The Magazine

The Reasons Why

Cause and effect in the Civil War.

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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The Union War

The Civil War

by Gary W. Gallagher

Harvard, 256 pp., $27.95

The Confederate War

by Gary W. Gallagher

Harvard, 272 pp., $17.50

In the earlier of these companion books, The Confederate War (1997), Gary Gallagher posted an emphatic disclaimer. Don’t dismiss me as a “neo-Confederate,” he said; his origins were solidly Western: “As a native of Los Angeles who grew up on a farm in southern Colorado, I can claim complete freedom from any .  .  . special pleading.” Moreover, “not a single ancestor fought in the war.”

This may seem a remarkable protestation from a distinguished University of Virginia historian. But it was prudent, since his examination of recent Civil War writing is iconoclastic in tone, and at times it seems heretical. The heresy lies in this: Gallagher reinforces the understanding of our “American Iliad” that so many of us—especially of a pre-1960s vintage—absorbed in the old school of Civil War history. There, the war was understood not as a sociological experiment but as deadly combat. That this old-school conception is now widely questioned in the academy may be a consequence of the upheavals of the Vietnam era, when the draft disappeared, war was widely vilified, and infant historians became unlikely to come within earshot of a drill sergeant, let alone the whistle of a bullet. Accordingly, much of the Civil War history now written and taught (at least as Gallagher tells the story, with powerful documentation) tends to de-emphasize shot and shell and stresses, instead, the present generation’s moral superiority to the warlike past and its gun-toting actors, especially “Southern oligarchs.”

Every story needs a fall guy of sorts, and Gallagher’s would seem to be the hapless James B. Gardner, an executive of the American Historical Association. In congressional testimony two decades ago, Gardner decried the attribution of “special historical significance” to battles and battlefields—a bias that would, he warned, perpetuate a “narrow, antiquated view of the past” while unduly soft-pedaling the more modern view of it as “a combat of societies.” Gallagher so much dislikes this attitude that he cites Gardner in both books, though the precise context of that witness’s remarks is not given. And battle-worship can certainly
be overdone.

It is Gallagher’s challenge in both these books, including his newly published The Union War, to answer several essential questions. What was it in the doctrine or ideology of Unionism that made it so powerful for Abraham Lincoln and those who fought on the Union side? For Lincoln, remarked the astute Alexander Stephens, Unionism rose to “the sublimity of religious mysticism.” What was it, moreover, about that creed that bade young men in such numbers to wager life and limb? In The Confederate War, Gallagher explored, but left for further answer, a
parallel mystery:

It defies modern understanding that any people—especially one in which nonslaveholding yeomen formed a solid majority—would pour energy and resources into a fight profoundly tainted by the institution of slavery. Yet the Confederate people did so. Until historians can explain more fully why they did, the story of the Civil War will remain
woefully incomplete.

Some 14 years later the mystery is still unsolved.

Such questions are not the easier to answer when one looks back to earlier episodes in the American past. The nature of that “more perfect union” the Framers sought to create in 1787 did not come under threatening tension for the first time in the secession crisis, or with Lincoln’s election, or with the quarrels over slavery in the Western territories. It was a counterpoint in political debate for earlier generations: in the Hayne-Webster dialogue; in the Jackson-Calhoun clash over nullification; among the New England Federalist opponents of the War of 1812; and still earlier, in the legislative resolutions Madison and Jefferson ghostwrote in response to John Adams’s Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.

This in itself constitutes an ample agenda for the Civil War sesquicentennial. But the auspices are not promising. It seems conceivable that the anniversary years may be stultified by ideological prepossession, as was the Columbian quincentenary of 1992 when the Discoverer was found to be a racist proto-imperialist and the careless carrier of deadly germs to the new-world Paradise.

As an articulate exponent of old-school Civil War history, Gallagher insists on the continuing pertinence of a once-familiar story. In that story Lincoln emerged as a commander in chief who had great difficulty finding generals who could arrest the march of Confederate arms—highlighted by such Union disasters as First Manassas, McClellan’s failed campaign on the Virginia Peninsula. Not before the rise of Ulysses S. Grant in midwar did Lincoln find his man. Even then, the bloody overland campaign between Grant and Lee, stretching from the Wilderness to Richmond by way of such horrors as Cold Harbor, posed a harsh test of will. It cost a sizable proportion of the 350,000 battle deaths suffered by Union armies in the war, and a like proportion of the killing that took the lives of more than a quarter of the South’s young men of fighting age.

These indisputable and deadly facts ought to warn us that viewing the war as a war is scarcely “narrow” or “antiquated.” The present tendency, per Gallagher, is to stress the war as a revolutionary social experiment. But the war undeniably began as a war to subdue secession and save the Union. As undeniably, Lincoln was forced to modify Union war aims in 1862 for fear of European intervention. (Had William Gladstone at Newcastle in the fall of 1862 not said that the South apparently had “made a nation”?) In the old-school version of the war, it was this danger, far more than humane instinct, that led to Emancipation. And its scope was limited to terrain under Rebel control since Lincoln understood that the loyalty of the unseceded slave states was as critical to his cause as deterring Lord Palmerston or the mischievous Napoleon III.

It might be gathered, from some recent academic history canvassed here, that we’ve changed all that. It might be gathered that Lincoln’s famous vigils at the telegraph office were spurred less by war anxieties than by thirst for the latest antislavery gossip in New England or Copperhead mischief in Ohio. The crowning touch of old-school heresy here, however, is Gallagher’s insistence that it was the war, not a proclamation, that destroyed slavery. As James McPherson of Princeton has said, “Slaves did not emancipate themselves; they were liberated by Union armies. Freedom quite literally came from the barrel of a gun.”

Thus the author’s overarching aim in both these interesting books is “to recover what Union meant to the generation that fought the war” and, in parallel, to plumb the dedication and tenacity of Southern nationalism. This would seem a worthier enterprise for the sesquicentennial than vaunting our ethical superiority over our ancestors.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.

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