- The Union War
"In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals . . . to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism," warns Benedict Anderson, "it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire [End Page 97] love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love. The cultural products of nationalism—poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts—show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles."1 Civil War historians have had a tough time taking Anderson's warning to heart. Without referring to Anderson, however, Gary W. Gallagher has initiated a long-overdue reconsideration of nationalism, not as an inspiration for culture and art, but as a motivation for actual behavior. He says flatly that northerners fought for the Union, and it is time for historians to cease flinching in embarrassment at that proposition.
In five tightly argued and clearly written chapters, Gallagher contends that the goal of most Union soldiers was to save the Union. He argues further that their ideal of "Union" was hardly, to use Anderson's word, pathological. They did not envision an "exclusionary republic" (41). Instead, they valued the rule of the Constitution and laws, they hated oligarchy with an abiding passion, and they knew the example of a successful republic was important to the rest of the world. Theirs was an "exceptionalist reading of America's role" in world history. Furthermore, their ideas in the last-named regard, he says, were "aligned with reality" (73).
Gallagher's sources consist of the letters of 350 soldiers and 68 Union regimental histories published from 1863 to 1866. From these he selects telling quotations, neatly integrated into the text. The book begins with a close look at the "Grand Review" of Union troops, the great triumphal parade of May 23-24, 1865. His point about the parade is simple: African American soldiers were not deliberately excluded from marching. Rather, circumstances of geography and military assignment put most black units out of reach of Washington at the time.
Gallagher's treatment of the parade serves two important purposes. First, it warns historians about being overeager to read specific social animus into memorial events. Second, it shows readers that the author is fully aware that when he asserts the value of Union and the prevalence of a non-exclusionary conception of it, he must deal with questions of race, slavery, and emancipation. Therefore, the chapter on emancipation is the longest in the book. Gallagher does not believe for a minute that white Union soldiers shed their prejudices against African Americans as the war went on; those remained stubbornly and embarrassingly in evidence. But he does suggest that white soldiers came around to support of emancipation, not as "a grand moral imperative" but as "a tool to help restore the Union and protect it against future slavery-related threats" (76). What the soldiers said about race was generally cruel and crude but seldom systematic. They reserved their most intensely inflected language of hatred for traitors, the Confederates in front of them and the Copperheads they imagined at [End Page 98] work behind them, at home, in their states. Nationalism, in other words, trumped racism.
Finally, Gallagher also argues, refreshingly, that the Union the soldiers sought to save and, in their way, improve was not one that contemporaries anticipated would become a militaristic and imperialistic nation. In fact, he makes a plea for an end, once and for all, to academic prejudice against military history in writing on the Civil War, on the grounds that the soldiers were emphatically citizen-soldiers, embarked on a task clearly conceived as temporary and finite: crushing the rebellion. And these same soldiers were, as a matter of fact, the actual means by which slaves came to enjoy freedom during the war.
Of course, Gallagher uses sources other than the letters and regimental histories—the images on patriotic envelopes, for example. And he offers further support for his case, including a superior analysis of General Ulysses S. Grant's image. The argument about military history seems a...