The Union War
By Gary W. Gallagher
Harvard University Press. $27.95
New York Times Book Review, May 1, 2011

Among the enduring mysteries of the American Civil War is why millions of Northerners were willing to fight to preserve the nation's unity. It is not difficult to understand why the Southern states seceded in 1860 and 1861. As the Confederacy's founders explained ad infinitum, they feared that Abraham Lincoln's election as president placed the future of slavery in jeopardy. But why did so few Northerners echo the refrain of Horace Greeley, the editor of The New York Tribune: "Erring sisters, go in peace"?

The latest effort to explain this deep commitment to the nation's survival comes from Gary W. Gallagher, the author of several highly regarded works on Civil War military history. 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.

The Civil War, Gallagher announces at the outset, was "a war for Union that also killed slavery." Emancipation was an outcome (an "astounding" outcome, Lincoln remarked in his second Inaugural Address) but, Gallagher insists, it always "took a back seat" to the paramount goal of saving the Union. Most Northerners, he says, remained indifferent to the plight of the slaves. They embraced emancipation only when they concluded it had become necessary to win the war. They fought because they regarded the United States as a unique experiment in democracy that guaranteed political liberty and economic opportunity in a world overrun by tyranny. Saving the Union, in the words of Secretary of State William H. Seward, meant "the saving of popular government for the world."

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.

His emphasis on the preservation of democratic government and the opportunities of free labor as central to the patriotic outlook is hardly new — one need only read Lincoln's wartime speeches to find eloquent expression of these themes. But instead of celebrating the greatness of American democracy, Gallagher claims, too many historians dwell on its limitations, notably the exclusion from participation of nonwhites and women. Moreover, perhaps because of recent abuses of American power in the name of freedom, scholars seem uncomfortable with robust expressions of patriotic sentiment, especially when wedded to military might. According to Gallagher, they denigrate nationalism and suggest that the war had no real justification other than the abolition of slavery. (Gallagher ignores a different interpretation of the Union war effort, emanating from neo-Confederates and the libertarian right, which portrays Lincoln as a tyrant who presided over the destruction of American freedom through creation of the leviathan national state, not to mention the dreaded income tax.)

Gallagher devotes many pages — too many in a book of modest length — to critiques of recent Civil War scholars, whom he accuses of exaggerating the importance of slavery in the conflict and the contribution of black soldiers to Union victory. Often, his complaint seems to be that another historian did not write the book he would have written.

Thus, Gallagher criticizes Melinda Lawson, the author of "Patriot Fires," one of the most influential recent studies of wartime nationalism, for slighting the experiences of the soldiers. But Lawson was examining nation-building on the Northern home front. Her investigation of subjects as diverse as the marketing of war bonds, the dissemination of pro-Union propaganda and the organization of Sanitary Fairs, where goods were sold to raise money for soldiers' aid, illuminates how the nation state for the first time reached into the homes and daily lives of ordinary Americans.

Gallagher also criticizes recent studies of soldiers' letters and diaries, which find that an antislavery purpose emerged early in the war. These works, he argues, remain highly "impressionistic," allowing the historian "to marshal support for virtually any argument." Whereupon Gallagher embarks on his own equally impressionistic survey of these letters, finding that they emphasize devotion to the Union.

Ultimately, Gallagher's sharp dichotomy between the goals of Union and emancipation seems excessively schematic. It begs the question of what kind of Union the war was being fought to preserve. The evolution of Lincoln's own outlook illustrates the problem. On the one hand, as Gallagher notes, Lincoln always insisted that he devised his policies regarding slavery in order to win the war and preserve national unity. Yet years before the Civil War, Lincoln had argued that slavery fatally undermined the nation's ability to exemplify the superiority of free institutions. The Union to be saved, he said, must be "worthy of the saving." During the secession crisis, Lincoln could have preserved the Union by yielding to Southern demands. He adamantly refused to compromise on the crucial political issue — whether slavery should be allowed to expand into Western territories.

Gallagher maintains that only failure on the battlefield, notably Gen. George B. McClellan's inability to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital, in the spring of 1862, forced the administration to act against slavery. Yet the previous fall, before significant military encounters had taken place, Lincoln had already announced a plan for gradual emancipation. This hardly suggests that military necessity alone placed the slavery question on the national agenda. Early in the conflict, many Northerners, Lincoln included, realized that there was little point in fighting to restore a status quo that had produced war in the first place.

Many scholars have argued that the war brought into being a new conception of American nationhood. Gallagher argues, by contrast, that it solidified pre--existing patriotic values. Continuity, not change, marked Northern attitudes. Gallagher acknowledges that as the war progressed, "a struggle for a different kind of Union emerged." Yet his theme of continuity seems inadequate to encompass the vast changes Americans experienced during the Civil War. Surely, he is correct that racism survived the war. Yet he fails to account for the surge of egalitarian sentiment that inspired the rewriting of the laws and Constitution to create, for the first time, a national citizenship enjoying equal rights not limited by race.

Before the war, slavery powerfully affected the concept of self-government. Large numbers of Americans identified democratic citizenship as a privilege of whites alone — a position embraced by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Which is why the transformation wrought by the Civil War was so remarkable. As George William Curtis, the editor of Harper's Weekly, observed in 1865, the war transformed a government "for white men" into one "for mankind." That was something worth fighting for.