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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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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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