An Interview with Historian Gary Gallagher

Understanding Our Past

By Clayton Butler

The Civil War Trust's own Clayton Butler recently had the opportunity to sit down with one the most distinguished scholars in the field of Civil War history – Dr. Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia. He shared his thoughts on the state of current Civil War scholarship and the compelling nature of Civil War history for scholars and the general public alike. As Dr. Gallagher make clear, the field of Civil War history has only strengthened as it has expanded, and continues to be heir to an extraordinarily rich tradition of first-rate scholarship and research.


Clayton Butler: How do you account for the lack of proper military history in a college class on the Civil War?

Gary Gallagher: I think there’s an animus against military history. Many people in my world pretend that it’s simplistic, that it’s just: “This regiment went there, and that brigade went there…” and glorifies militaristic things and so forth. That view doesn’t at all come to grips with the profound intersection between military campaigns and everything else. Emancipation came about because the United States Army got into the Confederacy. All of the legislation, all of the yearnings on the part of enslaved black people to be free, everything all the opponents of slavery wanted to try to do – none of that would have mattered if U.S. military forces hadn’t projected power. The only enslaved people freed during the war were those close enough to some Union army to seize freedom. Virtually no slaves in Texas were freed before the end of the war. The U.S. Army didn’t get there. Only one in seven slaves were freed by the war – that’s the Freedom Project’s number. Half a million out of three and a half million, so that tells you how the absence of Union military power could allow slavery to survive…

You can’t understand the Civil War – you can only pretend to - without really understanding military affairs. Harpers Weekly devoted eighty percent of its covers to military affairs during the war. It’s just interesting how many people teach the war without the war in it – but it’s very common.

That's the stuff that's naturally most compelling to me, the military history.

GG: It’s what is most compelling to most lay readers who read about the war, too. But the people who don’t care about non-military things are just as misguided as those who are interested in anything but military affairs. You’ve got to put them both together to make sense of the war.

So [the move away from military history], that’s the trend as you see it.

Morgan's Raiders
While frequently spectacular, guerrilla warfare had limited strategic impact. Wikimedia Commons

GG: It’s not just a trend; it’s the way it’s always been. Academics are not very interested in military affairs, although they pretend to be sometimes. They’ve become somewhat interested in common soldiers, because they can apply some of the techniques of the New Social History – which is ancient now of course – to soldier studies and a few other things. But for the most part, they don’t know very much about military affairs; don’t care very much about military affairs; don’t deal with military affairs. They’re sometimes interested in the wreckage – the human wreckage of the war; the material wreckage of the war. They would say, “That’s military history,” and, in a sense, it is. But I think people are nibbling around the margins now, talking about topics that are important and interesting but deal with relatively few of the people who were involved in the war—for example, disabled veterans. Yes, there were lots of disabled veterans, and I applaud bringing their story into sharper relief; however, out of the three million men who served, the disabled veterans were a very small minority. They get disproportionate attention now. People are looking for new things to say about a field that’s been written about forever. A lot of the attention, I think, is on the margins now. The argument that “Guerrilla war is the best way to understand the war” is another example of this phenomenon. Well, it’s the best way to understand the war if you don’t really want to understand the war, would be my response. There were millions of men under arms, and not very many of them were guerrillas. The guerrillas did not decide the conflict, and the guerrillas did not decide whether there would be emancipation. I mean they were there, they were interesting, and they are an important topic – they’re not the main story.

Is there a former student, or someone you’ve read recently, that you feel will make a significant contribution to Civil War scholarship?

GG: I have a number of former students who have already made significant contributions, I think. Peter Carmichael, who holds Gabor Boritt’s old chair at Gettysburg College, is the first scholar to look seriously at generational differences. He looked at young Virginia slaveholding men, the last generation that came to maturity before the war, and how they had a different worldview than many others. That’s something we’d already sort of known, that someone born in the late 1830s was less likely to think well of people in the other section – whether you’re a Northerner or a Southerner--because you’d never known any time that wasn’t filled with sectional conflict. Someone like Robert E. Lee had lived thirty years of his life when there wasn’t tremendous sectional controversy. So there’s a real generational difference. Peter opened up that subject in a very useful way.

I have a former student who teaches at Purdue named Caroline Janney who wrote a really interesting book on the Ladies Memorial Associations that oversaw the reburial of the Confederate dead after the war and brought women to the forefront of the Lost Cause movement. No one had so effectively placed women in a prominent place in the development of the Lost Cause before. They were there right at the beginning, even before the men in lots of ways. Carrie brought that to the forefront.

Bill Blair, one of my students when I taught at Penn State, edits the main journal in the field: The Journal of the Civil War Era. I won’t go on and on. I have many former students who have made significant contributions.

Can you tell me what your students are doing now? What they’re researching?

GG: They’re doing many different kinds of things. I have one British-born student – Adrian Brettle – who’s working on Confederate ambitions for expansion during the war. We know a lot about southern expansionism before the war; Adrian carries that through the war, which no one else has done. The Confederates remained interested in economic and territorial expansion. They saw themselves as an incipient western power, and one thing western powers did was expand. This is a very interesting topic.

I have a student named Peter Luebke who’s looking at emancipation and Union; attitudes towards race and slavery among Union soldiers in different places. There’s been a fair amount of attention to that recently, most obviously by Chandra Manning. But most other people, and Peter would be among them, finds very little of the sort of early and ardent emancipation sentiment that Manning found. Peter’s got a fascinating chapter on minstrel shows in the Union army during the war.

A scene of tent life of the 31st Pennsylvania Regiment. Library of Congress

Although I have students working on a variety of topics, I don’t have anybody working on mainline military history. I’ve only had two students who did that. I don’t encourage students to pursue military topics because they would face a very difficult time finding a teaching job. They work on other things. I’ve had three students who’ve worked on the environment and the war. One of them, named Kathryn Meier, who teaches at VCU, wrote a dissertation that won the prize for the best first manuscript on military history of any kind—it will be out from the University of North Carolina Press later this year. Katy worked on the impact of the environment, both mentally and physically, on Union and Confederate soldiers in 1862. I think the environment is a promising area, although some of the work that’s been done on environmental history in the Civil War doesn’t really tell us much new about the conflict. Rather, it dresses up things we already know in a different way. It’s very hard to master a baseline knowledge of the Civil War, which I think people should try to do before they put their glosses on it. If you don’t understand the big thing, then the gloss often doesn’t work that well. But the environment is clearly a field that’s going to expand because environmental history is getting a lot more attention now.

Cultural history is dominant now, I think--social history was for a long time--and some cultural history is kind of squishy. It can be almost anything. I think that’s becoming more and more inviting to people, perhaps because you don’t really have to know a lot in some ways. You can find a few texts that you really like and give them a close reading and massage them in certain ways, and you have a dissertation or a book. That saves a lot of time slogging through manuscripts and other materials at the National Archives or other repositories.

Is there a particular narrative out there that you disagree with, something that won’t go away?

GG: I think one of is that the Civil War was destined to end the way it did, which is absolutely not true. That’s a very interesting line for people who loathe the Lost Cause to take, because that of course is the Lost Cause argument: “We never could have won, it was a gallant struggle against hopeless odds, etc.” As Shelby Foote, whose work has a good deal of Lost Cause emphasis, put it, “The North fought that war with one hand tied behind its back.” That gets you off the hook if you’re a Confederate. “Well, we lost, but of course we lost, because we never could have won!” It’s such a neat way, a very clever way, for former Confederates to absolve themselves of responsibility for their catastrophic failure. But that idea has gone far beyond just the Lost Cause people now. It has become very common. I call it the “Appomattox Syndrome,” starting at the end of the story with knowledge of United States victory and emancipation, taking both as given outcomes, and working backward to explain them. But of course the war didn’t have to end that way. There are many ways it could have gone. So that’s one misguided narrative.

I think there are many misconceptions about the war. Another one that has proved very tenacious is that the Confederacy failed because of internal causes – because of tensions over class and race and gender; that there was no real Confederate national sentiment. That has been part of the scholarly literature for a very, very long time. It started in the 1920s and 1930s, spiked in the 1960s and 1970s, and has remained steady ever since. There clearly were significant internal tensions in the Confederacy. But there were tensions everywhere, in the Confederacy and in the United States. I believe the key factor in bringing rebel defeat--and this is easy to overlook if you don’t deal with military history—is that United States armies proved they could go anywhere and do anything they wanted. Once the Confederate civilian population figured that out, what alterative to surrender remained? Especially when Lee’s Army capitulated. That’s really it, that’s the end.


Domestic strife existed in both nations, but historians tend to focus on Southern divisions.  Library of Congress


If the United States hadn’t won the war, then historians would have looked at all the internal tensions north of the Potomac, and would have pulled to the fore all of the ways in which the loyal states were incredibly divided. There’s nothing equivalent to the New York City draft riots in the Confederacy. There’s no event like that. So you can flip that argument. It just depends on what you decide to accentuate. But if you start at the end with knowledge of United States victory, and your goal is to go back and figure out what went wrong with the Confederacy, then all these tensions seem even more important. All that’s true, but the level of loss on the Confederate side is so far greater than any other white segment of American society has ever suffered. You better look hard for an explanation of what happened, because they clearly tried harder than any other white Americans have ever tried to do anything. That desperate effort, among other things, tells us just how important their slaveholding social structure was to the white South.

And that [level of loss] in and of itself is strong evidence for Confederate nationalism.

GG: There’s certainly some sense of national community, and as the war went on one of the things that scared Confederates the most was that defeat would mean the loss of slavery and thus their control of black people. And the Republicans, who were seen in the Confederacy as abolitionists, would be in charge. The question I would love to poll Confederates on-- all the people who were unhappy with the Confederate government, and there were tons of them just like there were tons of people unhappy with the Lincoln government—is this: Here are your options--you can either continue to fight the war even though you’re unhappy with Jefferson Davis about some things or you can go back into the Union with Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans in charge. I don’t think many Confederates would’ve taken the second option.

Right. The end of your entire of way life is in prospect.

The New York City draft riots of 1863 are the largest and bloodiest riots in American history. Wikimedia Commons

GG: Even for people who don’t own slaves. By our standards, virtually all white Americans were intensely racist in the mid-19th century. Virtually all of them, didn’t matter where they lived. The difference is that almost all the black people lived in the slaveholding states, overwhelmingly so. The free states had fewer than 2% of the black population. So black people were not a direct threat in the same way that they were in areas of the South where they made up an actual majority. Racism was intense in the North. Whenever black people congregated in large enough numbers to pose a problem, the white people in the North didn’t react very well. The New York City draft riots are a wonderful example of that.

Yet another one of the reasons to study the military history is to see the way Northern soldiers react to slavery when they see it, in the real, as they move into the Mississippi Delta and etc.

GG: They had very different reactions. Some demonstrated real empathy for enslaved people, others had their racist attitudes confirmed, or even intensified. It’s a very complicated encounter between white people and black people as Union armies move south. It really was.

I seem to remember a Michigan unit leaving the army in protest of the Emancipation Proclamation.

GG: The Emancipation Proclamation was very controversial. I think most soldiers, and most white Northerners – even a lot of Democrats – eventually got on board with emancipation, but not because they thought it was a necessary moral crusade. They had very different reasons. It was a way to help save the Union, punish slaveholders and weaken the Confederacy.

I know you’ve written on the Civil War in film and popular art. What did you think of Lincoln?

GG: I thought Daniel Day-Lewis was transcendent. I don’t think any other actor should ever play Lincoln. I think the movie had some parts that don’t work very well at all, and I think it’s very much a reflection of how we understand the Civil War now, in the sesquicentennial. That is - it’s mainly important for emancipation. So you get the ludicrous early scenes where soldiers are reciting the Gettysburg Address, which is cast as a speech mainly about ending slavery, to Lincoln. Lincoln couldn’t have recited the Gettysburg Address at that point! The idea that anybody else would have memorized the Gettysburg Address is just ludicrous. Virtually no one paid much attention to the Gettysburg Address during the Civil War. Very few newspapers paid much attention to it, only the tiniest part of the loyal population paid much attention to it.

Edward Everett seemed to like it!

GG: Yes. He did. He seemed to like it. A couple of Democratic newspapers picked up on it, but for the most part it was met with absolute silence. Harper’s Weekly buried it. No commentary, just the text. It became much more important, of course, when Lincoln was assassinated, and now it’s one of the great American speeches. I think the greatest American political speech is Lincoln's Second Inaugural, by a pretty wide margin, but the Gettysburg Address is splendid as well. Lincoln actually could say something in a few words. That art has been lost by all our current politicians, who basically can’t say anything in many, many words.

The film focused on the Thirteenth Amendment, which is a very interesting story. But for most people who go to that film, and don’t know anything about the Civil War – which is virtually all of them – they will come away thinking the war was all about emancipation. At least they’ll learn something—which is good. They’ll understand that Congress used to function in a way where people talked to each other, argued with each other, debated with each other. I liked that about he film. I thought that was good. The whole subplot with Confederate commissioners is just a distraction. It was a big thing in the movie but not in reality. But I liked Day-Lewis so much. I loved the scenes in the telegraph office, they’re very moving. And I thought Sally Field, even though she’s about twenty years too old to be Mary Todd Lincoln, did a good job too.

It’s interesting that you mention that the Second Inaugural is your favorite American political speech, because the line “Upon the progress of our arms, all else chiefly depends” would seem to inform your view of the importance of military matters.

GG: What’s even more telling is how Lincoln added that its importance was “as well known to the people as to myself.” Everybody did know the centrality of what the armies were doing. So what he didn’t have to do was spend a lot of time telling people that military affairs were vital. He didn’t have to persuade them that was the case. They already knew it. So he says that, and then he goes on to talk about things that they didn’t want to hear. How everyone was guilty—not just the rebels. That’s not what people in the audience wanted to hear. They wanted to hear that the rebels were going to be punished! And they didn’t get any of that. It took real courage to give that speech. But of course it was very, very late in the war. He wouldn’t have given that speech a year earlier. The war was essentially over in March 1865.


"The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether" was not an applause line.  Library of Congress


Another Civil War movie I really liked was Ride with the Devil.

GG: I was pleasantly surprised by that. Once you get past the stupendously stupid notion that you have a black Confederate guerrilla, who is really a buddy with most of the white Confederate guerrillas. I even thought Jewel was good in it! I enjoyed Ride with the Devil. The scene at Lawrence is chilling. Really shot well.

Is there an academic work, a favorite book of yours that deals with the Trans-Mississippi?

GG: No. Another one of the focuses recently has been the West, often highlighting some version of the argument that “to understand Reconstruction you have to understand the West,” or, “That’s where Reconstruction is really taking place.” Here we go again – when you don’t think there’s anything to say about what Reconstruction actually was, why don’t you pretend it was really about the West! Some historians of the West do that. But there’s a lot more emphasis on that now. That way you can bring Native Americans in, you can pretend that some of the things going on with Native Americans and African Americans are sort of the same, but it’s a real strain. Reconstruction is about reconstructing the former Confederate states. That’s what the term means. It’s really not about the West, it’s not about California – although thousands of Union veterans ended up in California. But the Trans-Mississippi in the way you’re talking about it has never gotten much attention. It still isn’t getting much attention. There’s going to be a big book on the topic soon. The Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, a 16-volume series Mike Parrish and I are editing, includes a volume on the Trans-Mississippi. Tom Cutrer is writing it. That should be out in eighteen months or so, a big overview.

Speaking of California – you’re a Californian who grew up in Colorado. How did you first get interested in the Civil War?

GG: I read articles in National Geographic at the time of the centennial. The really key book was the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. That book just blew me away. I bought a copy shortly after it came out in 1960. I absolutely was enthralled by it. Bruce Catton wrote the text. I still think Catton is best narrative writer who’s ever written about the Civil War. Better than Shelby Foote. Shelby Foote’s good but I think Catton is much better.

But you have no family connection to the war?

JEB portrait
J.E.B. Stuart, who was considered to be the "eyes and the ears" of the Lee's army, was known for his cavalier inspired uniform complete with an ostrich plume and red lined grey cape. Library of Congress

GG: None

I was especially fascinated by one photograph in the book. I’m writing an essay about that image right now for a book that Matt Gallman and I are co-editing. Twenty-five historians are writing about one image that was especially important to them, and the image that I’m writing about is the photograph of J.E.B. Stuart in full cavalier mode--where he has his high boots and the plumed hat and all that. That picture fascinated me as a ten or eleven year old. So I started reading about Jeb Stuart and buying books about Jeb Stuart. I acquired probably seven or eight over the next year and a half.  Henry B. McClellan’s book and W. W. Blackford’s book and John W. Thomason’s book, those were still in print then. And then I branched out from there. I had read maybe three hundred books on the Civil War by the time I was in high school. My high school teacher had me teach about the Civil War when we got to it. Just for one day.

So did you know that you wanted to be an academic from a young age?

GG: No. Well, pretty young. I would say by the time I was an undergraduate.

And you knew it would be in American history, the Civil War.

GG: I knew what I was interested in. I was trained as a Southern historian, and nobody in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin would have let me write about the Civil War. I started another dissertation, wasn’t really interested in it, dropped out of graduate school, burned all the notes from that dissertation – which I think sort of embarrassed the department because I had gotten a number of fellowships. Anyway, we agreed that if I could find a topic I could finish in about a year and a half they would let me come back and complete my degree. A friend told me about the Stephen Dodson Ramseur letters that are at the Southern Historical Collection at UNC. So I went and looked at them. I’d been doing the background reading my whole life and was basically up to speed on everything but Dodson Ramseur. Those letters are fantastic. That was my dissertation and later my first book.

Do you think not having a family connection has been a help to you as an academic, in terms of impartiality?

GG: People ask me all the time whether I’m a Northerner or a Southerner. They especially ask me that in the South. I’ve written mainly about Confederates, as you know. I tell them I’m a Westerner, and they say, “Oh, in other words you’re a Yankee.” And I say, “No! I’m a Westerner. It’s a different place! It’s a place where there are real mountains.” But they don’t get that. I think most people can get beyond family connections, but that’s not something I even had to get beyond, because there are none.

What do you make of the sesquicentennial commemorations so far? Especially compared to the centennial.

GG: I think it’s been anemic. I don’t think many states have done much. Virginia’s done a great deal with a series of what they call Signature Conferences. There’s a state agency devoted to the sesquicentennial. They’ve had these conferences at different universities--one on emancipation; one on military affairs; we’re going to do the last one here at the University of Virginia in 2015 on the memory of the war. A book is published from each of the conferences, and there’s a website and various ancillary benefits. So I think Virginia’s done by far the best job of any state. Pennsylvania’s done a little; North Carolina’s done a little. Tennessee’s done a lot more than most. But most states have done absolutely nothing. And I think part of it is that the Civil War still can become very controversial very quickly because you can’t talk about it without talking about race. Or you shouldn’t, because slavery and issues related to slavery are so central to the coming of the war and the conflict itself. And that part of the history of the war can be so fraught, even in 2013, that it’s just easier not to do it. Which I think is too bad.

So you don’t think it’s down to fiscal constraints?

GG: I think that might be a way to get them off the hook. But the sesquicentennial began in 2011, that’s three years after 2008, and there are still two more years to go. So I’m not going to say money is not a factor at all, but I don’t think that is the principal factor.

And in contrast to the centennial?

GG: There was a lot more going on in the centennial, although it got embroiled in all kinds of racial problems as well, as I’m sure you know. There was still segregation in 1961. The national commission met in Charleston early on, which was ridiculous. It’s a vastly different world - although some people pretend it isn’t – from what it was in 1961. But there’s not nearly the attention [now]. There was a national Civil War centennial commission then that had all kinds of publications; sponsored all kinds of things. There’s nothing equivalent to that now. But then you still have the governor of Texas talking about secession as an option!

It is still so loaded. You’ve written about how hard it is to write about Confederate nationalism without being labeled a neo-Confederate.

GG: But the neo-Confederates hate me for that book, too. I’ve got files calling me a neo-Confederate and files of hate mail from neo-Confederates because I talk very frankly about the centrality of slavery to the Confederate experiment. In my latest book, Becoming Confederates: Paths to a New National Loyalty, I talk about how important maintaining racial control, white supremacy, was to the white South. Neo-Confederates don’t want to hear that. And other people don’t want to hear that the Confederacy was a nation. My approach is: I don’t care whether I like people in the past or not, I just want to try to understand them. That’s how historians should approach the sources. It should not be about whether you like the people of the era you’re examining or not. Of course you like some more than others. But it’s the same thing with The Union War because I argue that Union is more important than emancipation. That’s upset some people who think that I’m not taking emancipation seriously. I do take emancipation very seriously, but I’m trying to understand how people, at that time, interpreted the war. To me, it’s overwhelmingly a war for Union. Lincoln could not tell the loyal citizenry, “Let’s fight a war to end slavery because it’s a monstrous injustice.” The white North would have tuned him out right then.


These words called the soldiers of the 104th Pennsylvania Volunteers to arms.  Library of Congress


I know I have a reputation for going against the grain in a lot of ways. To me, it isn’t even a commitment to going against the grain. It’s just going where the evidence leads. I’ve been very happy that a number of my students have been willing to do that as well, and to take the criticism they know is going to come because it’s absolutely automatic. If you go against the prevailing interpretation, you’re going to get criticized. That’s the way it is.

The thing about Civil War evidence is that there’s so much of it you can argue anything, and you can cite real evidence to argue anything. Say you have a hundred pieces of evidence, and I want to argue “A.”  Well, eleven pieces of evidence support “A,” but eighty-nine pieces of evidence don’t. So here’s my dilemma. Do I cite the eleven and make the case I want to make, or do I say, “I thought this, but actually it’s ‘B,’ so I’m going to have to write about ‘B.’” To me, that is the test of a real historian. Some people pass that test, in my view, and some people don’t. There are different ways to pursue history. History can be advocacy, and always has been for many professional historians. It also can be primarily looking for a useable past: “What can I bring from history that will help me with what I want to do right now?” There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you’re honest about what you’re doing. Just don’t call it history.

That sounds to me like history as truly a social science.

GG: To the degree that it can be. Yet it’s always impressionistic. Nobody has read more soldier letters than Joe Glatthaar, and Joe and I have talked about this many times. I haven’t immersed myself in soldier testimony to the degree Joe has, but I’ve read thousands of soldier letters--that’s a lot to read in nineteenth century handwriting! But that is a statistically insignificant number of letters. It in no way positions me to claim: “Okay, now I can really tell what happened because I’ve read all these letters.” No. It’s just such a mass of evidence. What you have to do is triangulate among different categories of evidence, and if drawing from all those different things I am pointed in the same direction, then I feel pretty confident that I can make an argument and really think that it’s right. But can I guarantee it’s right? No.

Can you tell me who your biggest academic influence was?

GG: I have a couple of really big early influences. One was a historian named Norma Lois Peterson, who chaired the history department at Adams State College, where I went to undergraduate school. She managed to publish three books with university presses while teaching at this little college. Dr. Peterson was ferociously in favor of playing it straight with evidence, and she pounded that into me. So did my major professor in graduate school, a man named Barnes F. Lathrop. He published very little. Peterson published a lot more than Lathrop did, although Lathrop taught, and was a major power, in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin for many years. He knew more about the Civil War than anyone else I’ve known. Although he didn’t publish very much, he was a wonderful editor. He taught me to be a good editor. He taught me about language; so did Norma Peterson. I was lucky that way. They helped me develop a good editorial eye, and I’ve done a lot of editorial work over the years. They taught me how to improve other people’s writing, and my own. They were huge influences.

Among people you’ve heard of, David Potter has been a major influence on me. I think Potter was a giant among American historians. He is still one of the biggest influences on me. He wrote an essay titled “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” which though forty years old now remains the best thing on Southern nationalism. He also wrote a book called People of Plenty that was very influential in the early 1950s. It’s almost sociological, rather than historical.

What work of yours are you most proud of, and why?

GG: The book I’ve published that will be read more than anything else is Porter Alexander's memoir titled Fighting for the Confederacy, but I think both The Confederate War and The Union War are studies that needed to be written because they went against the grain. The Confederate War helped open up a new part of the literature on Confederate nationalism in the late 1990s—a literature that developed not just because of my book, I hasten to add. Since the late 1990s, a number lot of books have argued against the idea that the Confederacy fell apart from within. A strong group of earlier books had attributed Confederate failure to internal factors and insisted that there was little sense of real Confederate national sentiment. I believe The Confederate War had an impact. I’m not claiming more for it than I should, but I do think it had an impact. I don’t know yet about The Union War. It might, it’s only a couple of years old now. But I’m pleased with both of those books.

Is there an aspect of the Civil War that you feel may be crying out for further study?

GG: I get asked that a lot, and I guess I really don’t look at it that way. I think some of the best recent work revisits things we’ve looked at over and over again. I don’t think there’s very much that’s really new in Civil War history. There are things that are well constructed and appear new. Yael Sternhell’s book is one of those – Routes of War. The way it addresses movement during the conflict is novel and impressive, but much of the argument pulls together things that long have been apparent to people immersed in the older literature. Yet I think that book is well worth reading. I’m not sure there is a big hole in the literature that’s just crying out to be filled. What’s interesting is that a book occasionally will come out, and you’ll think, “Wow!” I think that applies to my student Adrian Brettle’s topic, Confederate expansionist ambitions. Why hasn’t somebody written about that? We know a good bit about antebellum southern expansionist sentiment, but the wartime continuation of that sentiment has gone largely unexplored.

I have another student who’s taking Mark Grimsley’s work and some of the other literature on the turn toward “hard war” and juxtaposing the very consistent sympathy to resist that turn. His name is D. H. Dilbeck, and he is exploring the “just war” theory of the time and how that strain of thinking played out behind the lines and among soldiers. I think that some of the most written-about topics still have room for fresh looks. And those sometimes, to me, are more instructive than things that seem to be brand new. But is there really anything brand new in the Civil War? I think there’s not that much.

Obviously there are big shifts in the literature. The number of books on women in the Civil War, scholarly books, you could count on one hand before the 1960s and 1970s. That literature has gotten much, much richer. The literature on African Americans in the war, since the 1970s, is also incredibly richer than it was before. Prior to the 1960s, just a handful of books dealt with women, black people, or poorer white people—the “plain folk” or yeomanry. Bell Wiley was a pioneer in that regard, taking both common white people and black people seriously when most academics didn’t. He’s a really important historian, way ahead of the curve in lots of ways--with common soldiers, with women, with black people.

Why is the Civil War ‘the war that won’t go away?’

This is an image of Lincoln sitting with McClellan.
Lincoln meets with General McClellan shortly after the Battle of Antietam. Wikimedia Commons

GG: I think it’s a combination of factors. The questions at issue were fundamental--Will the nation stay together? Will we finally get rid of slavery? Questions don’t get any bigger. It’s also the scale of the conflict, and the incredible military events. People are drawn to military history-– World War II has big moments, but World War II doesn’t have Gettysburg. And then the cast of characters--you couldn’t make up a better cast of characters. In the American Civil War they are incredible: Sherman and Lee and Lincoln and on and on and on. And finally, the fact that so many able authors have written about it has created a vast number of books worth reading, really good writing for people to explore. I think all of those things together h elp explain the continuing draw of the Civil War.

And finally, I must ask you, what is your favorite battlefield?

GG: I don’t have a favorite battlefield. The first one I ever visited was Vicksburg. It was during a trip from Colorado to Civil War battlefields when I was fourteen. But I love to walk the fields at Antietam; I really like Chancellorsville – I like to give tours at Chancellorsville. Shiloh is a wonderful place. Whichever one I’m on often seems like my favorite. But there’s no other place like Gettysburg. It has the best and worst of what a battlefield can offer. I like it in the late fall, or in the early spring, before there are a lot of people there, and even in the winter. It’s an incredible place.


Gary W. Gallagher is the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia. A native of Los Angeles, California, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He taught for twelve years at Penn State University before joining the faculty at the University of Virginia. His research and teaching focus on the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. He has written, co-authored, or edited more than thirty books, most recently The Union War (Harvard University Press, 2011) and Becoming Confederates: Paths to a New National Loyalty (University of Georgia Press, 2013). Active in the field of historic preservation, Gallagher was president from 1987 to mid-1994 of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites and served as a member of the board of the Civil War Trust.