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Even one hundred and fifty years later, we are haunted by the Civil War—by its division, its bloodshed, and perhaps, above all, by its origins. Today, many believe that the war was fought over slavery. This answer satisfies our contemporary sense of justice, but as Gary Gallagher shows in this brilliant revisionist history, it is an anachronistic judgment.
In a searing analysis of the Civil War North as revealed in contemporary letters, diaries, and documents, Gallagher demonstrates that what motivated the North to go to war and persist in an increasingly bloody effort was primarily preservation of the Union. Devotion to the Union bonded nineteenth-century Americans in the North and West against a slaveholding aristocracy in the South and a Europe that seemed destined for oligarchy. Northerners believed they were fighting to save the republic, and with it the world’s best hope for democracy.
Once we understand the centrality of union, we can in turn appreciate the force that made northern victory possible: the citizen-soldier. Gallagher reveals how the massive volunteer army of the North fought to confirm American exceptionalism by salvaging the Union. Contemporary concerns have distorted the reality of nineteenth-century Americans, who embraced emancipation primarily to punish secessionists and remove slavery as a future threat to union—goals that emerged in the process of war. As Gallagher recovers why and how the Civil War was fought, we gain a more honest understanding of why and how it was won.
This exceptionally fine book is in effect a companion piece to its author's The Confederate War, published in 1997... Now, in The Union War, Gallagher is back to take issue with what has become the new conventional wisdom, that the North fought the war in order to achieve the emancipation of the slaves. While welcoming the post-civil-rights-era emphasis on "slavery, emancipation, and the actions of black people, unfairly marginalized for decades in writings about the conflict," Gallagher makes a very strong case—in my view a virtually irrefutable one—that the overriding motive in the North was preservation of the Union...Gallagher, who holds a distinguished professorship in history at the University of Virginia, is far more interested in pursuing historical truth than in massaging whatever praiseworthy sentiments he may harbor on race, gender, class or anything else. He knows that for the historian the central obligation is to understand and interpret the past, not to judge it. This is what he has done, to exemplary effect, in The Union War. I suspect that one of his motives in writing it may have been to remind us of what a precious thing our Union is, a Union that we have come to take for granted. Fighting for its preservation was a noble thing, in and of itself.
— Jonathan Yardley
Gary Gallagher, a Civil War historian at the University of Virginia, aims to recover an antebellum understanding of the Civil War. In his new book, The Union War, Gallagher argues that Northerners actually went to war to support the abstract idea of "Union"—a political idea, he writes, whose "meaning has been almost completely effaced" from our modern political consciousness.
— Josh Rothman
In The Union War, Gallagher offers not so much a history of wartime patriotism as a series of meditations on the meaning of the Union to Northerners, the role of slavery in the conflict and how historians have interpreted (and in his view misinterpreted) these matters...At a time when only half the population bothers to vote and many Americans hold their elected representatives in contempt, Gallagher offers a salutary reminder of the power of democratic ideals not simply to Northerners in the era of the Civil War, but also to people in other nations, who celebrated the Union victory as a harbinger of greater rights for themselves. Imaginatively invoking sources neglected by other scholars—wartime songs, patriotic images on mailing envelopes and in illustrated publications, and regimental histories written during and immediately after the conflict—Gallagher gives a dramatic portrait of the power of wartime nationalism.
— Eric Foner
While mindful of slavery's complex and deleterious role in fomenting disunion, Gallagher emphasizes the centrality of Northerners' devotion to the idea of the Union of their grandparents and their parents...Historians who stress emancipation over Union, Gallagher insists, miss the realities of antebellum inequalities based on class, gender and race...Gallagher's great contribution lies in contextualizing and underscoring the broad meaning of the Union, and later emancipation, to Northerners.
— John David Smith
Gallagher, one of the nation's preeminent Civil War scholars and a professor at the University of Virginia, deals in his latest book of the question of why did the North fight? His answer is in the volume's first sentence: The loyal American citizenry fought a war for Union that also killed slavery. This fast-paced review of the controversies that civil war historians have been arguing about is opinionated, well-informed, provocative and just the thing any American history buff needs to read this spring as our country gears up for the sesquicentennial of the conflict that made the United States begin to live up to the Declaration's words that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."
— Karl Rove
Gallagher recaptures the meaning of Union to the generation that fought for it. He rescues the "Cause" for which they fought from modern historians who maintain that the abolition of slavery was the only achievement of the Civil War that justified all that death and destruction...He makes his point with force and clarity.
— James M. McPherson
Bold, fast-paced, and provocative...The Union War offers a searing critique of what Gallagher terms anachronistic scholarship that privileges emancipation and the agency of African-Americans during the war over loyal citizens' commitment to the concept of a perpetual Union. Accusing historians of allowing "modern sensibilities" to skew their "view of how participants of a distant era understood the war," Gallagher finds, not surprisingly, that their scholarship exposes "the many ways in which wartime Northerners fell short of later standards of acceptable thought and behavior."...Gallagher reminds us of the centrality and importance of the Union to the war that forever ended serious threats of secession and racial slavery.
— John David Smith
[An] important work.
— Lawton Posey
This slender volume offers a convincing demonstration of what motivated most white U.S. citizens during the Civil War. Theirs was not a quest to end slavery, although emancipation became a vital tactic in the epic conflict...Gallagher shows that participants fought to save a political arrangement they considered sacred, and begrudgingly supported emancipation as the best way to bring the secessionist serpent to heel.
— E. R. Crowther
1 The Grand Review 7
2 Union 33
3 Emancipation 75
4 The Armies 119
5 Affirmation 151