Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Review - "The Enduring Civil War: Reflections on the Great American Crisis" by Gary Gallagher

[The Enduring Civil War: Reflections on the Great American Crisis by Gary W. Gallagher (Louisiana State University Press, 2020). Cloth, photos, illustrations, appendix, notes, index. Pages main/total:xiii,237/292. ISBN:978-0-8071-7348-0. $34.95]

For more than a decade (since April 2009 to be precise), issues of the popular magazine Civil War Times featured a brief topical essay written by noted historian Gary Gallagher. Given carte blanche in terms of content (the only limitation being that each piece had to be no more than 1,000 words in length), Gallagher produced succinct and frequently quite punchy essays exploring many of the subjects that interested him most over his long career inside and outside the academy. In his own words, Gallagher wanted his essays "to expose tensions among parts of the recent literature that cover peripheral or secondary dimensions of the conflict" while also wishing them "to place our contemporary understanding of the Civil War, both academic and popular, in conversation with testimony from people in the United States and the Confederacy who experienced and described it." There are other themes, but those are certainly the most commonly expressed ones. Collecting 71 of those previously published CWT essays (plus two more published elsewhere) is Gallagher's new book The Enduring Civil War: Reflections on the Great American Crisis.

The essays are grouped (with a short introduction to each) into six main themes: "Framing the War," "Generals and Battles," "Controversies," "Historians and Books," "Testimony from Participants," and "Places and Culture." The pieces mostly remain as they were originally published, though Gallagher notes that a small number were further revised (with some likely expanded beyond the original 1,000-word limit). He also added endnotes to the entire collection and restored the titles of many of the essays to their original text (see the appendix for a complete bibliographical roster).

In several essays, Gallagher offers common laments regarding some of the general public's sustained beliefs in Lost Cause tenets when it comes to origins, conduct, and outcomes of the war. He also offers the typical professional historian's refrain about the great majority of avocational readers and authors being only interested in campaigns, battles, and leaders (note: this reviewer views that brand of blanket observation as outdated in its representation of the current day's increasingly small but arguably more diverse Civil War lay reading audience). On the other side of the equation, Gallagher reserves some of his most pointed cautionary judgments for professional colleagues engaged in either certain brands of historical revisionism or laboring in various narrow subspecialties currently in vogue. A sampling includes those social historians who leave military history almost entirely out of their analysis, promote the idea of the "long Civil War," and formulate self-emancipation narratives that minimize to the point of exclusion the role of the Union Army in freeing the slaves. Of the first, Gallagher argues powerfully that the war years cannot be understood in any meaningful manner without some integration of military history into the discussion. Similarly, it is the author's contention that expanding the Civil War far beyond summer 1865 and even into the present day improperly devalues the very significant and permanent accomplishments of the war itself. On the third point, Gallagher, citing evidence, persuasively contends that the Union Army was a primary force in emancipation and ignoring that is a disservice both to it and history. Also, in Gallagher's view, those specializing in Civil War "dark" history, though engaged in important work, too often present the exceptional as the norm (or at least, one might add, leave that impression upon the reader).

Gallagher adopts a number of contrarian views regarding current "fashions" in Civil War scholarship. For instance, in the book he continues to argue for eastern theater primacy and against those in favor of dissolving the barrier between the Civil War on the one side and contemporary Indian Wars and westward expansion on the other. Unmoved by the recent scholarly work of Daniel Sutherland, Clay Mountcastle, and others, Gallagher also forcefully believes that guerrilla warfare had no measurable impact on the course and outcome of the war. Partially related to that is the author's long-held contention that the Trans-Mississippi theater was entirely insignificant. Objections, sometimes even heated responses, to these pieces were raised by readers and scholars (and this reviewer also feels evidence doesn't broadly support a number of them), but in each case Gallagher's stated reasoning behind his own views and interpretations possesses merit worthy of continuing debate.

Gallagher's long tenure as a series editor at UNC Press resulted in the press's acquisition of numerous classic military history studies along with publication of the venerable Military Campaigns of the Civil War anthology series, but it remains a career curiosity that Gallagher himself never tried his hand at a Civil War campaign or battle history. Nevertheless, many of the essays in this compilation are concerned with military topics of personal interest to the writer. These include critiques and comparisons of the generalships of Grant, Lee, Sheridan, Jackson, and others, and several essays address the Battle of Gettysburg on some level.

Numerous essays address books and present recommendations. In them, Gallagher mines his decades of research and study to offer readers short "best of" lists or highlight gems (hidden or otherwise) when it comes to categories like soldier letters, female Confederate writers, publications by veterans who were Harvard graduates, and more. Indispensable diaries (ex. those of Gideon Welles, John B. Jones, Josiah Gorgas, and more) and other wartime accounts are discussed in a number of informative standalone essays. Gallagher also devotes entire essays to memorializing the careers and influential historiographical contributions of important past historians, among them David Potter, Ella Lonn, Harry Pfanz, and Allan Nevins.

The above refers to just a selection of the volume's total range. Gallagher additionally addresses battlefield interpretation and preservation, the depiction of Civil War topics in film, and numerous other subjects at the intersection of history and memory.

The volume is promoted as one that won't likely be read cover to cover in typical front to back fashion, but this reviewer, who doesn't often find books like this appealing, did just that and found the experience to be a thoroughly engaging one. For the most part, Gallagher's essays adopt the attitude one would like to get from a distinguished emeritus historian, one that is curious and respectful of current trends among the profession's more youthful movements but also wary of where those might take us. Exposing readers of all levels to the full range of Gary Gallagher's scholarly interests and attainments as teacher, writer, interpretive pioneer (ex. in the area of Union soldier motivation), media popularizer, guide, and editor, The Enduring Civil War is a recommended collection of viewpoints from one of the true deans of the modern Civil War history profession.

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