Many historians who specialize in other periods of U.S. history regard the Civil War as the bastion of antiquarians. Their irritation is inflamed by the public’s unending fascination with the war, reflected in the impressive sales figures for academic studies in the field (which swamp those of books in other domains of history) and in the tendency of ordinary Americans to ask historians questions about Chancellorsville rather than their own work.
So it is surprising that leading Civil War historian Gary W. Gallagher, in his book The Union War, gives aid and comfort to his scholarly enemies by launching his own attack on other specialists in the Civil War era. A professor of history at the University of Virginia, Gallagher has been an establishment stalwart. He is the editor of a respected series on significant Civil War battles and campaigns; author of a number of books on the conflict and its cultural legacies, including The Confederate War (1997); and a mentor to many of the field’s most prominent young scholars.
The premise of The Union War is simple: Preserving the Union, rather than abolishing slavery, “remained the paramount goal” for the North. Recent generations of Civil War scholars have completely missed the boat, Gallagher argues. In their quest to resurrect the reputations of abolitionists, emancipationists, and “Radical” Republicans—that is, folks whose values seem more in accord with our own—and uncover the agency of American slaves, they have marginalized the central actors in the great drama, sullied the federal government and its representatives with charges of racism, and completely misread the social cum political cum cultural milieu of the 1860s. He rightly castigates historians of the Civil War who treat it as “a drama largely devoid of armies, battles, and generals,” blaming this omission on a “dismissive attitude” toward military history cultivated by many in the larger historical profession.
This is heady stuff. And yet The Union War is frequently marred by a lack of analytical subtlety. Gallagher tends to depict scholarly disagreements over points of emphasis as intractable—and mutually exclusive—conclusions. In the 1970s, Gallagher writes, historians began a “massive re-evaluation” of the war that placed emancipation and black military participation at the center of the Union war. In time, a new “overarching consensus” emerged that to understand the Civil War, one had not only to start with slavery, but to treat slaves as important historical actors. There are some grounds to quibble with Gallagher here, but this is a fair summation of the field’s evolution. Not so his conclusion, which is that modern histories distort the war when they propose “the emergence of emancipation as an overriding Northern goal.”
In mounting this argument, Gallagher flattens out the complicated motives of loyal Northerners, and pays insufficient attention to change over time. There is no doubt that the preservation of the Union was important at the war’s onset. But what kind of Union? Harper’s Weekly editorialized as early as May 1861, “Whatever may be the intentions of the Government, the practical effect of a war in the Southern States, waged by Northern against Southern men, must be to liberate the slaves. This should be well understood.” Gallagher is correct to remind us that many Northerners at the time did not understand the war as a march toward universal liberty, that the course of the war was not predetermined, and that many advances in civil rights for African Americans emerged only because Andrew Johnson’s disastrous Reconstruction policies transformed moderate Republicans into “radicals.” But to insist that a static “Union” should supplant emancipation as the war’s defining feature is precipitous.
By its end, The Union War strikes the reader as idiosyncratic and tendentious, by turns incisive, stubborn, and retrograde. Gallagher’s pointed reminders can be forceful and some hit the mark precisely. More often, however, his analysis and angst not only seem misplaced, but unnecessary. Few specialists would deny that “union” mattered—just as Gallagher frequently concedes the centrality of slavery (and its abolition) to the Civil War era. It’s a question of emphasis—and in his insistence that the only way to study the period is to recapture the notion of the Union that appealed to many Northerners, Gallagher marginalizes the new research questions, methods, and outlooks that define the historian’s craft.