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Editorial Reviews


Gary Gallagher, more carefully and precisely than anyone else, enables the reader to understand why so many citizen soldiers were willing to peril their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to preserve the United States as one nation, indivisible and, in Lincoln's words at Gettysburg, to give the "new nation" brought forth in 1776 a "new birth of freedom" in 1863. (James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom)

The Union Warreaffirms Gary Gallagher's reputation as one of the most astute and provocative writers on the American Civil War. This work places the Union at the heart of the war but also argues for the central role of armies and soldiers in understanding how the goals of reunion and emancipation were finally realized. With clarity and verve, Gallagher deals with large questions in an unfailingly profound way. (George C. Rable, author of God's Almost Chosen Peoples)

Gary Gallagher has written another gem in The Union War. A companion to his brilliant and controversial The Confederate War, this slender volume is sure to generate wide readership and debate. (Joseph T. Glatthaar, author of General Lee's Army: From Victory to Defeat)

A rare volume that forces us to reconsider how we think about the Civil War. Examining historic actors in the context of their own time and place, Gallagher reminds of the centrality of "Union" as the motivating force driving the Northern cause, and the significance of those citizen-soldiers who joined the Union Army in determining the results. (Matthew Gallman, author of Northerners at War: Reflections on the Civil War Home Front)

Brimming with insights, eloquent in argument, and filled with new evidence from the men who fought for the Union, this revisionist history will cause readers to rethink many of the now-standard Civil War interpretations. An essential work. (Randall M. Miller Library Journal (starred review) 2011-03-01)

This exceptionally fine book is in effect a companion piece to its author's The Confederate War, published in 1997... Now, in The Union War, Gallagher is back to take issue with what has become the new conventional wisdom, that the North fought the war in order to achieve the emancipation of the slaves. While welcoming the post-civil-rights-era emphasis on "slavery, emancipation, and the actions of black people, unfairly marginalized for decades in writings about the conflict," Gallagher makes a very strong case--in my view a virtually irrefutable one--that the overriding motive in the North was preservation of the Union...Gallagher, who holds a distinguished professorship in history at the University of Virginia, is far more interested in pursuing historical truth than in massaging whatever praiseworthy sentiments he may harbor on race, gender, class or anything else. He knows that for the historian the central obligation is to understand and interpret the past, not to judge it. This is what he has done, to exemplary effect, in The Union War. I suspect that one of his motives in writing it may have been to remind us of what a precious thing our Union is, a Union that we have come to take for granted. Fighting for its preservation was a noble thing, in and of itself. (Jonathan Yardley Washington Post 2011-04-15)

Gary Gallagher, a Civil War historian at the University of Virginia, aims to recover an antebellum understanding of the Civil War. In his new book, The Union War, Gallagher argues that Northerners actually went to war to support the abstract idea of "Union"--a political idea, he writes, whose "meaning has been almost completely effaced" from our modern political consciousness. (Josh Rothman Boston Globe blog 2011-04-19)

In The Union War, Gallagher offers not so much a history of wartime patriotism as a series of meditations on the meaning of the Union to Northerners, the role of slavery in the conflict and how historians have interpreted (and in his view misinterpreted) these matters...At a time when only half the population bothers to vote and many Americans hold their elected representatives in contempt, Gallagher offers a salutary reminder of the power of democratic ideals not simply to Northerners in the era of the Civil War, but also to people in other nations, who celebrated the Union victory as a harbinger of greater rights for themselves. Imaginatively invoking sources neglected by other scholars--wartime songs, patriotic images on mailing envelopes and in illustrated publications, and regimental histories written during and immediately after the conflict--Gallagher gives a dramatic portrait of the power of wartime nationalism. (Eric Foner New York Times Book Review 2011-05-01)

While mindful of slavery's complex and deleterious role in fomenting disunion, Gallagher emphasizes the centrality of Northerners' devotion to the idea of the Union of their grandparents and their parents...Historians who stress emancipation over Union, Gallagher insists, miss the realities of antebellum inequalities based on class, gender and race...Gallagher's great contribution lies in contextualizing and underscoring the broad meaning of the Union, and later emancipation, to Northerners. (John David Smith News & Observer 2011-05-22)

Gallagher, one of the nation's preeminent Civil War scholars and a professor at the University of Virginia, deals in his latest book of the question of why did the North fight? His answer is in the volume's first sentence: The loyal American citizenry fought a war for Union that also killed slavery. This fast-paced review of the controversies that civil war historians have been arguing about is opinionated, well-informed, provocative and just the thing any American history buff needs to read this spring as our country gears up for the sesquicentennial of the conflict that made the United States begin to live up to the Declaration's words that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." (Karl Rove Rove.com 2011-05-19)

Gallagher recaptures the meaning of Union to the generation that fought for it. He rescues the "Cause" for which they fought from modern historians who maintain that the abolition of slavery was the only achievement of the Civil War that justified all that death and destruction...He makes his point with force and clarity. (James M. McPherson New York Review of Books 2011-07-14)

Bold, fast-paced, and provocative...The Union War offers a searing critique of what Gallagher terms anachronistic scholarship that privileges emancipation and the agency of African-Americans during the war over loyal citizens' commitment to the concept of a perpetual Union. Accusing historians of allowing "modern sensibilities" to skew their "view of how participants of a distant era understood the war," Gallagher finds, not surprisingly, that their scholarship exposes "the many ways in which wartime Northerners fell short of later standards of acceptable thought and behavior."...Gallagher reminds us of the centrality and importance of the Union to the war that forever ended serious threats of secession and racial slavery. (John David Smith Chronicle of Higher Education 2011-06-19)

[An] important work. (Lawton Posey Charleston Gazette 2011-06-18)

This slender volume offers a convincing demonstration of what motivated most white U.S. citizens during the Civil War. Theirs was not a quest to end slavery, although emancipation became a vital tactic in the epic conflict...Gallagher shows that participants fought to save a political arrangement they considered sacred, and begrudgingly supported emancipation as the best way to bring the secessionist serpent to heel. (E. R. Crowther Choice 2011-12-01)

About the Author

Gary W. Gallagher is John L. Nau III Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (April 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674045629
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674045620
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #619,130 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 19, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
not why it started. Gary Gallagher, professor at the University of Virginia and Penn State and noted Civil War historian, has written a short book on "why" the northern soldiers fought their southern brethren. Conventional wisdom aside - that it was the question of slavery and the righteousness of the practice - Gallagher says the real reason was the idea of "union".

Many of the soldiers and lawmakers had fathers and grandfathers who had fought the British for Independence and the sense of "Union" of the "United States of America". To these men, "preserving" the Union was as important as their forefathers having attained it in the first place. Look at the word "union" and the phrase "the Union". Both mean virtually the same thing but only one applies to a specific entity. And these men were willing to die for that "union".

But what about slavery and the idea of the North fighting to emancipate the slaves? The South may have begun with war with the yell of "states' rights" but the idea of fighting to keep those rights - including the practice of slavery - was a southern ideal. Gallagher states that while slavery was not well regarded in the north, he didn't feel it was the reason the north fought. He quotes Abraham Lincoln - on page 50 - of the three practicalities he had in freeing the slaves in the context of fighting and winning the war.

Gallagher also writes about those thousands of immigrants who joined native-born Americans in the northern armies. What were they fighting for? Again, "union" and the idea of a country that was seen in Europe as a "bright spot" among nations. Many countries - France, the German States, the Austria/Hungary - had weathered uprisings in 1848 by citizens protesting traditional rule.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 8, 2012
Format: Hardcover
With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, there has been an increase in both scholarly and popular interest in this seminal event of American history. Among the best of the recent studies of the conflict is "The Union War", a short, provocative examination of the reasons that led the United States to fight this long, costly, and bloody war rather than, say, accept secession. The author, Gary Gallagher, is a widely respected Civil War scholar who is John Nau III Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His many other books include a companion volume called "The Confederate War." The Confederate War

Beginning in the 1960s, students of the Civil War have focused on Emancipation --- freeing the slaves -- as the dominant goal and accomplishment of the Civil War. In his carefully nuanced study, Gallagher argues that this conclusion demands substantial modification and clarification. It is important to consider Emancipation from the perspectives of North and South. Gallagher admits, together with most modern scholarship, the the South seceeded and went to war to protect its "peculiar institution" of slavery. With this granted at the outset, Gallagher examines the reasons the the North fought the secessionists. His basic answer is "Union". The United States fought to hold the country together and not primarily to end slavery. If the conflict had ended in the spring of 1862, as it might have with Grant's victories in the West and McClellan at the gates of Richmond, it is doubtful that Emancipation would have been a condition of the Confederacy's surrender.
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24 of 30 people found the following review helpful By dcreader VINE VOICE on May 3, 2011
Format: Hardcover
An often neglected topic of Civil War literature is the role preserving the Union played in motivating the North. Even when the importance of preservation of the Union is acknowledged, it's often relegated to second tier status in favor of emancipation.

University of Virginia professor Gary Gallagher's latest work replaces preservation of the Union as the primary goal for which the North fought, helping 21st century Americans understand why it was so beloved by those willing to die for it. He differentiates this Northern GOAL from the war's CAUSE, which was "beyond dispute...controversies related to slavery." The Union War provides insight into subjective Union views on topics related to the war's aims, although it does not offer an objective assessment of their accuracy (e.g., whether the Union really afford its citizens, particularly those in urban slums and factories the economic opportunities often claimed). At the same time, it disputes the thesis that emancipation emerged as a goal equal to or greater than Union by the war's conclusion. To the vast majority of the North, emancipation remained a necessary tool to prosecute the war, and restoring the status quo ante was unthinkable given how slavery had nearly destroyed their beloved Union.

In a day when we debate concepts such as "American exceptionalism" there was little doubt that it was exceptional in 1861 in terms of popular government, or self-rule by the common (white) man.
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