeded from the incompatibility of the socialist strategies that German émigrés brought to the war with the liberal support for private property, including private property in human beings, common to much of the native-born Union leadership.

The relationship of the German 1848–49 revolutions to the American Civil War has been a subject of historiographical and political debate since the war itself. This essay builds on this literature but also departs from it in three ways. First, it argues that the revolutions of ‘48–49 raised strategic problems rather than, as is often suggested, imparted a relatively static ideological legacy to the United States.6 Second, it identifies these strategic problems as issues not of liberalism and nationalism but rather of socialist revolution, and, particularly, the relationship between war and the transformation of existing property relations—precisely the central strategic question of the American Civil War.7 Finally, it emphasizes that this strategic background not only made revolutionary refugees especially enthusiastic enlistees in the Union...


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