June 8, 2011 — One hundred-fifty years after it started, the Civil War is still a topic of fierce debate.
Gary Gallagher, John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, has added to the controversy with his book, "The Union War" (published in April by Harvard University Press), in which he maintains the forces of the North fought primarily to preserve the Union, and that abolishing slavery was merely one of the means to achieve that goal.
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"Contemporary Americans don't understand what 'Union' meant to the people who supported it," he said. "We've lost any real sense of what it meant to them. It was the promise of a nation bequeathed to them by the previous generation."
Gallagher, 60, who has taught history at the University since 1998 and has written seven books on the conflict, knew his premise would not be universally acclaimed.
Indeed, renowned historian Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and author of "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery," took issue with Gallagher in a review of "The Union War" in The New York Times.
"Gallagher devotes many pages – too many in a book of modest length – to critiques of recent Civil War scholars, whom he accuses of exaggerating the importance of slavery in the conflict and the contribution of black soldiers to Union victory," Foner wrote. "Often, his complaint seems to be that another historian did not write the book he would have written."
But Jonathan Yardley, writing a review in the Washington Post, came to Gallagher's defense.
"Gallagher," he wrote, "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.'"
Gallagher understands he will not be able to persuade all his readers.
"Some will be convinced, others will not," he said. "I have no illusions about being able to persuade everyone."
The North's dream of America was at risk, Gallagher said. While the U.S. did not allow blacks and women to vote, the individual person had more to say in the politics of the nation than in any other nation in the world at the time. People were not bound by divisions of economic class, as they had been in Europe. He said the Union supporters believed in American exceptionalism and, even during the war, people continued to immigrate to America to be part of the noble experiment.
"To those who believed strongly in the importance of the Union, everything was up in the air because of the war," Gallagher said. "They believed the whole thing could go down the drain. For these people, what was at risk were the very democratic institutions of the nation."
While there were people who opposed slavery, he said the majority of the Union forces embraced the idea that the Union itself was important and abolition of slavery was merely removing a future threat to that Union.
"To Lincoln, the emancipation proclamation was a war measure," Gallagher said. "It was not written in the beautifully wrought prose of the second inaugural address. He presented it to the loyal population as something that would help them defeat the rebels."
The people of the 1860s understood the promise and the potential of the American experiment, Gallagher said.
"Why would someone from Vermont care if South Carolina seceded from the Union?" Gallagher said. "It mattered because they wanted to preserve the union. What happened in the war affected everyone. The West was important in the coming of the war."
Gallagher reached his conclusions about the attitudes and motivations of the participants by researching new materials, including unpublished manuscripts in the University's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, and reviewing published material with a new perspective. In re-evaluating existing documents and texts, a change in interpretation was not always obvious.
"Sometimes it is immediately apparent, other times an insight comes more slowly," he said.
It seems now that there was an inevitability in a Union victory because of advantages of manpower and manufacturing. But Gallagher disagrees.
"The Confederacy had a chance to win," he said. "Many people believe the Confederacy had better generals – usually because they look at Lee and Jackson and compare them to unsuccessful Union commanders such as McClellan, Burnside and Hooker. But the Union generals in the West such as Grant, Sherman, Thomas and Sheridan were better than their Confederate opponents, and overall the Union ended up with a greater number of talented army commanders."
As a boy in Colorado Gallagher's own fascination with the Civil War started with the battles and the generals, but later expanded to include that entire period of history.
"I loved the books of Bruce Catton," he said. "The more I found out, the more interested I became."
The Civil War still fascinates Gallagher, in part because it determined everything that followed it.
"If you don't understand the Civil War, you don't understand U.S. history," Gallagher said. "All the issues that percolated down later, such as citizenship and the relationship between the states and federal government, came out of the Civil War."
Gallagher laments that people today have apparently lost touch with this history.
"I would be surprised if half the people could put the Civil War in the right century," he said. "It is distressing. Having some sense of the past is important to be a good citizen."
He said failure to understand the past lends an exaggerated tone to discussions of current crises.
"Commentators today say, 'We've never been more divided,' and I can assure you we have been more divided," Gallagher said. "We've dealt with many different things in the past. We've experienced depressions before. Understanding history gives a little perspective."