The Chronicle Review

Civil War History: an Intervention

Gary Gallagher's 'The Union War'

The Granger Collection

Battery A of the 2nd U.S. Colored Artillery, circa 1863. A new book about Civil War historiography says it was Northern citizens' commitment to the idea of a perpetual Union, far more than the cause of emancipation, that led them to see the war through to victory.
June 19, 2011

In 1997, in The Confederate War (Harvard University Press), the historian Gary W. Gallagher argued that contemporary scholars erred in ascribing Confederate defeat to questions of race, class, and gender, and especially to discontent on the home front and ambivalence over slavery's morality. Gallagher, one of the nation's pre-eminent Civil War specialists, marveled not at Confederate weakness but rather at how the outmanned and outgunned Southerners sustained nationalism and popular will as long as they did. "The Confederate military," he concluded, "ultimately proved unable to win enough victories at crucial times to carry their nation to independence." Historians' propensity to emphasize internal Southern weakness, he maintained, resulted "from an understandable tendency to work backward from the war's outcome in search of explanations for Confederate failure."

Just as Gallagher judged historians off track regarding Confederate defeat, he now considers them derailed on the question of what mattered most to victorious Northerners—the concept of the Union. Writing recently on a New York Times blog, Gallagher remarks that "as we approach the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the meaning of Union to mid-19th-century Americans has been almost completely lost. Americans today find it hard to believe that anyone would risk life or fortune for something as abstract as Union. A war to end slavery seems more compelling, the sort of war envisioned in the film Glory."

Mindful of the importance of African-Americans in the military, political, and social history of the Civil War, Gallagher nonetheless insists that "a concentration on emancipation and race sometimes suggests that Union victory had scant meaning apart from them."

"Without an appreciation of why loyal citizens believed a Union that guaranteed democratic self-government was worth great sacrifice, no accurate understanding of the Civil War era is possible. A sesquicentennial that fails to make this clear will have failed in a fundamental way."

Gallagher develops this argument in his bold, fast-paced, and provocative The Union War, a work that in its revisionist historiographical tone parallels his earlier book. Recently published by Harvard, 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."

"Can we criticize the North's Civil War generation for not envisioning what the nation has become?" he asks.

Gallagher takes aim at numerous noted historians, including Orville Vernon Burton, Walter A. McDougall, and David Williams, for undervaluing the seriousness and importance of the concept of the Union to the wartime generation, for emphasizing antebellum America's class and racial shortcomings, for overstating Americans' self-interest, and for condemning America for inequality. According to Gallagher, such historians dismiss the notion of American exceptionalism that President Abraham Lincoln described in December 1862, referring to the Union, then mired in a bloody civil war, as "the last, best hope of earth."

Recent scholars, Gallagher insists, also have erred seriously by distorting emancipation's place in the war's grand narrative. He recognizes that most loyal Union soldiers held slavery responsible for the war but points out that they generally considered emancipation "as a means to achieve and uphold Union." Lincoln's government pursued emancipation as a necessary tool of preserving the Union rather than as an end in itself. Gallagher considers the transformation of the war into what the historian Robert Eno Hunt terms "an emancipation event—an interpretation made necessary by the civil-rights generation" to be unfortunate, "part of a cultural imperative to frame a more expansive view of race in the United States around black people as agents of their own improvement." While illuminating many neglected aspects of the war, the emphasis on race has created its own distortion, The Union War argues.

The author says historians since the 1970s have gone astray in transforming emancipation into "the second grand goal" of the conflict when, in fact, most citizen-soldiers never considered freeing the slaves a principal aim. The fact that the war ended slavery and set the nation on the road to the modern civil-rights movement has infused the Civil War story with the fallacious notion that emancipation was an inevitable result of Union victory, Gallagher maintains.

Scholars, he writes, have also slighted the importance of the U.S. military's role in the war. The army, he insists, constituted "a national institution of unmatched reach and influence, an expression of a free society's reliance on citizen-soldiers, and the principal instrument wielded to salvage and safeguard the Founders' constitutional handiwork." Gallagher takes special umbrage at historians' treatment of the army's contribution to emancipation. The army in fact "determined how and where freedom arrived in the Confederacy"; by providing opportunities for slaves to escape, it shaped "the geography of emancipation." By the spring of 1865, the army had facilitated the escape of perhaps as many as one-seventh of the Confederacy's slaves. "First came Union armies," Gallagher insists, "followed by a swelling migration of enslaved people from farms and plantations to lines held by the invading Yankees."

Without diminishing the contributions of African-Americans, Lincoln, and Congress in staging the drama of emancipation, Gallagher argues that "without the United States Army, none of the other actors could have succeeded on a broad scale. No matter how desperately slaves wanted to be free ... the chance for successful escape was negligible unless Union military forces had reached their area."

Gallagher singles out three influential scholars—James M. McPherson, Ira Berlin, and Leslie S. Rowland—for influencing the "odd way" that recent historians have interpreted wartime emancipation. McPherson is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom (1988); Berlin established the University of Maryland's Freedmen and Southern Society Project in 1976 and assembled a team of talented editors; Rowland now directs the project, which has published five important collections that document the emancipation process.

They are among the scholars whom Gallagher identifies as celebrating the notion of "self-emancipation"—that the slaves themselves forced Lincoln and Congress to adopt emancipation. Others maintain that Lincoln should receive much credit for liberating the South's bondsmen and women. "Advocates of different positions regarding how to apportion credit for emancipation typically mention the importance of the Union army," Gallagher complains, "and then ignore it in the bulk of their analysis."

He seeks to contextualize the story. Emancipation resulted from a series of policy changes forced upon Lincoln's government as the Confederates' insurrection dragged on, in what Gallagher terms an "emancipation-related contingency" that "provided a powerful impetus to emancipation and the ancillary enrollment of African-American soldiers." Emancipation and the recruitment of black troops were byproducts of stiffened Rebel resistance. As Lincoln had warned border-state representatives in July 1862, the longer the war persisted, the more slavery, their "peculiar institution," would "be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion—by the mere incidents of the war."

Gallagher also faults historians, including such noteworthies as Edward J. Blum, Michael W. Fitzgerald, Eric Foner, and Kenneth M. Stampp, for interpreting Radical Reconstruction following the war as a "lost moment," an "unfinished revolution," a missed opportunity to attain true racial equality by delivering on the promises of the Reconstruction-era constitutional amendments. While cognizant of the veil of racism that shrouded the nation from the late 19th to well past the mid-20th century, Gallagher nevertheless emphasizes the significant racial progress Americans achieved between 1860 and 1880. "Far from a lost moment," he explains, "the era of Reconstruction represented a rather miraculous period that yielded essential improvements to the Constitution that would have been unthinkable except as an outgrowth of the war." The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments signified "unequivocal evidence of the transformative power of a massive military event."


Gallagher correctly identifies a consensus in recent Civil War historiography that devotes considerable attention to the experiences of slaves, to black agency and self-emancipation, and to the recruitment and service of the United States Colored Troops. Before McPherson's groundbreaking scholarship on abolitionist and civil-rights activism during and after the Civil War, and the stunning documentary histories edited by Berlin, Rowland, and their colleagues, only a handful of scholars, generally black, integrated the actions of African-Americans into the grand Civil War narrative. W.E.B. Du Bois's magisterial but unfortunately undervalued Black Reconstruction (1935) represents this genre most powerfully. But have recent scholars exaggerated emancipation as both a component and byproduct of Confederate defeat at the expense of the war as the savior of the Union? Not to the extent that Gallagher suggests.

Today's historians, like Lincoln 150 years ago, understand the vital nexus between Union and emancipation. Late in the war, for example, when Union victory remained in doubt, Lincoln rejected proposals for a negotiated peace that would have abandoned emancipation and the use of African-Americans as soldiers. He explained that his government fought "for the sole avowed object of preserving our Union; and it is not true that it has since been, or will be, prossecuted [sic] by this administration, for any other object." That said, Lincoln likened African-American soldiers, sailors, and laborers to the "physical force" of steam or horsepower. "Keep it and you can save the Union," the president remarked. "Throw it away and the Union goes with it."

In 1985, in The Destruction of Slavery, Berlin and his editorial team summarized their "self-emancipation" thesis. "Over the course of the ... war," they explained, "the slaves' insistence that their own enslavement was the root of the conflict—and that a war for the Union must necessarily be a war for freedom—strengthened their friends and weakened their enemies." African-Americans' determination to be free convinced Northerners "to make property into persons, to make slaves into soldiers, and, in time, to make all black people into citizens." Over time, even white Southerners, too, "came to understand the link between national union and universal liberty."

Nine years later, asking "Who Freed the Slaves?" McPherson answered by gently critiquing the self-emancipation argument. "By coming into Union lines, by withdrawing their labor from Confederate owners, by working for the Union army and fighting as soldiers in it," he acknowledged, "slaves did play an active part in achieving their own freedom and, for that matter, in preserving the Union." That said, McPherson argued, those who credited the slaves with freeing themselves risked undervaluing Lincoln's contribution (and presumably that of the Union army) to the emancipation experience.

Anticipating Gallagher's argument, he pointed to the direct relationship between Union military success and emancipation. Instead of the slaves' freeing themselves, McPherson maintained, Union troops, or the presence of Union troops, had liberated them. "Freedom," then, "quite literally came from the barrel of a gun." And because the president, as commander in chief, had overseen an army of liberators, "Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves."

In fact, McPherson drew on Berlin's own The Destruction of Slavery in pointing out the direct relationship between Union military success and emancipation. "Indeed," Berlin had explained, "any Union retreat could reverse the process of liberation and throw men and women who had tasted freedom back into bondage."

As to Gallagher's other criticism, contemporary historians probably do understate the symbolic importance that Northerners accorded to keeping the Union of their fathers and grandfathers intact­—­­the Revolution-era battlefields and patriot graves Lincoln mentioned in his First Inaugural Address. But it is less a question of ignoring the importance of the Union than assuming it. After all, McPherson based his invaluable studies of why Union and Confederate soldiers went to war on documents showing how both Northerners and Southerners saw themselves as custodians of the legacy of 1776.

Scholars take for granted that for the North, the war began as a constitutional struggle to suppress rebellion and to retain the federal government's sovereignty. They acknowledge that liberty and Union mattered to loyal citizens, and that emancipation and the recruitment of African-American soldiers gradually became essential weapons in the Union army's arsenal. "In time," Ira Berlin observes in a chapter in the 1997 book Union & Emancipation (Kent State University Press), "it became evident to even the most obtuse Federal commanders that every slave who crossed into Union lines was a double gain: One subtracted from the Confederacy and one added to the Union." As Gallagher makes clear, Union troops often were the gatekeepers for escaped slaves and, despite their racial bias, most came to understand (if not fully to appreciate) emancipation as necessary to squashing disunion. Historians today, however, generally interweave questions of Union, the military, race, and "black agency" more successfully and with more nuance than Gallagher suggests.

While often impatient with Americans in the era of Reconstruction—and prone to impose present-day notions of the meaning and power of race, class, and gender on them—historians also generally offer more-balanced analyses of that period than Gallagher observes. They understand the huge transformation, as well as the lost opportunities, that Reconstruction wrought for Northerners, Southerners, and Westerners, for whites, blacks, and Native Americans. Almost a half-century ago—in the midst of the civil-rights revolution—Kenneth Stampp acknowledged the "Radical idealism" that sparked the 14th and 15th Amendments. In his revisionist The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (1965), Stampp remarked, "That these amendments could not have been adopted under any other circumstances, or at any other time, before or since, may suggest the crucial importance of the Reconstruction era in American history. Indeed, without radical Reconstruction, it would be impossible to this day for the federal government to protect Negroes from legal and political discrimination."

Gallagher's provocative book, part historiographical intervention and part interpretive history, underscores, as a reviewer of his earlier The Confederate War explained, the dangers that "knowledge of outcome impose" on the writing of history. Gallagher reminds us of the centrality and importance of the Union to the war that forever ended serious threats of secession and racial slavery. Contemporaries grasped the meaning of the Union: They generally referred to Northern forces as the "Union army" and spoke of "Union victory" over the Rebels. Today we know that African-Americans played no small part in bringing the Confederate war to an end and in defining the meaning and legacy of the Union war.

John David Smith is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His latest book, co-edited with Mark Elliott, is Undaunted Radical: The Selected Writings and Speeches of Albion W. Tourgée (Louisiana State University Press, 2010).