The Union War

Lost Causers try to minimize the centrality of slavery to the war.  They will say ridiculous things like slavery had nothing to do with the war.  We all know they don’t know what they’re talking about.  Over the past forty years, scholarship has shown without a doubt that slavery was central to the confederate war effort, and its protection was their goal.  Some historians have gone even farther and have talked about Lincoln and the Union having a goal to abolish slavery.  Gary Gallagher is here to say, “Not so fast, my friend.”  [apologies to Lee Corso]

Professor Gallagher stresses that while Lincoln was indeed an antislavery president, his goal throughout the war was preservation of the Union.  Attacking slavery was a tool to further that end.  Attacking slavery weakened the confederates and provided new recruits to the Union cause in the persons of former slaves.  Not only was this Lincoln’s objective, it was the objective of the majority of the loyal populace of the United States, and it was the objective of the majority of Union soldiers.

He makes his case that throughout the war, Union was the #1 objective.  Ending slavery was an objective only so far as it facilitated preserving the Union and then making that preservation permanent after the war.  This is not to say that had the rebels laid down their arms in 1864 they could have kept slavery.  In order to prevent a future secession, slavery had to end.  That’s not a moral stance against slavery, it’s a practical stance to cement the preservation of the Union.  Preservation of the Union, though, was seen as a moral act because it was seen as saving the country.  Prof. Gallagher quotes Joshua “Don’t Call Me Lawrence” Chamberlain:  ” ‘[T]he cause for which we fought was higher; our thought was wider,’ he affirmed before taking aim at the slaveholders’ memory of the conflict:  ‘the ‘lost cause’ is not lost liberty and rights of self-government.  What is lost is slavery of men and supremacy of States.’ ”  [p. 158]

The book’s organization seemed disjointed to me.  He starts out talking about the Grand Review at the end of the war and why the USCT weren’t involved.  Then he moves to the Union as an objective, followed by a discussion of Emancipation and then the armies.  I thought his organization could have been much better, making the book easier to follow.

Altogether, though, the book is a terrific addition to any student’s bookshelf.  It’s a great corrective to historians who may be getting carried away with the emancipationist interpretation of the war.


  1. I wonder if Gallagher overreaches a bit. I do not know many historians that say ending slavery was a main objective, or policy, during the Civil War. I only know Lost Causers who claim that other historians say such things in order to argue against that.

    1. I think his argument is that his interpretation is different from Chandra Manning’s, David Blight’s, and James McPherson’s, Rob. To tell you the truth, I don’t see a whole lot of difference between him and McPherson, but Gallagher believes that McPherson and he do have space between them, and enough to make a difference. To me it seems like a subtle difference, but I might not understand McPherson’s position as well as Gallagher does. Gallagher may probably tell you that all three of the others stress emancipation as a coequal goal whereas he places it as a subsidiary goal. I can understand that with Blight and Manning, but I always thought McPherson didn’t go that far. Again, maybe I just don’t understand McPherson’s position. Gallagher’s interpretations seem to always make sense to me.

      1. Fair enough. I just don’t think the idea is that ground breaking. Slavery is merely a manipulable instrument of war for the Union to achieve their policy. However they could have used it, they would have.

        1. I think that’s one valid outlook, Rob. Perhaps Emancipation can best be thought of as one of the weapons used to defeat the rebellion and preserve the Union. Pretty much the same thing you said, only prettier. 😉

  2. I found the thesis interesting, although I was not entirely happy with the writing or the structure of the book.

    A few comments from my research on immigrants enlisting in 1861-1862:

    Among Irish immigrants, they typically cited preservation of the Union as their primary reason for enlisting. Many also talked about viewing the Southerners as aristocrats.and saw service in the Union cause as a carry over of their republicanism from Ireland. Many also saw the Confederates as allies of the British and saw this as a front in the transnational war against British imperialism.

    Among Germans, you find ending slavery discussed as a reason for enlisting. Similarly to the Irish, many Germans identify the Confederates as aristocrats, but they are much more likely to see the slaves as the objects of aristocratic oppression. You rarely find that mentioned by Irish enlistees.

    The German concern over preservation of the Union often refers to the fact that as Germany fractured it became a target for other powers like France, England and Russia and lost control of its own destiny. Many of them predicted that if the North and South split, there would be further divisions, leading to a takeover by the great powers of Europe.

    1. Thanks for the research results, Pat. I think they generally track with what I’ve read.

      As to the book, for me it was the structure much more than the wording that I wasn’t entirely happy with. I kept thinking, “Why is he talking about this here?” That was distracting and took away from the prose, in my opinion.

  3. I agree with Rob that Gallagher may have overreached a bit, but one remarkable thing he does is give the Union military agency in the abolition of slavery. Slavery may have been a tool in the primary goal of preserving the Union, but neither goal is accomplished (or at least greatly complicated) without a military to host contraband camps, defend and protect runaways, or provide space in its ranks for African American troops. In an age where republican forms of government were scarce and armies regularly overthrew governments they disagreed with, the fact that the Union military held potentially divisive opinions on emancipation yet still complied with the government in fighting to end slavery after 1863 should not be overlooked.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Nick. I agree with your comments regarding the Union Army and its role. The concept of civilian control of the military even then ran very deep and was cherished. There was a great deal of talk about military dictatorship and marching on Washington under both McClellan and Hooker, but neither of them made even the slightest move toward that. McClellan specifically vocalized opposition to the idea, which didn’t stop some of his subordinates from speculating. No matter how much they may have disagreed with the administration, though, the republican ideal of civilian control held sway every time.

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