Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review of The Union War, by Gary Gallagher

If one was to make a list of the top five most influential active Civil War historians, Gary Gallagher would certainly be on it. Thus, when I saw that Gallagher had a new book coming out this spring, I began looking forward to it. With The Union War, Gallagher did not dissapoint. Always persuasive, always well argued, and always relevant, Gallagher's books always manage to discuss important facets of Civil War history while addressing larger problems in the field of Civil War historians. Even if one does not agree with each point he makes (which I do not), one must respect the depth of Gallagher's arguments and the important questions they bring up.

In The Union War, Gallagher examines what the Civil War meant for the loyal people of the North. He begins by discussing the Grand Review, when Meade's Army of the Potomac and Sherman's western armies triumphantly marched through Washington on May 23 and 24 of 1865. Using this as a departure point, Gallagher makes several distinct points: first, the people of the North fought for and supported a war against the rebellious states primarily to preserve the Union; second, the people of the North were not whole hearted supporters of emancipation, and moreover, emancipation was not a predetermined result of the Civil War; and third, the Union armies were the primary agents which affected change throughout both the North and the South, and as such need to be studied and examined to understand how the war was fought, how it evolved, and what it meant.

I have tried to summarize these three points as best I can, but they are filled with detail and complexity. For example, in discussing the Northern desire to preserve the Union, Gallagher provides an explanation of what the Union meant. He suggests that there is no word in the 21st century political vocabulary which evokes the same emotions, meaning, and power that the concept of the "Union" did for 19th century Northerners. Fighting to preserve the Union did not simply meaning fighting to preserve a political organization of states; it meant fighting to preserve the promise of American liberty and the opportunities, freedoms, and hopes guaranteed for all under Constituion. Obviously, questions of how far these opportunities stretched and to whom they applied were debatable points. Yet the fact remains that these Northerners did not fight solely to preserve an archaic political organization with little application to their daily lives. Often times, I hear people say, "Oh, they were fighting ONLY to preserve the Union" with an air of disdain in their voices, somehow lessening the importance of the struggle because abolitionism was not an explicit goal of many Northerners. However, we must understand that our definition of preserving a political union is different from the 19th century understanding of what the American Union meant.

Another point that Gallagher made which I found exceptionally poignant was his argument concerning the relevance of the Union armies to the study of the war. While it may seem nonsensical to some to study the war without focusing on armies, that is exactly how Civil War history is taught in the majority of colleges and universities. In an attempt to correct years of neglect, professional historians today devote nearly all their time to subjects such as slavery, women, civilians, economics, social class, gender, and so on and so forth. As a result, many academics have nothing but disdain for professional military historians. Conversely, popular historians have taken over the realm of military history. Often times, such historians focus solely on issues related to the battlefield, and as a result, these histories ignore important themes and figures. Gallagher argues that these two fields need to be blended together. For example: one can not understand how emancipation came about at the practical level without studying both the efforts of Union armies, who were the enforcers of the emancipation policy, and those slaves who attempted to escape. Without campaigns taking Union forces deep into the South, many slaves would not have had opportunities for freedom, something which is often overlooked by academic historians.

The major point in Gallagher's work where I disagree is regarding his discussion of emancipation. I believe emancipation had a greater role in motivating Northerners in the latter years of the war, and that it was a cause which was implicitly and explicitly linked to the war from the beginning, one way or another. Certainly, the Confederacy could have won the war before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and emancipation was not a logical outcome of the conflict. However, when slaves began escaping to Northern lines early on, the issue of how the Union army was to deal with slavery became a salient question in the first year of the war.  Furthermore, from my own studies and researcch, many Union soldiers, while not abolitionists, were motivated by what they saw as the evils of Southern society, chief among which was the institution of slavery. Thus, while not all were fighting as ardent abolitionists, slavery played a crucial role in defining the Southern cause and the need to preserve the Constitution and the Union so that oligarch slave owners would no longer hold the country hostage for their own benefit.

Despite this disagreement, I found Gallagher's work to be an excellent study of the Union forces and citizenry during the war. This work goes a long ways towards refining the historical debate on crucial questions of emancipation, the meaning of the Union, and the importance of studying the Union armies. The detail, care, and depth of Gallagher's argument make for an excellent, and concise read, and are always worthy of being a part of a great historical debate on such topics. For anyone attempting to understand what the Civil War meant to the loyal people in the North, The Union War is an indispensible work that must be considered.

No comments:

Post a Comment