Book Review: The Union War

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by Gary Gallagher

Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. iii, 215. Illus., notes, index. $27.95. ISBN: 978-0-674-04562-0

In The Union War, Gary W. Gallagher makes a deceptively simple assertion: The North fought the Civil War for Union, not for emancipation.  The house of cards upon which we’ve built our intellectual comfort with the Civil War era is then slowly disassembled.  The author of The Antietam Campaign, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History , and a good many other excellent works on the Civil War, like every great teacher, Gallagher challenges us to re-examine our long-held understandings with the reminder that historical truth is never easy to face.

The Southern "Slave Power" had ripped apart the republic, posing a fundamental threat to the legacy inherited from the Founding Fathers.  It had fallen to the Americans of the 1860s to preserve the bright beacon that gave hope to the world’s huddled masses.  Victory would come after every pillar that sustained the Confederacy was knocked away.  Slaves benefited from Northern armies pounding Southern cities into submission and laying waste to entire regions, but it was not for them that soldiers pulled up railroads or charged Confederate fortifications.

As he examines the devotion to Union through the prisms of emancipation, military life, politics, and victory, Gallagher weaves paintings, pamphlets, newspapers, music, poetry, statistics diaries, letters, photos, and stationary into a rich tapestry of evidence to wrap around his arguments.

Those arguments can be unsettling to a generation of readers who witnessed an African American become one of Lincoln’s successors.  But we blind ourselves by refusing to view their world through the eyes of the Civil War generation, and by losing that perspective we fail to appreciate what they achieved, for their time and for all time.

Highly recommended.
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Reviewer: Based in San Antonio, Fernando Ortiz, Jr., a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, is an author, blogger, and editor, who is currently working on the memoirs of Hispanic military veterans for the UT Voces Oral History Project.  In October of 2011 he participated in the annual conference of the New York Military Affairs Symposium (www.nymas.org), "Civil Warriors: Profiles of Ordinary Americans and the Great National Crisis, 1860-1865", presenting a paper on two Tejanos who served the Confederacy and a Louisiana woman who documented her wartime experiences in a diary, portions of which are to appear in an upcoming issue of North & South: The Magazine of the Civil War Society.  His current projects include a novel.

Reviewer: Fernando Ortiz   


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