Americans who lived through the Civil War established four great interpretive traditions regarding the conflict. The Union Cause tradition framed the war as preeminently an effort to maintain a viable republic in the face of secessionist actions that threatened both the work of the Founders and, by extension, the future of democracy in the Western world (most of the 22 million residents of the loyal states embraced the Union Cause as most important). The Lost Cause tradition cast the South’s experiment in nation-building as an admirable struggle against hopeless odds, muted the importance of slavery in bringing secession and war, and ascribed to Confederates constitutional high-mindedness and gallantry on the battlefield (most of the 51⁄2 million white Southerners subscribed to this tradition). The Emancipation Cause tradition interpreted the war as a struggle to liberate 4 million slaves and remove a cancerous influence on American society and politics (most African Americans and some white Northerners embraced this tradition). Finally, the Reconciliation Cause tradition represented an attempt by many whites both North and South to extol the American virtues of heroism and steadfastness manifested by both sides’ soldiers, to exalt the restored nation and to ignore the role of African Americans. Union, emancipation and reconciliation overlapped in some ways, as did the Lost Cause and reconciliation. Yet each can be seen as a distinct attempt to explain and understand the war.
I have spent much of the past 15 years exploring the memory of the Civil War. While mainly focused on the Lost Cause, my work also has revealed what I consider a fascinating dimension of our current engagement with the conflict—namely that the Union Cause is the least appreciated of the four great traditions. It is dismissed as unworthy of great sacrifice by many historians and is virtually absent in the popular understanding of the war. Yet a failure to grasp the importance of Union renders impossible an informed answer to the crucial question of what kept the loyal states engaged for so long in a hugely destructive struggle.
Anyone viewing Ken Burns’ The Civil War has heard Professor Barbara J. Fields observe that preservation of the Union was “a goal too shallow to be worth the sacrifice of a single life.” She maintains that only emancipation elevated the cause in a way that justified the awful human and material cost. This placement of slavery’s end in the forefront of what the U.S. victory accomplished makes sense to modern Americans, most of whom can easily grasp emancipation as a noble achievement. “Union,” in contrast, is a word that has virtually disappeared from our political vocabulary.
Yet first to last most people in the United States, which included the free states as well as the four slaveholding border states, would have said that the war was about restoring the Union. Republicans and many Democrats eventually accepted emancipation as a useful tool to help defeat the Rebels and punish the slaveholding class they deemed were responsible for secession and the outbreak of war; however, except among abolitionists and some Radical Republicans, the destruction of slavery took a back seat to Union.
Abraham Lincoln’s writings, soldiers’ letters and newspapers offer powerful evidence of the overwhelming importance of Union. Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address insisted the Union was perpetual. Summoning images of a shared democratic destiny, Lincoln closed on a lyrical note: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Very late in the war, Lincoln similarly alluded to the centrality of Union. “In a great national crisis, like ours,” he wrote on December 6, 1864, “unanimity of action among those seeking a common end is very desirable—almost indispensable….In this case the common end is the maintenance of the Union.” Emancipation, Lincoln added, stood “among the means to secure that end.”
Many soldiers also affirmed a profound attachment to the Union that stood as what Lincoln, in his annual message to Congress in December 1862, called “the last best hope of earth.” They believed democracy, liberty and freedom had suffered a setback in the failed European revolutions of 1848, thereby rendering the American democratic example all the more valuable. “I do feel that the liberty of the world is placed in our hands to defend,” wrote a Massachusetts soldier in 1862, “and if we are overcome then farewell to freedom.” An enlisted man from Connecticut similarly insisted that if “traitors be allowed to overthrow and break asunder ties most sacred—costing our forefathers long years of blood and toil, all the hope and confidence of the world in the capacity of men for self government will be lost….”
The New York Herald echoed these sentiments in describing the veterans who marched in the Grand Review in Washington in May 1865. The soldiers had “secured the perpetuity of that Union upon which the hopes of the oppressed of all climes and countries depend. They are the champions of free governments throughout the world…. From one end of the world to the other the people thank our soldiers for having conquered in the people’s cause.”
Anyone searching to know why U.S. citizens saw secession as something to be suppressed no matter how hideous the price must come to grips with the importance of Union. For many in the loyal states, it had a meaning that extended far beyond their nation’s boundaries. More than a third of a million U.S. soldiers died in the war, the very large majority of whom would have ranked restoration of the Union as their overriding goal. For them, Union promised liberty and freedom that, while restricted in many ways even with emancipation, would expand as the republic moved through the 19th century and into the 20th.