Modern conceptions of the Civil War grossly underestimate the importance of political union as a motivator to the northern psyche, said Professor Gary W. Gallagher, speaking Monday at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.
The 150th anniversary of the conflict’s start will be in April.
While modern audiences might easily see the abolition of slavery as a noble cause clearly worthy of sacrifice, many northerners were largely indifferent on the subject, coming to endorse it only in terms of a punishment for the rebel South, he said.
Instead, the professor argued, the chief motivating factor for the North was the concept of the country as an inviolable union. The citizens and their leaders prized the freedoms they had won in the American Revolution and saw themselves in sharp contrast to the oligarchical setups then in favor in Europe, he said. Northerners viewed the South as the domain of moneyed aristocrats and feared that allowing the country to split would mean, essentially, the death of the republic. So they felt they had to force the Confederate states to rejoin the United States.
“They believed to do otherwise would betray the generation who established the Union, as well as future Americans,” he said.
While the modern American takes the stability of our country’s democracy for granted, citizenry at the middle of the 19th century understood that the country could easily lose what it had, less than a century ago, gained, he said.
At the same time, the professor said, the South’s decision to leave the Union was almost entirely predicated on the question of slavery. He described the move as an “anticipatory gamble,” not a principled stand for states’ rights.
Thus, northerners were fighting to preserve the Union, southerners to preserve slavery, he said.
In passing, Gallagher also disagreed with a number of other widely held beliefs about the Civil War:
Lee didn’t outclass all the northern generals, he argued. Instead, the South had better generals in the East, while the North had better generals in the West. Lee was the best Confederate general, but the North ultimately found several men capable of leading entire armies, he said.
And while the Southern forces were outnumbered, the fight wasn’t a doomed cause, Gallagher said.
He joked that many act as though “it was Robert E. Lee and 11 guys, and they only had five shoes among them.” In truth, the fight was actually much closer, he said. Indeed, the South merely needed to convince the North to quit the war, a decision largely made by the civilian population and one the Confederates came close to pulling off more than once, he said.
Audience member William Moore called Gallagher one of the best authorities on the Civil War.
“He gives a very balanced position based on his long study and research,” Moore said. “He’s nationally known as an authority on the subject and he speaks with great authority and enthusiasm.”
Gallagher is the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at UVa. His latest book, “The Union War,” will be published in March.
Larry Rubendall, also in the audience, has seen him speak several times.
He said, “He’s very interesting, very entertaining.”