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The Union War [Hardcover]

Gary W. Gallagher
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

19 April 2011
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.


Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (19 April 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674045629
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674045620
  • Product Dimensions: 23.7 x 16.4 x 2.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,290,584 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Brimming with insights, eloquent in argument, and filled with new evidence from the men who fought for the Union, this revisionist history will cause readers to rethink many of the now-standard Civil War interpretations. An essential work. -- Randall M. Miller Library Journal (starred review) 20110301 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 Washington Post 20110415 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 Boston Globe blog 20110419 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 New York Times Book Review 20110501 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 News & Observer 20110522 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 Rove.com 20110519 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 make his point with force and clarity. -- James M. McPherson New York Review of Books 20110714 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 Chronicle of Higher Education 20110619 [An] important work. -- Lawton Posey Charleston Gazette 20110618 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 Choice 20111201

About the Author

Gary W. Gallagher is John L. Nau III Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why they fought... 19 Jun 2011
By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
not why it started. Gary Gallagher, professor at the University of Virginia and Penn State and noted Civil War historian, has written a short book on "why" the northern soldiers fought their southern brethren. Conventional wisdom aside - that it was the question of slavery and the righteousness of the practice - Gallagher says the real reason was the idea of "union".

Many of the soldiers and lawmakers had fathers and grandfathers who had fought the British for Independence and the sense of "Union" of the "United States of America". To these men, "preserving" the Union was as important as their forefathers having attained it in the first place. Look at the word "union" and the phrase "the Union". Both mean virtually the same thing but only one applies to a specific entity. And these men were willing to die for that "union".

But what about slavery and the idea of the North fighting to emancipate the slaves? The South may have begun with war with the yell of "states' rights" but the idea of fighting to keep those rights - including the practice of slavery - was a southern ideal. Gallagher states that while slavery was not well regarded in the north, he didn't feel it was the reason the north fought. He quotes Abraham Lincoln - on page 50 - of the three practicalities he had in freeing the slaves in the context of fighting and winning the war.

Gallagher also writes about those thousands of immigrants who joined native-born Americans in the northern armies. What were they fighting for? Again, "union" and the idea of a country that was seen in Europe as a "bright spot" among nations. Many countries - France, the German States, the Austria/Hungary - had weathered uprisings in 1848 by citizens protesting traditional rule.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why they fought... 19 Jun 2011
By Jill Meyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
not why it started. Gary Gallagher, professor at the University of Virginia and Penn State and noted Civil War historian, has written a short book on "why" the northern soldiers fought their southern brethren. Conventional wisdom aside - that it was the question of slavery and the righteousness of the practice - Gallagher says the real reason was the idea of "union".

Many of the soldiers and lawmakers had fathers and grandfathers who had fought the British for Independence and the sense of "Union" of the "United States of America". To these men, "preserving" the Union was as important as their forefathers having attained it in the first place. Look at the word "union" and the phrase "the Union". Both mean virtually the same thing but only one applies to a specific entity. And these men were willing to die for that "union".

But what about slavery and the idea of the North fighting to emancipate the slaves? The South may have begun with war with the yell of "states' rights" but the idea of fighting to keep those rights - including the practice of slavery - was a southern ideal. Gallagher states that while slavery was not well regarded in the north, he didn't feel it was the reason the north fought. He quotes Abraham Lincoln - on page 50 - of the three practicalities he had in freeing the slaves in the context of fighting and winning the war.

Gallagher also writes about those thousands of immigrants who joined native-born Americans in the northern armies. What were they fighting for? Again, "union" and the idea of a country that was seen in Europe as a "bright spot" among nations. Many countries - France, the German States, the Austria/Hungary - had weathered uprisings in 1848 by citizens protesting traditional rule. Many of these people emigrated to the US and saw this country - this "union" - as something worth fighting for and preserving.

Gary Gallagher is an elegant writer of history. He doesn't try to "pad" his text to make the book longer; he presents his ideas and supports them. Very good book.
22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why they fought - Northern edition 4 May 2011
By dcreader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
An often neglected topic of Civil War literature is the role preserving the Union played in motivating the North. Even when the importance of preservation of the Union is acknowledged, it's often relegated to second tier status in favor of emancipation.

University of Virginia professor Gary Gallagher's latest work replaces preservation of the Union as the primary goal for which the North fought, helping 21st century Americans understand why it was so beloved by those willing to die for it. He differentiates this Northern GOAL from the war's CAUSE, which was "beyond dispute...controversies related to slavery." The Union War provides insight into subjective Union views on topics related to the war's aims, although it does not offer an objective assessment of their accuracy (e.g., whether the Union really afford its citizens, particularly those in urban slums and factories the economic opportunities often claimed). At the same time, it disputes the thesis that emancipation emerged as a goal equal to or greater than Union by the war's conclusion. To the vast majority of the North, emancipation remained a necessary tool to prosecute the war, and restoring the status quo ante was unthinkable given how slavery had nearly destroyed their beloved Union.

In a day when we debate concepts such as "American exceptionalism" there was little doubt that it was exceptional in 1861 in terms of popular government, or self-rule by the common (white) man. As flawed as American republicanism was in the middle of the 19th century, it still stood out as the most progressive form of government (if practiced imperfectly), especially when compared to the aristocratic and even more repressive forms of government found in Europe, which had fought, successfully, against republican inspired uprisings only a few years earlier. Fighting for the Union meant, in their view, fighting for the survival of self government and the rule of law in the world (recall Lincoln's "last best hope" rhetoric). To Union soldiers it also meant preserving the legacy of the founding generation, and protecting the inheritance of future generations of Americans.

Gallagher reviews recent scholarship on the Civil War that denigrates the concept of Union as a worthy war aim, explaining why the Union was so important to Northerners. Another interesting theme is Union soldiers' hatred of slaveholders and oligarchs who threatened "liberty," but primarily the Union soldiers' own through their non-free labor economy. He discusses the link that Northerners placed between the Union and economic liberty, something Lincoln and others continually stressed, although, again, he does not evaluate its accuracy (he does, interestingly, cite Karl Marx for the view that Union victory would preserve the most progressive form of government heretofore existent and provide many oppressed Europeans with the potential for a small degree of economic autonomy in the form of western lands).

Overall, Gallagher's work is a "most read" for students of American history. It stands as a reminder that ideas have consequences, and provides us with exactly what good history does: a window into a time period as seen through the eyes of those who lived it, rather than through the distorting lens of time that has led some to condescending, ahistorical conclusions about those who fought and died to preserve the Union.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Union and Emancipation 8 Feb 2012
By Robin Friedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, there has been an increase in both scholarly and popular interest in this seminal event of American history. Among the best of the recent studies of the conflict is "The Union War", a short, provocative examination of the reasons that led the United States to fight this long, costly, and bloody war rather than, say, accept secession. The author, Gary Gallagher, is a widely respected Civil War scholar who is John Nau III Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His many other books include a companion volume called "The Confederate War." The Confederate War

Beginning in the 1960s, students of the Civil War have focused on Emancipation --- freeing the slaves -- as the dominant goal and accomplishment of the Civil War. In his carefully nuanced study, Gallagher argues that this conclusion demands substantial modification and clarification. It is important to consider Emancipation from the perspectives of North and South. Gallagher admits, together with most modern scholarship, the the South seceeded and went to war to protect its "peculiar institution" of slavery. With this granted at the outset, Gallagher examines the reasons the the North fought the secessionists. His basic answer is "Union". The United States fought to hold the country together and not primarily to end slavery. If the conflict had ended in the spring of 1862, as it might have with Grant's victories in the West and McClellan at the gates of Richmond, it is doubtful that Emancipation would have been a condition of the Confederacy's surrender.

Much of Gallagher's book is devoted to explaining why people at the time deemed Union worth fighting and dying for and what they understood by Union. Lincoln famously referred to the Union as the "last best hope on earth." For all the nation's flaws and inequalities especially in 21st Century eyes, Americans in the 1860's saw the Union as a land of personal liberty and economic opportunity with a broad grant of the franchise. They perceived the South as an oligarchy or an aristocracy which would destroy American government and reject the result of an open and fair election in order to hold their slave property. At the same time, European governments were undergoing periods of repression with the failure of the revolutions of 1848. Americans saw Union as freedom and democracy and worth fighting for to protect. A rallying cry that Gallagher emphsizes is Daniel Webster's famous Senate speech of January 27, 1830, in which he called for "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable."

In Gallagher's account, as the War progressed and became ever more violent, Emancipation became a secondary goal as an outgrowth of Union. Gallagher argues that Americans came to realize that the conflict could not be resolved without Emancipation. If peace had been made on the basis of "The Union as it was" (i.e. with slavery) the cause that led to the War in the first instance would remain to led to conflict again. The United States came to see Emancipation is necessary to secure Union and freedom and to defeat aristocracy. The issue seems to me one of nuance and phrasing. Gallagher is correct about the importance of Union. The point, however, is that Union and Emancipation are not in opposition. As Gallagher seems to recognize Union and Emancipation came to be seen together, and properly so.

Besides Union and Emancipation, Gallagher focuses on a third large element of the Union war: the Union Army. Gallagher again emphasizes matters that tend to be slighted by some modern historians. Civil War writing tends to be divided between military history -- the study of battles and campaigns -- on one hand and social, political, and economic history on the other hand. There is a tendency in some to look down on books of military history as written for alleged Civil War "buffs" or "warriors". Gallagher argues that there was a great degree of contingency in the Civil War and that key events, which might have gone differently, were decided on the battlefields. Therefore, Gallagher wants to emphasize the role of the Union Army and the citizen-soldiers who comprised it. Americans in combat did in fact give selflessly of themselves and of their lives to protect Union as they understood it, to serve the cause of freedom, and to allow the gradual growth of Emancipation and equality. Gallagher thus is eloquent in praise of the Union troops.

Gallagher develops his themes in chapters analyzing the frequently misunderstood Grand Review that took place in Washington, D.C. at the conclusion of the War, the nature of Union, its relationship to Emancipation, and the Union armies. A final chapter called "Affirmation" takes issue with another frequently voiced claim -- that after the War the North and South reconciled and forgot about Emancipation and about the sources of the conflict. Gallagher examines some or the literature relied upon to support this position. He argues that reconciliationist tendencies did not involve a retreat from the principles of Union and freedom for which the United States fought the Civil War.

Historians study the Civil War to help Americans understand themselves. In addition to Emancipation which is the focus of many prior studies, Gallagher's study emphasizes fully consistent and important goals -- the need for national unity, a shared sense of national purpose, and respect for the military and for sacrifice -- as lessons that can be drawn from the Civil War to help Americans understand our own difficult times.

Robin Friedman
15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A lovely history and a much needed corrective! 12 May 2011
By Mark R. Jorgensen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I have been reading Professor Gallagher's books and articles on the Civil War since the 1980s. Today he is one of two dozen or so of our best living historians of that era and this book does not disappoint in any respect. We have the benefit of his lifetime of study, writing and discussion on most aspects of the Civil War.

The other reviewer, "dcreader," has it exactly write when (s)he writes "An often neglected topic of Civil War literature is the role preserving the Union played in motivating the North. Even when the importance of preservation of the Union is acknowledged, it's often relegated to second tier status in favor of emancipation."

So many people, even some historians, want to give primacy to slavery out of ignorance or political agendas of some sort. I believe it was Shelby Foote when asked about slavery as the cause said that is was part of the "warp and the woof of the history of the period", or his polite way of saying "no" -- and your question is wrong-headed. For those of you who don't understand, let me clarify -- without slavery there would have been no Civil War -- but if the issue had been solely over slavery there would have been no Civil War either!! History is not usually reducible to simple or simplistic "causes."

Therefore, this well-written book is a much needed corrective for those of you who might be educated on these points. Professor Gallagher does an excellent job correcting those intellectual preconceptions.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Simple point but often overlooked- the cause for which the North fought 27 Jun 2012
By Roanld Tenney - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Gallagher is a great lecturer (Listen to his lectures on the Teaching Company series)
This book makes a simple point, really. The cause and inspiration of the Civil war, from the loyal Northern perspective was the cause of UNION. Modern interpretations have morphed this into a primary battle for freedom and equality. Other historians insist that in reality, the blacks freed themselves by desertion and aiding the Union cause. Some downplay the role of the military in the outcome of the war.
Gallagher takes to task all of these and many more misguided assertions. He is best in defending his claims against all-comers. He has the credentials and background to make his claims stick. But that does make this book a very interesting read. Citing journals, memoirs, diaries and other contemporary documents, over and again he drives home his point. But really, can one find an equal number of diaries to refute his points and make counter arguments?
I think my complaint about this book is that I feel it could have been condensed into a well written though long essay. I found part of the book to drag on, repeating over and again his point.
I love alternative points of view and realize that all history is colored by the historian himself. For an alternative to modern scholars, Gallagher is there to "set the record straight". But I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone except one who is absolutely convinced that the war was won by runaway slaves and that the only cause worth fighting for was freedom and emancipation.
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