The Union War

Article excerpt

The Union War · Gary W. Gallagher · Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 201 1 · 216 pp. · $27.95

The Union War by Gary W. Gallagher argues that white northerners fought the Civil War because they believed that the survival of the American Republic mattered for self-government everywhere and that they viewed emancipation as separate from and secondary to saving the Union. It also argues that because the Union army's citizensoldiers won the war and black military contributions were marginal, recent attention to African Americans has been exaggerated and that Union victory meant continuity, not transformation. The book is one of interpretation, not new research. Gallagher relies on ideas formed over his distinguished career, leavened with a smattering of print sources and caricatures of books he does not like. The central claim that "Citizen-soldiers had saved a democratic republic invaluable not only to its own citizens but also as an example of popular self-rule for the rest of the world" is unimpeachable, and anyone who has missed that point in the welter of recent books making it should read this book to catch up (p. 162). For readers who have been paying attention, the book facilitates conversation about the relationship between Union and emancipation and between continuity and change.

The Union War counters the modern tendency to belittle the Union cause with a forceful statement of the scholarly consensus that white northerners believed the Union's destruction would doom self-government, and then it engages in three main departures. First, according to Gallagher, white northerners never cared about slavery and only accepted emancipation as a tool kept in an airtight compartment immovably situated beneath Union in some cut-and-dried hierarchy. We might see connections, but apparently white northerners lacked the acuity to figure out that emancipation and the Union-as-world-exemplar were fundamentally linked. Certainly, most white northerners began the war privileging Union, but the increasing intertwining of "human freedom and perpetuation of our glorious union" in Gallagher's own evidence should cause readers to wonder whether his schematic division holds or if it is just a comforting way to make us feel more racially enlightened than Civil War-era Americans (p. …