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The pattern of the historiographical approach to the American Civil War is often revealing. Just over ten years separated Bell Irvin Wiley's study of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (1943) from his parallel portrait of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (1952). And just over ten years separates Gary Gallagher's consideration of The Confederate War (1997) from this, the latest in an already impressive portfolio of Civil War work, his assessment of The Union War. The balance of general interest in books on the Civil War has, of course, always fallen on the side of the South as far as sales are concerned, and the South continues to receive the lion's share of academic attention when it comes to the subject that Gallagher addressed in The Confederate War: nationalism. In that earlier study, the subtitle of which was How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave Off Defeat for the White South, Gallagher tackled the trajectory of historical thinking on the Confederacy, and argued that working backwards from defeat obscured, among other things, the role of the armies in sustaining Confederate morale. In The Union War Gallagher deploys a similar strategy in a work designed "to recover what Union meant to a generation that fought the war." "That meaning," he proposes, "has been almost completely effaced from popular understanding of the conflict," in part because the idea of a "war to end slavery seems more compelling" (p. 3).
Gallagher begins his recovery of the lost meaning of Union with the Grand Review of the Armies in May 1865, specifically by addressing the apparent absence of the bulk of the Union's African American regiments at that overtly patriotic spectacle. Despite the fact that many black regiments were serving elsewhere in the spring [End Page 248] of 1865, the impulse among historians to portray the Grand Review as "little more than an exercise in racial exclusion" has, Gallagher argues, warped our understanding of that most visible moment of victory, blurred our view of contemporary understandings of the "meaning and promise of Union and the value of citizen-soldiers," and prompted the emergence of an "exclusionary narrative" of both the event itself and the war whose termination it celebrated (p. 32). In the chapters that follow, Gallagher mounts a sustained and in places devastating assault upon that "exclusionary narrative," outflanks many of the historians whose work has, sometimes unwittingly, obscured "the importance of Union for the wartime generation," and recovers the republican standard with an impressive degree of aplomb (p. 35). "Can we criticize the North's Civil War generation," Gallagher asks, "for not envisioning what the nation has become" (p. 41)? His answer is no, but his point is that we frequently do. In order to avoid the pitfalls of presentism it "is crucial," he stresses, "to assess what people did discuss, what concerns most engaged their attention" (p. 44). Gallagher marshals a considerable breadth of evidence in order to reconstruct the contemporary perspective, ranging from Lincoln's speeches to patriotic stationery, from visual representations of the soldiers, black and white, to an analysis of the songs they sang. Equally important is his call for the use of sources that historians have so far shied away from, in some cases shunned altogether: the many regimental histories that "provide extensive firsthand testimony from a period when soldiers thought about what their service had meant" (p. 65).
Ultimately, as in The Confederate War, Gallagher's focus in The Union War is on the armies, on the citizen-soldiers of the Union, whose faith was in that Union, whose sacrifice was for the nation, whether that nation ended chattel servitude or not. Emancipation was not, he emphasizes, "an inevitable result of the conflict" (p. 89). Equally, Gallagher stresses, emancipation could not have been achieved had the Union army not served "as an agent of liberation," a form of agency that was obvious at the time but that has been "consigned to [End Page 249] the margins" in the...