Friday, September 02, 2011

What We're Reading: The Union War

The Union War
by Gary W. Gallagher

The Union War is a work of academic scholarship, not a popular narrative history. This does not mean, however, that it isn’t an interesting or important book. Gallagher’s ambition is to review Civil War scholarship and popular narratives of the last thirty years or so and confront what he sees as some of the important reinterpretations of Civil War history that have occurred during that period. In particular, it has been the trend of recent Civil War history to discount the concept of “union” and the preservation of the republic as a compelling motivation for the mobilization of Northern war efforts and as a concept that had the power to sustain popular support for the prosecution of the conflict. Preserving the union has been seen as an insufficient cause for the terrible costs of the war, and it has been argued that emancipation and the ending of slavery became the compelling issue, the only one that had the meaning and moral depth to justify the bloodshed. As part of this exploration of Northern motivation, Gallagher looks at recent arguments about who was primarily responsible for emancipation. He describes how emancipation actually occurred, examining the roles of Lincoln, Congress, the slaves, and the Union Army.

The Union War might serve as a model for anyone seeking to understand what historical scholarship is all about, and why it matters (and in the process, also perhaps why libraries matter. Most of Gallagher’s research was done here locally at the Huntington Library). This is a tightly written and well argued book, having much the character of a legal brief. The author’s introduction sets out clearly the scope of what he hopes to achieve. The case is made by copious review and reference to primary source material: regimental histories, the letters and diaries of soldiers, contemporary newspaper accounts, and important political speeches. He looks at what is there, and what is not there, and finds that the idea of preserving the union was the dominant issue that had deep meaning and resonance for citizens and soldiers. It was the cause they spoke of often. They were not particularly interested in the emancipation of slaves, although they came to accept that the ending of slavery would become a necessary and proper outcome of the war to preserve the union. Gallagher reconstructs for us what the concept of “union” meant for the North, how it was a deeply motivating and pervasive symbol, and how it was connected to the national identity and the belief in American exceptionalism. Those who fought the war saw it as nothing less than a contest to determine whether or not democratic and free government was to survive in the world, a contest to decide if the American experiment would prove viable and portentous.

Gallagher’s case is convincing. There is, however, little discussion about the political fight preceding the war years. Halting the expansion of slavery into the territories was, after all, the immediate cause of secession. This would not have diminished Gallagher’s argument about the greater importance of union over emancipation as a motivating factor among those who made the choice to fight. The idea of the territories remaining free of slavery was, for most people who supported it, not as much about the freedom of African Americans as about their own freedom. The values contained in the concept of “union” as a motivation for fighting were values not confined to the present sense of national identity alone, they had a dimension where they gained an even deeper emotive meaning when citizens and soldiers envisioned what they hoped their country might be in the future. In the territory of that future, they imagined not an expansion of slavery and the slave oligarchy, but an expansion of freedom itself. The contemporary argument about slavery in the territories supports rather than diminishes Gallagher’s thesis.

One of the most important contributions of this book is the overview Gallagher gives us of the Union Army itself. We learn where the soldiers came from, who they were, why they fought, what they accomplished, and how they reintegrated themselves after the war into the national life that shaped the nation’s future. The Union Army, the force of arms, rather than decrees or proclamations, is what emancipated slaves and ended slavery. What was extraordinary for the period was that the Union Army was not a standing army, but an army of citizen soldiers, one that was conjured from everywhere in the North and gave testimony of the expanse and depth of commitment to the cause of preserving the union.

When you read The Union War you understand that the practice of history is hard. It is not an easy thing seeing people and events as they were. But it is important to get it right. If you don’t, you don’t understand what people thought and what they endured, what were their triumphs and failures. Any sense of empathy is but an imagined one when we see people who lived in the past not as others but as only less perfected versions of ourselves. There is no wisdom we can learn about the common nature that joins us. We want to be remembered for who are, not as someone imagined or hoped we might be. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers gave their lives in a terrible war. It was not a war for the end of slavery, it was a war to preserve the union, and the way to honor their lives and sacrifice is to understand what the idea of “union” meant to them. Gallagher has given us that opportunity.

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