What This Cruel War Was Over

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Kevin Levin looks at Gary Gallagher's new book The Union War which serves as a counterpoint to effete liberal favorite Chandra Manning:


In The Union War, Gallagher's historiographic critique brings into sharp relief our tendency to minimize and even ignore the meaning that Northerners attached to Union. In my opinion there is no one better at distilling academic debates for a general audience. Gallagher devotes some of his sharpest criticisms to historians such as Chandra Manning and Barbara Field, who suggest that the massive amount of bloodshed could only be justified with emancipation and the end of slavery. On the contrary, Gallagher argues that this runs rough shod over the the meaning of Union to the vast majority of Americans who rallied around the flag and Lincoln's call to arms. As in his previous study, Gallagher devotes a great deal of time to the importance that Americans attached to the army as a symbol of the nation and to the citizen-soldier, who exemplified its strong sense of sacrifice and patriotism. At the center of this stood Ulysses S. Grant, who has been all but lost to our collective memory of the war.

I think it should be made clear, at the outset, that we aren't discussing "What caused the Civil War." We're discussing "Why Union soldiers fought." It's easy to mix those two questions, and there are certain dishonest persons who mix them in hopes of muddying slavery's causal role in the Civil War. 

To tease this out, the stated reason for the second Iraq War was to affect regime change and uncover WMD. This is the reason the country went to War, but it may not actually describe why soldiers on the ground fought. The South's stated reason for initiating the Civil War was slavery. There's no serious argument there. What motivated the actual soldiers, on both sides, is still a matter of dispute.

We'll talk more about Manning later this week. But I wonder--in the case of both Gallagher and Manning--how one can analyze the disparate motivations of an entire Army. Primary sources obviously play a huge role, but to be the curmudgeon here, how do you know you have a representative sample? How do you even define that?

Also, for those who missed it, here's our schedule for discussing Chandra Manning's book, What This Cruel War Was Over.

Friday, April 29: Intro and chapter 1 

Friday, May 6: Chapters 2-3 
Friday, May 13: Chapters 4-5 
Friday, May 20: Chapter 6 and conclusion
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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