The Disappearance of Union from Memory of the Civil War

]Here’s Gary Gallagher giving the 2012 R. Gerald McMurtry Lecture in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Hat tip to Kevin Levin.



  1. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    Another great presentation by Gary Gallagher. Witty, pointed, thought-provoking and so funny at times. I could listen to him every day. BTW, this is basically a revised version of his presentation at the Miller Center Forum in February 2011, which you posted here on May 30 (“Remembering Union as a Motivator”). I have a question on this one. He mentions that the Seven Days’ was one of the two most important events of the entire Civil War. Do you or anybody out there know which one he thought was the other? Perhaps from another lecture?

    1. That would be a question for Professor Gallagher. It could be any of a number of things–The twin defeats of Fall, 1862 when confederate invasions of Maryland and Kentucky were stopped [which includes the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation], the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief, Grant’s turning right instead of turning left on the Brock Road after the Battle of the Wilderness to name a few possibilities.

      1. Around minute 19, he seems to say the other turning point might be the Sherman and Sheridan victories in 64 that assured Lincoln’s reelection after the nadir of civilian morale. But you’re right that there are a few potential candidates.

        All for the Onion! 🙂 I loved his “There’s sand on the beach!” routine.

        His Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten was a great book.

        I couldn’t hear most of the questions (although some we can figure from the context of the answer), and wonder what led to some of his more animated responses near the end there.

        What do you think of his comments in the Q&A on British intervention?

        1. I think he has it right. I don’t think Lee thought they should depend on intervention.

          1. Oops, I was too vague. I meant the comment characterizing the Brits as being horrified by their American cousins killing each other in needless effusion of blood. I’ve never heard anyone describe the thinking of pro-intervention Brits that way.

          2. I tend to like debunking the popular view. The popular view has been that the EP made it impossible for the Europeans to intervene, and I think both Professor Guelzo, in his book on the EP, and Professor Gallagher, in his comments here, knock that down.

      2. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

        I have made that section of Catton mandatory reading. I give my students an essay assignment on turning points of the Civil War. It is a great learning tool because there are obviously so many different opinions. Students love to discuss this topic and any time students want to talk about history you let them! Especially in a survey class. No one ever brings this up, so I read aloud the passage from Catton about Grant riding South. We have a great conversation about all of the turning points they bring up. My online students usually have a good conversation going as well.

        1. I’m re-reading Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox right now. What a tremendously gifted writer! I think he’s head and shoulders above Shelby Foote, and I thought Foote’s writing was magnificent.

          1. Bob Nelson · ·

            I agree, but then I’m prejudiced living in Michigan and having visited Catton’s gave in Benzonia — in the middle of the G.A.R. section!!! And it’s the first history I read way back when. I loved Foote on the Burns’ series but found his lengthy run-on sentences frustrating. Also the fact he included no footnotes — not even for direct quotations.

          2. jfepperson · ·

            I date the beginning of my serious interest in the Civil War to finding my grandfather’s copy of “Stillness at Appomattox” in our attic in New London, CT. I devoured it quickly.

        2. Ken Noe · · Reply

          Bud Robertson read us that in Historiography as an example of how powerful good history writing can be. Hearing him read it aloud, well, I confess I’ve never forgotten the moment. It was like being at the crossroad.

          1. The best of all worlds–a masterful writer read by a masterful lecturer.

  2. Gallagher’s book on Union is, as to be expected, very good. But he tends to exaggerate when he claims that other historians have not paid enough attention to the concept of “Union” and how important it was in the 1860s. Most recent books dealing with secession and the war all deal with the Union issue, so I don’t think it’s been an ignored or even under-appreciated subject.

    1. I think he differs with them on the emphasis they place on Union as a motivator. I think he believes they don’t place enough emphasis on it. I asked him about this at the CWI a couple years ago and that’s the impression I got from his answer.

      1. Bob Nelson · · Reply

        I had two relatives who fought — one in the 46th Illinois and one in the 17th Indiana L.A. — and have read the regimental histories and/or diaries of both. I do not recall anything in either of them relative to fighting to free the slaves. Early comments (1861-1862) are all about Union. “Save the Union” was the battle cry. There are some comments beginning in early 1863 about ending slavery and frankly IIRC neither writers were much in favor of the idea.

  3. Of course, the idea of Union being lost in terms of Civil War memory is another thing, but since the war basically settled the “Union or secession” issue (to most people anyway), it’s understandable why it fell to the wayside in memory terms.

    1. Doh! I never thought if it that way.

  4. The founders of the CSA sought independence in 1860-61 for the sole reason of protecting their right to own slaves. “states rights” and “unfair tariff” are bogus arguments that have never had any tangibles evidence to back them up. Had it not been for the proslavery zealots there is nothing to show that there was any talk, or actions, taking place in the years immediately preceding the war to show that any nonslave issue was driving tne South to seek secession.
    For the North the main goal was to save the Union. Yes, it is nice to think that the soldiers in blue were fighting for the noble cause of ending slavery, but I have to agree with Prof Gallagher.

    Here is my assessment of the war: Union meant a nation the reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific. One country with industry, agriculture, minerals, and vital seaports all under one united government. The Unionist could see the advantages of a united United States. Those who took the Union side were looking to the future.

    The slave owning aristocracy of the South wanted to maintain the past. They may have freed themselves from the British monarchy in the 1770s, but the plantation owners of 1860 were the defacto Dukes and Dutchesses, Lords and Ladies of their times. In fact, slavery was a remnant of the old royalty system, with a King on top and a slave at the bottom. Their desire to have an agricultural society, and be the cotton suppliers to the world, would eventually turn them into little more than a pseudo coloney for industrial nations.

    Have I made an accurate assessment, or do I need to revise my thinking?

    1. I think Union meant national survival. They believed that allowing the Union to break up would lead to the destruction of the nation.

  5. I agree, survival of the nation was certainly at the forefront of Unionist concerns. I do, however, think it is perfectly reasonable to believe that people of that time had hopes for a bigger and stronger America. Did I make a fair assessment of the Confederate South?

    1. For the most part, though the word “sole” is problematic. If you read the Declarations of Causes there were a few subsidiary complaints. There’s no doubt protection of slavery was far and away the most important driver, and without the slavery issue there would have been no secession; however, there were other complaints addressed. Additionally, we have to consider the upper south had decided not to secede until the war started. We have to take into account that viewpoint as well.

  6. It is my contention that the subsidiary complaints never would have led to a war had it not been for the slavery issue. The leaders of the upper South hoped that the differences over slavery could by settled via the legislative process, or in the courts, as the authors of the Constitution had intended.
    But just because they didn’t follow their fellow slaves states into secession in 1860 does not erase the dominance of slavery in their states.

    PS Al, why are you the only one arguing with me? Don’t the “neo Confederates” or Unreconstructed Southerners have am opinion?

    1. Like I said, Pat, without the slavery issue there wouldn’t have been secession. No secession, no war; however, the subsidiary issues did exist, which makes the word “solely” problematic. I wouldn’t say I’m arguing with you, Pat. Most of the neoconfederates who have commented here don’t have what it takes to carry on an adult conversation.

  7. Galliger is remarkable as always. Thanks for including this talk.

  8. Al, I’m currently reading “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow. He uses the terms North and South when telling of the dispute between Sec of Treasury Hamilton (north) vs Sec of State Jefferson and House leader Madison (south) over federalism and a national bank.

  9. Chernow does an excellent job of perfectly explaining “Fund and Assumption” and the rest of Hamilton’s economic plan, which is perhaps the most important event in the Early Republic–second only to Washington’s Election (which was a foregone conclusion, but stil…).

    When I start the this part of the course, I tell the students ahead of time the question that I want them to answer in the next week is: Was Alexander Hamilton a genius, or was he an evil genius? Those are the only choices.

  10. Was the issue of debt assumtion really North vs South? What about South Carolina Federalist Charles Cotesworth Pinckney? What about NewYork’s George Clinton.
    I’m on another site where the manager is trying to find other issues, culture, trade, etc to unite “the South”. Is there one? The major political parties had members from both the North and South and almost always had a balanced ticket. Did Southern Whigs, or Southern Democrats ever bring up tariffs, or any economic issue, at the conventions? In Congress what legislation was ever introduced to do something about tariffs that were allegedly unfair to the South?
    Illinois traded with Louisiana. A young Abe Lincoln had made that business trip on a raft. Without slavery wouldn’t Illinois have had just as much trade and relations with the Southern states as did Virginia. Without slavery, wouldn’t all state to state relationships be a
    lot different than North vs South, or free state vs slave state?

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