Monday, May 9, 2011

Gary W. Gallagher's The Union War

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

At long last my much promised look at Gary W. Gallagher's latest, The Union War. If you recall, a few months back I met with Gary and briefly discussed this volume. As you probably guessed, The Union War is a Companion piece to his 1997 publication, The Confederate War, in which Gallagher argues persuasively that the rebs did not pursue the war knowingly against impossible odds. They thought they could win, almost did on more than one occasion, and in the end...held on as long as they possibly could.

In The Union War, Gallagher argues against today's preoccupation with emancipation as the only noble and worthy Union cause. This, he offers, obscures the importance of Union for the wartime generation. The overriding motive for North was restoration of Union, not emancipation.

Now, I think it is safe to say that Americans today want the war to be about emancipation. But as Gallagher points out, even though Union soldiers knew that slavery was the war's cause, only a tiny fraction of the white northern populace hoped to use the war to eradicate the institution. The freeing of slaves, a reality as the Union armies maneuvered in Confederate territory, worked generally as a means to undermine the Rebel war effort. Thus, as a means to preserve the Union.

Detractors have, and will, argue - as has Eric Foner - that The Union War places undue emphasis on the Union Army's role in emancipation. One could indeed question exactly what kind of Union the war was being fought to preserve - and that slavery, the most troubling issue on the table in 1860, was foremost on the minds of the party in power. Unwilling to bend on the prevention of slavery's expansion into the western territories and even with gradual emancipation up for discussion, the waging of war against the seceding states had to mean that a new vision of Union - free from slavery - must have been a principle motivating factor - indeed the only "noble" one, considering that a Union with slavery intact seemed morally reprehensible to the beacon of democracy. After all, Lincoln could have easily preserved the Union by giving in to southern demands in 1861, which he did not.

Now Gallagher admits that emancipation became, as the war progressed, a viable solution to the problem of which would have been unnecessary had the war reached its conclusion with Union victory in 1862. But with all of this in mind he reminds us that "Union" has lost its meaning to modern observers. In the 1860s, loyal United States citizens embraced Union above all as paramount - the defining word of American exceptionalism. And so The Union War - using letters, newspapers, and diaries - reviews the centrality of Union in the mid-nineteenth century - a centrality that motivated millions of loyal citizens to rally around the banner...and save the best hope for democracy in the world.

Of course, after the war - as Gallagher mentions - the nobility of emancipation became increasingly popular, at times mirroring the celebration of Union. But this, as I have pointed out ad nauseum (and it seems that Gallagher agrees) was part of a moralizing self-righteousness that swept the nation in the postwar years. During the war, emancipation punished the enemy - in peace, it punished the vanquished.




  1. I can look at northern monuments and see they were fighting to preserve the Union. They say it over and over. I know you have pointed to some monuments that speak of emancipation, but was that the norm?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Richard. Yes - northern monument primarily note the preservation of Union. Occasionally, you will find one that commemorates emancipation as well, like the towers on Ben Franklin Parkway in Philly. I am particularly interested, however, in speeches delivered at monument dedications. If you look at these, you will see that emancipation was widely celebrated after the war. In many cases, put on an equal plain with Union. This was a postwar phenomenon, however. During the war, Union was clearly the motivating factor for citizen soldiers to enlist and continue the fight through four bloody years.

  3. That is true of those who reenlisted and served through the war. It does no disrespect to the memory of the Union Army, however, to remember that many went home after their initial enlistments ended and that many others appear to have joined primarily for money, if the huge bounties offered in the second half of the war are any indication. In my research I am looking at late-war Union soldiers and it seems that practical concerns often outweighed ideologies. These men were no less important, however. In fact, one Union officer estimated that 80% of the men in the Army of the Potomac marching in the Grand Review in May 1865 had been in the service for less than a year. At least in the eastern theater of the war, where casualties were the highest, the soldier who made it through all four years in one piece was a rare fellow.

  4. [...] Gary W. Gallagher's The Union War | Cosmic America [...]

  5. [...] as historian Gary Gallagher has recently pointed out in his book The Union War, has somewhat faded from our understanding of why northern soldiers flocked to the colors. Why, we [...]