This is not an impartial review. The majority of the essays in Gary Gallagher’s The Enduring Civil War: Reflections on the Great American Crisis first appeared as columns that he regularly writes for this magazine, and that he began at my behest in 2009. If I liked them when they ran in the magazine, how could I not like them now? So, I’m violating book review etiquette to praise this volume. I’ll sleep with a clean conscience.
Gallagher has spent his career in academia, first at Penn State University and then at the University of Virginia, from where he recently retired. He is the author or editor of more than 40 books and countless articles, and throughout his career he has been committed to reaching out to a popular audience and making Civil War history accessible. His university classes were legendary for filling up, he leads battlefield tours, and he advocates for battlefield preservation.
He also writes clear, thought-provoking, jargon-free history, such as you will find in this book. That is not as easy as it sounds, and one of the benefits to The Enduring Civil War is that both grizzled Civil War bibliophiles and newcomers to the study of the conflict will find the book digestible and stimulating.
Gallagher’s broad approach to studying the conflict has allowed him to cross paths with myriad topics, and that is reflected in this work. The Enduring Civil War consists of 73 essays, divided into six parts that show the breadth of his scholarship: Framing the War; Generals and Battles; Controversies; Historians and Books; Testimony from Participants; and Places and Public Culture.
Many of the essays are only 1,000 to 1,500 words in length. Don’t be misled by the word count. Gallagher is a succinct writer, and there is a great deal to digest in this volume. I can’t list each and every topic, but I have my favorites, two of which could fall into a category labeled, “Things I’ve been thinking about the Civil War, but was afraid to say.” Namely, what exactly did John Reynolds and John Sedgwick do to deserve their reputations, and the essay “The War was Won in the East,” which is something I have believed for a long time.
You’ll soon find your favorite entries in this handsome book. In some ways, the essays represent a stream of consciousness from one of America’s top Civil War scholars. What does he think about Shelby Foote? How did Gideon Welles influence policy? Did Vicksburg’s fall really matter? What is the best Civil War movie and why? (Hint, “Give ’em hell, 54th!”)
I love books like this. You can sit down and spend hours reading the various entries, or simply snap it open, pick an essay, read it, and come back for more later. Either way, you’ll be satisfied and, even if you don’t agree with Gallagher’s conclusions, given something meaty to think about.