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Additional Thoughts on Gary W. Gallagher’s The Union War

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Historicism, History, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery, Southern History, The South, Western Civilization on December 23, 2011 at 10:50 am

Allen Mendenhall

Recently I reviewed Gary W. Gallagher’s The Union War (Harvard University Press, 2011) for The University Bookman.  The review (“Why the Union Soldiers Fought”) is available here.  I have not said all I mean to say about Gallagher’s book, so this post records some additional thoughts.

I began my review with the tale of the “Lost Women and Children of Roswell.”  It was difficult as a child, knowing this story and others like it, to view the Union Army as completely righteous and pure, or to justify the eradication of certain evils like slavery with other widespread and destructive evils like war.  Despite being a Southerner with ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, I’m ambivalent about the War because of the various and totalizing perspectives that were thrust upon me when I was young, and because of my general opposition to war and nationalism, to say nothing of the complex figuring of race that played a defining role in bringing about the conflict.

As I went from middle school to high school, and then college to graduate school, the less likely I was to reduce the causes of the War to one or two factors, and the more likely I was to believe that anyone’s view of the War is already tainted by biases and assumptions.  Over time, I learned never to rule out alternate ways of viewing the War or the Confederacy.  I decided that no one would ever discover the intellectual trump card that would prevail over other viewpoints about the War that killed more men than all other wars in American history, combined.

There’s always more than one way of looking at a conflict, be it this War or some other one.  And our imperfect understanding of conflicts—of anything, really—always consists of generalizations based on the confines of personal experience.  We can read about the events encompassing the War, and we can guess at the logic and beliefs that explain those events.  But we can never relive the War or experience it in real time; and if we are honest, we must say that we can never read all there is to read about the period, never fully know the way a nineteenth-century mind thought, never entirely understand the quotidian realities of the men and women of all races at those times and in those places.  Being human, moreover, we make mistakes and assumptions.  Most of us revise our errors when we notice them.  But some don’t.  Some try to rationalize the logic of the unrealities to which they cling. 

The constant accumulation of facts about the War has given us an enormous body of work that one person cannot exhaust in a single lifetime; our ideas about the War come necessarily from scattered and partisan knowledge-claims.  We draw conclusions based on what little we know, and if, reading and learning more, we discover that new facts verify our conclusions, we, within reason, treat those conclusions as authorized.  But if we find that our conclusions do not stand up to new data, we ought to refine or discard the conclusions.  This is how thinking works.

It is also, in a way, how scholarship works, or rather how it is supposed to work.  Learning is, or ought to be, organic.  It should adjust to, or dispense with, wrong and distorted facts; and it should integrate revelations about previously unknown data.  Such adaptive scholarship is called “revisionist” by some, but that signifier carries such stigma that I prefer “corrective.”

A corrective sets a derailed critical conversation back on track; it’s the push-back that must occur when scholarship has drifted from data and logic into the realm of fantasy or fiction.  It’s the equivalent of stepping back and saying, “Wait a minute—we’ve taken this too far.”

That’s what Gallagher does with The Union War.  He reminds us of the importance of Unionism to the War and the psychology of the average Northern soldier.  He reminds us that race was hardly a chief concern for the typical pro-war Northerner.  He reminds us that historians should avoid fetishizing victimhood at the expense of accurate facts and comprehensive data.  That’s why his work is important.  That’s why his book ought to be read.

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