Union and Civil War Memory

Today Brooks Simpson is asking his readers for their understanding of why white northerners resisted secession and disunion in 1861.  It’s a good question and one that is rarely discussed or taken seriously.  I’ve learned a great deal from reading Russell McClintock’s Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession.

Brooks’s question is a good one, but I think we can extend it south of the Mason-Dixon Line as well.  Paul Quigley does a brilliant job in his new book of analyzing how white southerners negotiated their own deep ties to union during this period, including those who remained loyal and those who came to identify closely with the Confederacy.

My question is a slightly different one.  Why do we find it so difficult to appreciate the concept of union for millions of Americans (north and south) in 1861?  It’s also challenging to teach it and as I contemplate my own return to the classroom in a few weeks I look forward to the opportunity to take another crack at it.  In the meantime here is a lecture by Gary Gallagher in which he explores some of these questions based on his latest book, The Union War.

9 comments… add one
  • Patrick Young Sep 16, 2013 @ 3:50

    Today a lot of friends sent me this animated map showing the constantly changing borders of Europe over the last 1,000 years. It is a good reminder that many of the immigrants who fought in the Civil War thought that the splitting of the USA into two different countries would not end there. They thought that the European experience would be reproduced in the New World, that other groups of states would secede from the Confederacy or the US, that border wars would become a fact of life, and that foreign powers would use American weakness as a way to reassert colonial control in North America.

    Too many Americans believe that if the South had been able to secede either peacefully or through military victory, that would have established a new status quo. Immigrants knew that countries did not buy peace by becoming weaker.


  • Rob Baker Aug 21, 2012 @ 9:11

    My question is a slightly different one. Why do we find it so difficult to appreciate the concept of union for millions of Americans (north and south) in 1861?

    Just to clarify before attempting to answer the question, are you asking why we today have difficulty accepting that a solidified union existed in 1861; or that millions in 1861 considered themselves to be a part of a Union?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2012 @ 9:17

      Why we today find it difficult…

      • Rob Baker Aug 21, 2012 @ 10:08

        Thank you.

        I think its arguable that sectionalism plays a role for many today; perhaps in the form of regioinalism. I don’t think that all people wrapped up in regionalism today are secessionists much like I don’t think that sectionalists of 1861 were all secessionists. There is an apparent belief in a regional superiority today tough. I don’t think it is any where near as zealous as in 1861. Most people today understand and embrace this concept without approaching the zealous sectionalism that was apparent in 1861. This demonstrates, to me anyways, that “disunion” in 1861 does not seem too far fetched to many of us.

        I think what also shapes this belief is the spur of nationalism that took place in the late 19th century through to the present. Many Americans see themselves as more “patriotic” than ever before. Looking back to the days of the Civil War, it’s easy for modern eyes to see a less than adequate amount of positive sentiments for Uncle Sam.

        So perhaps to sort of round out my answer here; I think the answer to your question is that a surge of nationalism causes many to look at sectionalism, both today and in 1861, as “unpatriotic.” Many see a divided America that does not fit that nationalistic norm of today. I’d argue those that can see the great number of unionists, are also less than zealous in their “patriotic” fervor at present. The ones that perhaps have the most “patriotism” are located in the part of the country that represents a high light in 1861 sectionalism. It’s hard for those so patriotic today, to accept themselves as anything short of “true Americans.” Hence why so many of our friends often consider the CSA the embodiment of “true American values.”

  • Jon Morrison Aug 21, 2012 @ 4:42

    Southern Unionists also resisted secession….here is an interesting quote on why they were against it:
    “If secession were admitted as a legal device, then the future of the United States was easily written”, the preamble to a Union Southern Rights Meeting in Stuart County, Georgia, warned, “If this confederacy is destroyed all is lost! Separation will follow separation, until the whole country is divided into little petty States and fractions, who, too weak to defend themselves, will become the prey of military leaders and demagogues.” Unionists realized that once secession was permitted, there was no stopping the process of fragmentation because any group with a complaint could then announce its intention to separate unless its wishes were fulfilled. Secession was the “squeal” of those who “must be allowed to do what [they] please.” Caving in to secessionists would positively destroy any central government: “the inevitable consequence will be, that the Federal authority will cease to be respected at home.” In Alabama, a unionist believed “if the doctrine of `peaceable secession’ is recognized, and the false pride or unreasonable whims of a State are deemed sufficient reasons for its exercise, no year would pass without some one of the States throwing the whole machinery of government into a score of weak but hostile communities.”

    Quite frankly, they were afraid of anarchy.

  • Marilyn Jess Aug 20, 2012 @ 9:07

    Listen to the last two minutes of Dr. Gallagher’s talk. It explains, in the words of a former Confederate, what emancipation meant to him. Tells you so much.

  • stephen matlock Aug 20, 2012 @ 6:33

    This is an interesting topic, and really one I’ve not seen talked about *much* (I have seen it discussed, but in a desultory way).

    There was a mix of people who believed in disunion and union in the United States preceding and during the Civil War, and I hazard that the disunionists were clustered in the southern states. But there was that mix, widespread.

    The one thing I don’t think I learned in my studies of the Civil War during my high school years (and even college) was that this disjoint union existed. Of course, it’s been decades, and perhaps I’ve forgotten much. But it really was a new thing to discover that there really was a mix of people, and it lasted through the whole war.

    I remember reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the line “When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it,” and then thinking, “Oh, this is all just made up. The south which seceded was uniformly secessionist.” Understanding this feeling of widespread unionism puts new context into that statement by Harper Lee.

  • Pat Young Aug 20, 2012 @ 5:29

    We find it difficult to appreciate “Union” because we take it for granted. I can’t imagine showing a passport to get into Virginia.

    When I teach immigrants in my civics classes, the idea of the United States being a unified whole is so intrinsic to the immigrants idea of this country that they find it almost impossible to believe that anyone ever thought we would be better off split into two or more republics. Latinos tell me that their native countries’ greatest failure after independence was the inability to unite into large confederations based on the US model. This left them open to interference by European powers (and later by the US). They understand the dangers of disunion. They see Union as part of the genius of our system.

    Since we, native born and immigrant alike (at least those of us who are sane), never think of the US split up, it is hard to get in touch with the emotionalism of the concept of Union.

    The slavery aspect of the war is what modern people can feel more directly because most of us have seen racial conflict/discrimination and can understand why that was a motivator in 1860. A hundred years from now, if the US is truly post-racial, this motive for the war might seem as alien as the bloody conflicts between one sect of Protestants and another in the 17th Century over the nature of the divinity of Jesus.

    Skin color is still important here. People still avoid moving to neighborhoods based on it. Some day this will not, I pray, be so, but til then, we can still feel part of that racial motive in our heart of darkness.

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