History professor Gary Gallagher recently published his sixth book about the Civil War, The Union War.
What book first ignited your interest in the Civil War?
The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, published in 1960, featuring a gripping narrative by Bruce Catton and an array of stunning illustrations. This book, more than any other factor, put me on the road to being a historian of the Civil War era. It is still, more than 50 years later, the best book to give any young person interested in the topic.
What primary sources did you use while researching The Union War that illuminate the zeitgeist of the common Northerner?
I examined soldiers’ and civilians’ letters and diaries, a variety of Republican and Democratic newspapers, lyrics from popular songs, patriotic envelopes used to mail letters, early postwar histories of Union regiments and other sources to explain for modern readers why the loyal citizens in the United States decided it was worth fighting a brutal war to restore the Union. The Union represented the cherished legacy of the founding generation, a democratic republic with a constitution that guaranteed political liberty and afforded individuals a chance to better themselves economically. From the perspective of loyal Americans, their republic stood as the only hope for democracy in a Western world that had fallen more deeply into the stifling embrace of oligarchy since the failed European revolutions of the 1840s. Untold Unionists believed fervently that slaveholding aristocrats had established the Confederacy—and that they and their incipient nation posed a direct threat not only to the long-term success of the American republic but also to the broader future of democracy. Should armies of citizen-soldiers fail to restore the Union, forces of privilege on both sides of the Atlantic could pronounce ordinary people incapable of self-government and render irrelevant the military sacrifices and political genius of the Revolutionary fathers. Abundant evidence leaves no doubt that, first to last, most loyal citizens would have said the overriding goal of the war was restoration of the Union.
Which two books about the Civil War best portray the viewpoints of the North and South?
For the viewpoint of those in the United States, U.S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs is a masterpiece of American literature that towers above all other books written by presidents. Grant’s book deals beautifully with the sectional tensions before the war, the importance of citizen-soldiers in the effort to suppress the rebellion and the relationship between Union and emancipation in the loyal states. There is no comparably obvious choice on the Confederate side, but Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston’s Journal of a Secesh Lady, a massive diary kept by a woman in eastern North Carolina and first published in 1979, sheds considerable light on Confederate motivation, morale and ideology. Readers of Edmondston’s diary will emerge with a good sense of why the war lasted as long as it did, the changes it wrought in Confederate society and attitudes among defeated white Southerners leading into Reconstruction.