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.