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The Union War

by Gary W. Gallagher, Harvard University Press

In a 2008 study, Gary W. Gallagher lamented that the process of evaluating how the Northern war effort acted as an agent of emancipation and freedom seemed to have led historians and other shapers of historical memory to miss how important the Union in and of itself was to the wartime North. In The Union War, Gallagher sets out to provide a necessary corrective.

Gallagher’s scholarly stature rests on his contributions as an essayist whose articles and anthologies have done much to demonstrate the enduring value of this form of scholarship. Like many of Gallagher’s previous books, his most recent is a compilation of scholarly essays organized around a central subject—in this case the concept of the Union.

He opens with a compelling analysis of the Grand Review of the Union armies in May 1865. This serves as a point of departure for subsequent chapters in which he examines such issues as what the Union meant to the Civil War generation in the North, its relationship to the (nearly always subordinate) questions associated with slavery and the freedmen, and how soldiers in the Union armies as well as the men who led them (above all Ulysses S. Grant) perceived and came to symbolize the Union cause. Throughout, Gallagher’s analysis is thoughtful, persuasive and supported by copious references to wartime writings and also wartime illustrations and early regimental histories.

Although one might quibble that a study seeking to restore the Union to its central place in the minds of Northerners could perhaps have used a bit more discussion of Stephen Douglas and George McClellan—who probably more than any other men of the Civil War generation symbolized strict devotion to the Union cause—most readers will find The Union War eminently satisfactory.

Drawing on impressive research, and effectively and judiciously engaging the arguments that have been made by other scholars, Gary Gallagher has once again employed his facile pen to produce a compelling work, one that merits the attention of anyone interested in the Civil War.


Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here