What Union Meant

I’ve said it before that I often find it difficult to teach my students the concept of Union as it was understood during the Civil War era by the vast majority of Americans. We have some sense of why white Southerners took up arms for the Confederacy. It’s a tangible explanation that each of us can easily empathize with, but Union often seems abstract. Arguably this difficulty tells us much more about our own views of the federal government and the level of trust we place in our elected leaders since the 1970s.

I am a big fan of The Civil War Trusts Civil War in 4 video series. In 2012 I did one on memory. In the video below Gary Gallagher discusses the importance of Union and how it framed notions of American Exceptionalism. It hits on many of the themes in his most recent book and is ideal for classroom use.

[Uploaded to Vimeo on December 13, 2014]

16 comments… add one
  • Why resist secession? Here are some things to consider.

    Think about any king, dictator, or head of government. Faced with a division of the country he heads, what does he do? What were the reactions in the national capitals to proposed independence of Quebec, Catalonia, and Scotland? How did the Serbian chiefs react to the prospect of a breakup of Yugoslavia? Vladimir Putin (IIRC) says the breakup of the USSR was the worst happening in world history. Do Americans resist placing the US on a plane that enables comparison with other governments?

    Consider the political resentment in the North to what some believed was the unfair advantage of proslavery in national affairs. Was there behind Unionist talk a spirit of “It’s *our* turn now.” Think about Rahm Emanuel’s famous line: “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” The secession crisis gave the Republicans a chance to redefine America in their terms. Don’t you think they made good use of it? What does the Gettysburg Address say about the confederate grab for independence? The Pledge of Allegiance?

    Consider the political threats posed by an independent CSA. Speculate a little about the entirely things an independent CSA might do:
    1. stir up trouble in the remaining US and encourage further secessions.
    2. press for a division of the western territories.
    3. try to use lower Mississippi as a choke point. Think about Russia today, natural gas, and the Ukraine.
    4.move closer to European powers in order to protect CSA independence.
    5. seek closer commercial ties with the UK and its merchant fleet.
    6. build a competent defense force, which in turn would require an increase in defense costs in the remaining US. By 1860, many well-to-do Americans had traveled in Europe, and had seen with their own eyes the costly defense forces there. Young Henry Adams, in a letter commented on this issue, asserting it would be cheaper in the long run to take down the Confederacy than to defend against it in.
    7. It might have been “the end of the dream of manifest destiny” as a newsgroup discussant said, maybe the end of the dream of the Monroe Doctrine.

    If speculation now makes these things visible, then educated Americans in the north must have been able to see them. Could these help explain why the north responded as they did? As far as I know the only important peace movement was composed of the copperheads, and many of them believed until 1864 that reunion could be achieved by peaceful negotiation.

    Why aren’t these “realpolitik” considerations given greater prominence in the American discussions of the Civil War? Have these discussions have been influenced by sectional recrimination? Who among the contending discussants even wants to emphasize them? I have to guess about this, but here are my guesses. Not the CSA-venerators, perhaps because they make unionism seem much more realistic and understandable, and the gamble of their rebel heroes seem more reckless. Not the latter-day Unionists, perhaps because they don’t want to let go the “it was slavery” fixation, which is part of their sectional “Treasury of Virtue”, as I believe Robert Penn Warren styled it.

    Do these considerations bring unionist policy within the frame of understandable political behavior?

  • Accepting that there are limits to a 4-minute discussion of any particular issue, I don’t think Gallagher does a great job here. Does the word ‘conscription’ even come up once? There seems to be an attempt to put a rosy glow around the concept of Union, without recognizing realities like conscription, the NY Draft Riot, desertion by enlisted men, etc.

    Didn’t Mark Twain express his feeling about Union by moving to California and sitting out the war in peace? Surely, he wasn’t the only American who just wanted to be left out of the whole bloody mess.

    I guess my main complaint is that Gallagher doesn’t seem to recognize the coercive nature of the conflict. Individual Americans, particularly young men, weren’t really given a choice on whether to participate or not. It was simply demanded of them that they choose sides.

    • Gallagher covers all of this in his book, The Union War. It’s impossible to imagine a civil war lasting as long as ours did without it generating a certain amount of dissent. What I think is important to remember is that a sizable segment of the United States was willing to continue the fight to preserve what Lincoln viewed as “the last great hope of Earth.” Conscription is crucial to understand, but what about the large number of Union soldiers who chose to reenlist in 1864?

      I think Gallagher is driven to remind Americans today of a concept that all too often is ignored or misunderstood, but is essential to fully appreciating the actions of the loyal citizenry.

      • I may be overly influenced by recently reading Barnet Schecter’s “The Devil’s Own Work,” his book-length study of the NYC Draft Riots. The Tammany Hall Democrats and their Copperhead brethren certainly had a different view of Union than Gallagher’s, and the working-poor rioters of 1863 recognized (in their own murderous way) that black rights were at the source of the war, not some idealized notion of democracy.

        In Gallagher’s defense, the anti-war sentiment in NYC does not seem to have widely shared through the rest of the North, and its violence was certainly a local phenomenon.

      • Not only did many men reenlist, but when doing so, they were part of military units with the designation “Veteran Volunteer Infantry,” such as the 101st Pennsylvania V.V.I. This was done to distinguish them from draftees and newly enlisted men. They were quite proud of their military service and their belief in the cause of union.

  • I learned a lot from Gallagher’s The Union War, but the video didn’t do the book justice (not surprisingly I suppose). In the book Gallagher explains that “Union” in 1860 meant what we would call democracy and the American Dream, and he also tried to explain why secession was seen by Unionists as a threat to democracy in the non-seceding states. In other words, why Unionists who didn’t care about slavery or the internal affairs of (for example) South Carolina nonetheless felt compelled to fight. As I recall his argument, it had to do with precedent: if secession was accepted it meant that future controversies could not be resolved democratically, which would result in the eventual death of democracy in the non-seceding states. Assuming that Gallagher’s description of Unionist political opinion is accurate, even after reading the book I was puzzled WHY people felt that secession had such an ominous precedent value – it just doesn’t seem to follow. It would have been better if he had spent more of his four video minutes focusing on this last, tricky point.

    • Assuming that Gallagher’s description of Unionist political opinion is accurate, even after reading the book I was puzzled WHY people felt that secession had such an ominous precedent value – it just doesn’t seem to follow.

      I highly recommend Lincoln and the Decision for War (UNC Press, 2010).

      • thanks for the tip Kevin, that book looks great.

  • I liked the video. I thought it gave a concise story of what Union meant. Many Northerners could sit out the war if they wanted (and many did), but those that went did so voluntarily (until the draft) and then would re-enlist after the expiration of their terms. He could have mentioned that the Border States went heavily for Union and that 250,000 White Southerners also believed enough in the Union to fight for it. It’s a big country, opinions will differ even within those on the same side or geographic local, but generally and overwhelmingly, the idea of Union as presented motivated the Federal armies, despite defeat, hardship, political bickering, draft resistance, to the final victorious end.

    • Good points. As someone who helped produce one of these videos I can say that it is difficult cramming it all in.

  • Seems consistent with the arguments advanced in Chandra Manning’s 2007 book “What This Cruel War Was Over”. Manning emphasizes the effects of the second Great Awakening in the northern states as engendering the concept of “American Exceptionalism” as religiously-based and realized as “union”.

    • In fact, Gallagher’s thesis stands in sharp contrast to that posed by Manning. Manning argues that early on in the war (before the Emancipation Proclamation) Union soldiers adopted emancipation as their primary goal. Gallagher suggests that it was union that the vast majority of soldiers fought primarily to preserve with the abolition of slavery as a means to that end.

      • In fact, a large part of Union War is devoted to critiquing What This Cruel War Was Over. Having read both books, I’m with Gallagher – I’d like to believe Manning’s thesis that antislavery was a major motivating factor for Union Army soldiers, but Gallagher is much more convincing that antislavery was never more than a minor strain within the Union Army. To be more precise, Gallagher’s thesis is that destroying slavery was seen by most as a means to preserving the Union, not an end in itself. The overwhelming indifference among the Northern public to the postwar welfare of the freedmen is sad corroboration of Gallagher’s view.

        • Manning’s book is well worth reading. I think her thesis is strongest when dealing with Union armies that operated out West, which came into contact much earlier with large slave populations earlier in the war compared with the Army of the Potomac.

        • James Harrigan wrote:
          “To be more precise, Gallagher’s thesis is that destroying slavery was seen by most as a means to preserving the Union, not an end in itself. ”

          About the unionists, I wonder, “Why preserve the Union?” What from the unionist standpoint was it good for? Is there evidence that unionists placed a positive value on a national political brotherhood with slavelords, poor whites, and blacks? Is it possible that , in the unionist understanding, disunion threatened a huge disadvantages to the projected loyal US, that these disadvantages were so obvious to educated leaders that they required little discussion?

          In the slave states, the leaders *had* to “calculate the value of the union”, because union contained threats to their wealth and power. When they made that calculation, the outcome was secession. This kind of calculation didn’t come into play in the loyal states, because it was *disunion* that threatened their wealth and power.

          Thus what was needed in the loyal states was not explanations of the practical value of the union, or of the disadvantages of disunion. What was needed was an appeal to head off a visible threat.

  • From having studied one Pennsylvania county (Thaddeus Stevens’ congressional district, nonetheless) in depth, I wholeheartedly subscribe to Gallagher’s thesis. While the median soldier did not to war to end slavery directly, it’s rather impressive how frequently they referenced the mudsill idea from the “Cotton is King” speech or the political situation in Hungary or Italy.

    One thing that I’m not sure if Gallagher addresses, though, is how the idea of Union could be employed to anti-abolitionist ends, particularly in the context of Kansas. Democratic newspaper editors aggressively used a Union argument against people (Lutheran pastors, in a couple incidents that I have followed) who beginning to (finally) articulate an antislavery moral in response to the Kansas debate.

    Noting the strength and robustness of the Union argument in 1861, I wonder if if a Union with slavery could have persisted several decades had it not been for secession and Fort Sumter. It’s hard to see the median Northerner prioritizing abolition over Union for another generation or so.


Leave a Comment