S.11 E.3: “The Appomattox Syndrome” and Civil War History

Learning for Life @ Gustavus podcast host Greg Kaster interviews renowned Civil War historian Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia.
Posted on November 16th, 2021 by

Distinguished Civil War historian Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia on how and why he became interested in the war, his friendship and collaboration with fellow leading Civil War historian James M. McPherson (Gustavus Class of 1958), how “the Appomattox syndrome” distorts historical understanding of the conflict, why it was a “Union war” above all else, Lincoln and Grant, the monuments controversies, his renowned personal library, and why the war still matters.

Season 11, Episode 3: “The Appomattox Syndrome” and Civil War History

Greg Kaster:

Hello, and welcome to Learning for Life @ Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College, and the myriad ways that Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, a faculty member in the Department of History.

Only by coming to terms with the Civil War as well as with how people have remembered and used it in politics and popular culture can anyone understand the broader arc of the United States history. So observes my special guest today, Historian Gary Gallagher, in his most recent book, The Enduring Civil War: Reflections on the Great American Crisis. One of our most distinguished scholars of the war and its memory, Dr. Gallagher is the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War Emeritus at the University of Virginia where he also directs the John Nau Center for Civil War History. He’s the author or editor of 40 plus books, all of them thought-provoking and superbly written, and among them, two of my favorites to wrestle with and teach, The Confederate War and The Union War.

In addition to his research and writing, Professor Gallagher has also taught countless undergraduate and graduate students, consulted on historical interpretation and preservation at Civil War battlefields, led both the Society of Civil War Historians and the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, and received numerous honors and awards, including the Shelby Foote Preservation Legacy Award from the Civil War Trust, the Tom Watson Brown Book Prize from the Society of Civil War Historians, and the Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Liberal Arts Education from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

This past August, I was delighted to meet and learn from Gary in person as one of 18 fortunate college faculty from around the country, participating in a week-long seminar on the American civil liberties and consequences led by Gary in Charlottesville and sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History. The seminar was both enlightening and energizing, and one of its highlights was seeing Gary’s renowned Civil War library in his home, more on that later. Toward the end of the week, I asked Gary if he would be willing to join me on the podcast. He kindly and immediately said yes. And it’s my great pleasure to speak with him today about his path to historian of the Civil War, what historians in the general public get right and wrong about the war, and why the war still matters more than 150 years after it ended. So welcome, Gary. It’s a real treat and real pleasure to have you on.

Gary Gallagher:

I’m delighted to be on with you, Greg. Good morning.

Greg Kaster:

Good morning. Yeah. And you’re out in… you’re in Charlottesville as we speak. And so, again, the seminar was just so energized, and I’m already incorporating some of what I learned into my teaching of the survey. And I tell the students I took 29 pages of notes not because you made me, because I had to, just because I was learning so much. So again, thank you for that. It was really fun. Great group.

Gary Gallagher:

I had a great time with all of you that week. It really went by quickly for me.

Greg Kaster:

It flew by. Yeah, same here. I know you know Gustavus is the alma mater or undergraduate alma mater of Jim McPherson, and you and Jim must have known each other a long time. I wonder though if you two had a chance to collaborate on different projects.

Gary Gallagher:

Jim and I have known each other a long time, and we have… Jim is a dear friend. And he and I have collaborated in many ways. We’ve written blurbs for each other’s books. When I taught at Penn State, I had Jim come and give a lecture at Penn State. He was working on his Common Soldiers book then. We spent a lot of time working on Civil War preservation together with the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites. Joan Waugh and I ran a series of conferences at the Huntington Library in San Marino over a period of 20 years, and Jim spoke at every one of those. He loves the Huntington as much as Joan and I do.

And we spent a lot of time just going around battlefields often on bicycles. Jim is a bicycler and I’m not. And when we would go, Jim would have his bike which had 21 years or whatever, and I would get Pat’s bike which had three and I would struggle to keep up and we would get to a place. And as soon as I got there, then Jim would take off again, and he would say, “This is good for you.” It was great. He has a very Presbyterian approach to doing things like that and I did my best, but we really did have fun bicycling. We sometimes put in 40 miles cycling around battlefields. It was really fun.

Greg Kaster:

That also sounds very much like Jim. By the way, there’s something… I don’t know if it’s your sense, but something about the Civil War attracts… all of you, at least those of you I’ve read, that you all write so well, think so well, and you’re some of the best historians at work, it seems to me, working in that field.

Gary Gallagher:

The material couldn’t be better. That’s certainly part of it. The issues couldn’t be more important. The personalities couldn’t be more striking. I’ve just been unbelievably fortunate to spend my life writing and teaching about the Civil War. That’s how I view it.

Greg Kaster:

Well, your students and people like me have been fortunate as well to be able to read you. Let’s start with your own history a little bit. You talked to us about that during the seminar, but it’s interesting. So tell us about where you grew up.

Gary Gallagher:

Well, I’m a native of Los Angeles. I’m a third generation native Californian, but my family moved when I was very young just about four to southern Colorado, and I grew up on a farm in southern Colorado, which is a very long way from at least the main areas of the Civil War.

Greg Kaster:

You mentioned your dad was in a rodeo or something?

Gary Gallagher:

My father was a serious horseman. He was in the first graduating class at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, and was on the first national championship rodeo team at Cal Poly. He rode bareback broncs and bulls. So he’s sort of over at one end of even the spectrum of rodeo cowboys.

Greg Kaster:

Did you ever do any of that?

Gary Gallagher:

No. I rode horses. I had a horse on our farm and I would occasionally ride around with other friends who had horses. And in my mind, I was pretending we were Civil War cavalrymen riding around. I don’t think anyone else was thinking that, but I was as we were.

Greg Kaster:

That relates to my next question, which is how you became interested and when and how you became interested in history with the Civil War, specifically in horses. I mean, one of the things that you said during the seminar, which in a way is obvious, but it just has stayed with me. The number of horses used in the war and all the energy it would have taken to talk, to keep them fed, etc., etc. So you’re riding around. I mean, how and when since you were interested in history and the Civil War particularly?

Gary Gallagher:

I can be very specific about that, Greg. My paternal grandmother gave me a subscription to National Geographic for my birthday in 1959 when I was nine. And a couple of years later, National Geographic had an article anticipating the Civil War centennial. And it was that article that had images, some historical images, some modern images of Civil War battlefields that it absolutely captured my imagination, and it led me to buy a copy of the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, which had been published the year before with the text by Bruce Catton. And it cost $19.95. It exhausted my financial reserves. That book absolutely is the reason why I ended up being a Civil War historian. It captivated me, and it led me then to begin buying other books. By the time I was 11, my presents for birthdays and Christmas were books. I had 250 Civil War books by the time I was a senior in high school, but it’s that book, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, that really got me interested.

I have no connection to the Civil War on my family on either side. In southern rural Colorado, I can promise you there weren’t a lot of Civil War buffs lurking behind cottonwood trees, but I did just by reading things.

Greg Kaster:

I love that because it’s the power of the book, first of all.

Gary Gallagher:

Absolute power of the book. And I was just fortunate in that the very first Civil War historian I read was Bruce Catton. And there has never been, to this day in my view, a better narrative writer about the Civil War than Bruce Catton.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I mean, I guess I agree. I’m sure I haven’t read as much Catton as you but what I’ve read is just incredibly capping and I was younger mostly although I did not come across that book. And you brought that into the seminar, it was an amazing… I don’t know if it’s the same copy, your original copy that you brought it in.

Gary Gallagher:

No. My first copy, I literally read into pieces, of the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. That’s a replacement copy. I’ve owned several copies over the years. And still, if some young person of a friend is interested, that might be interested in the Civil War, I’ve often given a copy of that book to them to try to spark their interest and it often works. I can’t tell you how many people over the years have come up to me after I’ve given a lecture about something and mentioned that book, come up to me and said, “That’s the book that did it for me. That’s the book.” Jim incidentally wrote an introduction to a revised version of the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War that came out. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. Just curious, has any historian written or literary historian written about the power of that book?

Gary Gallagher:

No. You know what? You’ve given me an… I should write a little article about the power of that book because it undoubtedly is… One of the features of that book were these bird’s eye view maps. They were called picture maps by someone named David Greenspan. Never seen anything else like them, but you are up in the air looking down on the battlefields of Gettysburg or Chancellorsville or Chickamauga. And those maps almost by themselves could have gotten a lot of people interested in the Civil War. Many, many people have told me about those maps as well.

Greg Kaster:

That is so interesting. Yeah, all right. That’s another project for you. You can do that.

Gary Gallagher:

All right. The Library of America asked me last year to prepare a one volume edition of Catton’s Army of the Potomac Trilogy. It’ll be unabridged, all three books in one volume. And I had great fun doing that, writing a long introduction and a chronology about Catton. It’ll have a revisit path. He knows it very well.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, excellent. That’s fantastic. Well, the Library of America, they do such great stuff. Absolutely.

Gary Gallagher:

They do. They do.

Greg Kaster:

So you’re already interested in the Civil War even before you go to college. And did that continue? Were able to study-?

Gary Gallagher:

Yes, I was. I went to a little school in southern Colorado called Adam State College. It’s in Alamosa. And it happened to have a serious Civil War era, late antebellum period scholar named Norma Lois Peterson who somehow published four books with academic presses while she was chairing this small department in a small college but her specialty was the Civil War era. And I had grown up reading Catton and Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants and R. E. Lee, a purely military in my approach to the Civil War. And Norma Peterson taught a course on the Civil War that literally did not have a single musket shot in it, in the entire course. It opened my eyes about the need to frame the war expansively. And later, I sort of kidded with her and said she didn’t teach the Civil War, she taught it without any military stuff in it, which is just as bad as teaching it with only military stuff in it. But the course opened my eyes.

Greg Kaster:

That is an amazing story in part also because she’s a she. I mean, a woman doing that work.

Gary Gallagher:

She’s really unusual woman. Really, she was a very striking, imposing figure, and did much too with the most rigorous standards imaginable. Really, every quarter, we were on the quarter system, she would post the grades from every department in the college and very proudly say… and it was true every quarter that there were fewer As given in the department of history than any other department at Adam State College.

Greg Kaster:

Today, of course, she’d be fired or asked to resign.

Gary Gallagher:

She’d be fired. She couldn’t exist today. That’s right. She’ll not exist today.

Greg Kaster:

That’s a great story. I love that story. Wow. That’s another little article that came out about her. Her book stayed in print or are they still in print? Do you know?

Gary Gallagher:

She published with the University of Missouri Press, the University Press of Virginia, as it was called then, and she published the one that I’m sure is still in print. She did the Harrison Tyler Volume and the University Press of Kansas Series on American Presidents.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. Oh, that’s great story. So from there on to… it was UT Austin, right, for the PhD?

Gary Gallagher:

Went to UT Austin for my PhD. Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Who did you work with there?

Gary Gallagher:

My advisor was a man named Barnes Fletcher Lathrop who wrote only one book and was primarily a graduate. He had 43 people who wrote this the last, the 43rd of the people who wrote dissertations under him. My other key people were Lewis Gould who was a Gilded Age progressivism specialist. Political history was his specialty. And George B. Forgie was my other person who wrote Patricide in a House Divided, but psychological interpretation of Lincoln in the era.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I like that book. I used to sign that book.

Gary Gallagher:

That was a great book. It was great. I was there when George did his job talk, when George Forgie did. And he gave his talk on patricide. He’d gone to Stanford. His degree was from Stanford and his dissertation won the Nevins Prize. At the end of it later, he’d been sitting in the back of the room not kind of looking around, not really… I didn’t think he was really paying attention. At the end, he said, “Mr. Forgie, I have just one question for you. Do you believe any of this stuff?” And George had a perfect answer. He said, “Some days I wake up and think it’s brilliant. And some days I wake up and don’t think any of it is right.”

Greg Kaster:

That’s really an honest answer.

Gary Gallagher:

A great answer. And he got the job and became a legendary… George never wrote and never published another book, but he became and he’s still teaching, an absolute legend as an undergraduate teacher at Texas.

Greg Kaster:

I will be using that anecdote for sure. That’s awesome. Yeah, I love the book when I first read it in college.

Gary Gallagher:

George and I ran together for years in Austin. We ran at noon, ran six miles a day at noon every day in Austin. So he became a very good friend [crosstalk 00:16:05].

Greg Kaster:

What was your own dissertation about?

Gary Gallagher:

Well, I started off with… they assigned a topic to me, the election of 1852 and the demise of the Whig Party. The new political history was just coming in with everybody walking around with trays of computer cards, and so forth. I didn’t have any interest in that at all, but I pretended to be working on it for a couple of years, went and did research and manuscript collections in a lot of places. But in my heart of hearts, and I think I actually wrote one paragraph on that, and in the end, had a little ceremony at my house. I’d taken a job at the LBJ Library as an archivist because there were literally no teaching jobs in US history then. And I had friends over and took all of my notes for that dissertation and burned them and theatrically withdrew from the program at UT.

And they came back to me and said, “Well, what [inaudible 00:17:04]? What if we let you write on something you’re interested in but you only have a year and a half to do it?” And so this is kind of a long anecdote. A friend of mine had been to the southern historical collection at Chapel Hill and had seen a great set of letters from the Confederate General, Stephen Dodson Ramseur, that no one had ever used. And so I went and looked at those. They were wonderful letters. And I wrote a biography of Ramseur as my dissertation. I’d done the background reading for it since I was 11. And so I was able to finish it in a year and a half. And that was my dissertation and the first book, published it with Chapel Hill.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. So you mentioned in this seminar the importance of biographies and approach and you did it. And you wrote about him. And his more recent book, The Becoming Confederates that you wrote for the seminar, one of the three-

Gary Gallagher:

I think you can help people make a connection to the past through people in the past. I think it’s one of the best ways to do it. And those people let you get much broader themes. I don’t think any life stands in for huge numbers of people. But I think that they do give you a way in.

Greg Kaster:

I agree. And I think I may have mentioned during the seminar, I teach a course for a long time that I created and I love it called American Lives at Gustavus usually focused on Lincoln, Douglas, and Stowe. And yeah, the students love it. And it really is a way to get wonderfully in interesting ways at larger themes while recognizing these people are also exceptional in some ways.

Gary Gallagher:

They are. They are, and sometimes really exceptional and yet… I mean, the Lincoln is exceptional. He’s sort of unbelievable, in fact, to me, and yet he got to the heart of so many critical issues and themes from the era that… I mean, he’s just this perfect gift to us to allow us to use him to address really important elements of the mid 19th century United States.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I agree, and just since… I’m not a specialist in this. There was Otto Olsen. Did you know Otto Olsen?

Gary Gallagher:

I never met him. I saw him at meetings but never met him.

Greg Kaster:

You know who he is, of war and historian reconstruction. The closest I came to take any kind of course on the Civil War was when I was a graduate student at Northern Illinois University. And Otto came in and gave a lecture, which was fabulous. I don’t even remember the course I was in, but that’s it. But I’ve read a lot about… not as much as you or Jim or others, but a lot more about Lincoln over the last 20 years or so. And yeah, he is unbelievable. I mean, I don’t want to romanticize but my God, he’s smart. He cuts to the quick in so many ways.

Gary Gallagher:

I mean, I have been reading about him virtually my entire life. And my admiration for him, and I’m not embarrassed to use that word, has only grown. I mean, of course, he has faults and he had missteps and he had unlovely elements of some of his thinking and aspects of his life. But how someone who went to school for less than six months in his life can use the English language the way that he did is just remarkable to me. Absolutely remarkable.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, exactly. One of the things I love about him is his Frederick Douglass-y with the power of the word, the power of language.

Gary Gallagher:

And the economy of language with Lincoln, he not only pulls you in with this unbelievably engaging language, but he does it in 200 to 800 words at times. The second inaugural address is the best speech in American political history and it probably… that the Gettysburg address took him three minutes to give, the second inaugural couldn’t have taken 10.

Greg Kaster:

Well, you have the same ability and McPherson too. You write so succinctly and clearly. I’ve gotten better, but my sentences are too damn long.

Gary Gallagher:

I credit Barnes Lathrop to a great extent. He was a brilliant editor. And I learned how to be an editor from Barnes Lathrop and learned how to write… I mean, you can’t teach somebody to be a great writer, but you can certainly teach someone to be a clear writer. And clarity is all too often not present in writing. You shouldn’t wonder what you just read when you finish a chapter or finish a paragraph.

Greg Kaster:

And that’s true with your books. And I taught you, Jim, they’re all… I don’t mean easy in the sense that they’re not challenging. They’re incredibly challenging, but they’re great books to teach because they’re so clear.

Gary Gallagher:

Yes, I agree. And I think that is a quality much to be prized and not to be found as often as it should be. I don’t think we pay enough attention to that in training scholars in graduate school. I just don’t think we do.

Greg Kaster:

Well, I agree with you completely. I totally, totally agree. I was lucky I had… Well, Sam Bass Warner Jr. and David Hall who were also fine writers and taught me that way. Super important. So this next question, I realize we could do a whole podcast on this one, but just so here we are. We’re talking about the Civil War. It’s more than 150 years later. Why? I mean, why does the war still matter? And I know you’ve been asked this a million times.

Gary Gallagher:

I think it still matters because the Americans of the mid-19th century grappled with absolutely fundamental issues relating to how you organize a society, a free society, how you organize and have a functioning government in that kind of society. And the same questions are as pertinent now as they were in the mid-19th century. They were wrestling with the dilemma of how you organize a biracial society essentially in an equitable way. And we’re still dealing with it. Now we’re dealing with a multiracial society. How do you manage the reciprocal powers of the central authority and the localities, the states and localities? What does it mean? What are the obligations of citizenship in a free country? How do you deal with freedom of expression in a free society?

I mean, the Civil War is filled with… there was tremendous repression both in the United States and the Confederacy in the course of the war. I mean, it’s all of these issues that were profoundly important and caused such friction in the mid-19th century reappear periodically in the United States history and we’re in the midst of one of those eras right now, of course. And then we have, on top of that, the vast memorial landscape of the Civil War put in place by the Civil War generation that also resonates in different ways and sometimes very controversial ways as the years unfold.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I want to get into that a little bit because of the… well, we’ll get into the whole controversy around Robert Lee statue in Charlottesville and others as well. I certainly agree the Civil War still matters in so many ways, all of those ways. Leadership too. You can learn so much about leadership.

Gary Gallagher:

You quoted me early on and I really do believe you cannot understand the United States history if you don’t come to terms with the Civil War because I think the war marked a point at which the nation resolved some long-standing and very difficult aspects of how you build a republic. They finally resolved the question of whether there would be slavery or not, for example, and in other ways, they resolved the question of when push comes to shove, does the central or the local authority predominate and it’s the central authority? But then also, the war bequeaths to future Americans unsolved aspects. Okay? There’s no more slavery, but what’s the place of African-Americans going forward? It’s this kind of gray hinge that settles some things from an earlier period but opens up all kinds of things that the nation will deal with for more than a century and a half going forward.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s a great point, and I’m writing down the word hinge. I’ll be quoting you. No, that’s right. It’s not just the problems that it solves. It’s all those unsolved problems.

Gary Gallagher:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Including this sort of bargain that unfolds that allows the former Confederacy together with Kentucky and others… Kentucky wished it had been in the Confederacy retrospectively. I mean, Jim Crow is part of the bargain that goes along with reunification of the country. And so anyway, yes, it sets up all kinds of things.

Greg Kaster:

It’s always going to matter, I guess, the war as long as there’s a republic and maybe even… I don’t know about you, I’m sometimes maybe a little less optimistic than you might be about that question of secession being settled. We’ll see.

Gary Gallagher:

I think it’s settled, although people still prattle about it. I know we talked about this when we were together here in Charlottesville, the group of teachers and I talked about it. If somebody is really unhappy with what happens in an election, if you’re unhappy with Barack Obama and you’re Texas, you talk about secession again. If you’re unhappy with Donald Trump and you’re California, you talk about secession again. But there are only a handful of states that can actually be a country in the United States. Texas, Florida, and California could probably be nations. I mean, if South Dakota talks about seceding, probably not, or Connecticut, or Indiana. But even the big ones, it’s not going to happen.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I mean, I think you’re right. I think we may get stolen elections or types of that again, but that’s still not quite the same.

Gary Gallagher:

Not quite the same. No.

Greg Kaster:

And again, I know this is a huge question that we could do more than one podcast. But one of the things you talked about, maybe your own phrase, I like it, I think it was the Appomattox Syndrome, you called it.

Gary Gallagher:

That is my phrase. Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. It’s a great phrase, which again I’ll be quoting, this larger question of what historians in the general public get right and wrong about the war. And again, we can spend hours talking about it, but what are some examples in a moment?

Gary Gallagher:

The Appomattox Syndrome, and I borrow heavily from David Potter’s ideas there, I just gave it a different term. But David Potter who’s one of the great US historians by any measure, it argues against beginning at the end of a historical story, knowing what happened and then working backward in evidence to try to find things that point toward that. So in the case of the Civil War, you begin at Appomattox with knowledge of the United States’ victory and emancipation and take those as givens. Well, those must have been inevitable because here they are, they happen. That’s what happens. So let’s go back and see what points toward those.

If you read forward in the evidence, you get a very different… and there’s a sense of inevitable United States victory, and I think that’s one of the key misperceptions about the Civil War. I think most Americans to the degree they know anything about the Civil War, and most of them don’t know anything about it, would be that, of course, the United States won. The United States had way more people, it had far more industry. The slaveholding confederacy was an anachronism even within a mid-19th century context. How could it possibly defeat a sort of economic colossus like the free states?

Getting people to not start at the end of the story, to read forward, they’ll find out that the notion of inevitable victory only becomes inevitable in the spring of 1865 in the minds of people. Until then, it absolutely isn’t. And the darkest moment of the war for people in the loyal states was the summer of 1864. Three years into the war, more than three years into the war, that’s the closest I think the Confederacy actually came to achieving victory. So that would be one of the things I would try to get people to avoid, that is starting at the end, assuming things are going to happen because they did happen, and then going back and picking evidence that seems to point toward those.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. What about the whole question of who freed the slaves if that’s-?

Gary Gallagher:

That’s a great teaching question because there’s a wonderful way you can break down… Lincoln’s the great emancipator for a very long time, even among much of the African-American population. I mean, they look to Lincoln. Lincoln is the great emancipator and Thomas Ball statue on Capitol Hill suggest that Lincoln standing, the enslaved man rising, Lincoln reaching down toward him, the reaction to that was and it began, really, during the Civil Rights era and gained more steam during the ’60s and ’70s was that, no, Lincoln actually was behind the Radical Republicans and abolitionists on this. They should get a lot more credit. Congress should get more credit. Abolitionists, black and white, should get more credit.

And then in the wake of that comes an argument that W. E. B. Du Bois had made in his landmark book, Black Reconstruction, what about activities by African-Americans on the ground, the notion of self-emancipation? They’re the ones who forced the government to deal with them. They’re the ones who went to union military lines and said, “Here we are, what’s our status? What are you going to do with this?” All of those have… what those make clear when you take into account all of these different actors, they’re all actors in it, is that it’s a very complex process, which the factor that often gets left out of this equation when you’re talking about actions of black people, actions of Lincoln, actions of Congress and so forth, is the absolutely indispensable role of the United States Army.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, thank you.

Gary Gallagher:

If you take the army out of the picture, there is no emancipation. Period. Because the only thing that allows black refugees to become a key factor is they have to have a place to go, and the place they go is to the US Army. When the US Army gets close enough, black refugees go to the US Army, and then it becomes a more compelling problem for the United States government. The Army often gets left and people at the time knew this. I mean, they were well aware of it then. But the army often gets left out or given very short shrift when, in fact, absent the army, you don’t have emancipation. And one of the ironies and, of course, a story shot through with irony, the story of the Civil War, is that it doesn’t matter that the Army is filled… not filled. I mean, all the men aren’t against emancipation, but there’s very little sympathy for African-Americans among white soldiers in the US Army and the US Army’s 91% white during the Civil War. And a lot of the generals don’t give… they couldn’t care less about black people, William Tecumseh Sherman among them.

And yet everywhere the Army goes, it is an agent of emancipation.

Greg Kaster:

Right, just by virtue of being there, I guess.

Gary Gallagher:

By virtue of being there and the fact that it’s there means the rebels can’t exercise the social and economic control over black people that they need in their slaveholding society.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I think this point… I mean, you’ve made [inaudible 00:33:41] emancipation came with… I don’t know the exact quote, the end of a barrel of a gun or something like that. But yeah, it’s kind of re-stressed. This is a war. We’ll get into this in a second, even if the Union Army isn’t an emancipation army, at least not initially, just where they show up, right? It becomes that.

Gary Gallagher:

There was a colleague of mine named Edward Ayers who taught at UVA and then went on to become president of University of Richmond, is one of the pioneers in digital history. He did work on a big project on mapping emancipation. And Ed and I had coffee one day when he was just getting started on this. And I said, “I’m going to predict this, Ed. Here’s what your map is going to show. Wherever the armies go, emancipation goes. It goes precisely in lockstep with the armies and where the armies don’t go, let’s pick a state at random, Texas, why is Juneteenth the day in Texas, Juneteenth, June 1865? Because there are no United States armies in Texas during the Civil War. So the institution of slavery is safe in Texas during the Civil War. No United States Army, no emancipation.” And of course, the mapping project showed exactly that. As the US armies move into the Mississippi River Valley, emancipation goes with them. Up the Virginia Peninsula, emancipation goes with them. The correlation is precise.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And Lincoln gets some credit for sure, you’ve seen it, he’s the commander-in-chief at that moment.

Gary Gallagher:

And, of course, Lincoln knew that most white people in the United States didn’t care about black people. That the United States then was a profoundly racist country by our standards now. But most loyal citizens eventually got on board with emancipation. They didn’t all get on board, even many Democrats did because they saw it as a tool to defeat the rebels and restore the union, and to punish the slaveholders that they blamed for bringing on the war in the first place. Now, those aren’t the reasons we would want them to embrace emancipation. We would say it’s a great moral crusade. That’s not how they saw it. But they could get on board with it.

And Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which is often criticized for being… doesn’t have soaring language and so forth in it. He presented it just in those terms, “This is something we need to do to beat the rebels. It’s a military measure. It’ll help defeat the rebels. I have the power to do it because I have war powers as president.” And he thought that would resonate with the largest percentage of the white population in the loyal states.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, he does work… What’s the languages from Chase where he works in measure of justice? There’s a little nod toward the moral [crosstalk 00:36:36].

Gary Gallagher:

A tiny nod. A tiny nod in a document that has been compared to a bill of lading [inaudible 00:36:44] historians phrase. All this soaring language of a bill of lading.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, especially compared to the Gettysburg address. So this is a perfect segue into the… I don’t want to talk about the Confederate War, but this is a segue into your book, The Union War. I taught both of those books. I don’t remember whether I taught them together. I think I mentioned to you during this session, students love them. I’m still in touch with a student, now a lawyer in his 30s or 40s, who still talks about those books [crosstalk 00:37:16].

Gary Gallagher:

I actually love to hear that.

Greg Kaster:

Honest-to-God truth. And I still have the books, they’re on my shelf, I still look at them, I still use them. Part of it, I think, was the shape of the books, literally the physical shape. They’re kind of-

Gary Gallagher:

Harvard made the Confederate War very unusual shape. It’s like a mini coffee table book, almost.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, exactly. I mean, they’re just super well-written. They’re full of historiography, which is great for teaching, and visuals as well. But I’m growing up with the Foners and McPhersons and this is an emancipation war. That’s what it’s about. And your book, The Union War, is really bracing. I mean, just talk a little bit about that, what the union meant. That’s what I think is so important about that book.

Gary Gallagher:

It was the prevalence of the emancipation narrative in historiography that led me to write The Union War because it seemed that there was some degree of wishful thinking at play in some ways there. Because what I had read in union sources for most of my life indicated that what the war was in the beginning and what the war was at the end in terms of the goals for most of the loyal citizenry in the United States, it was a war to restore the union. And it’s the absence of an understanding of union, the concept of union, that makes it possible for people to overlook it.

I think union is the most important word in the political vocabulary of the mid-19th century United States. And union, to that generation, it meant a republic in which citizens had a voice in their own governance, and of course, that means white male citizens at that point, which is restrictive by our standards but was incredibly open by the mid-19th century standards. So you had a voice in your own government, and you had a chance to rise economically, not a guarantee to arise, but a chance. You weren’t doomed to be what your father was. So there is opportunity and there is a voice in your own governance. It’s not a society run by oligarchs in this conception of union. And that made the United States absolutely unique in the Western world, is the thinking of those who loved union.

And Lincoln is a poster boy for union. He’s born poor, he gets very little education, but he’s smart. He works hard. He makes his way, he becomes a very comfortable person financially and eventually becomes president of the United States. That can happen nowhere else, all you people who loved the union. Could only happen here. And they said, “Europe’s going the wrong direction.” The failed revolutions of the 1840 show that Europe is even more hailed in the stifling embrace of oligarch, and aristocrats, and monarcas. Here, we have something that is different.

And if we allowed the slaveholders in 1860 and 1861 to pull apart the fabric of what the founders put together just because they don’t like who was elected president, then this sends the message that people cannot govern themselves and the oligarchs win. And they viewed southern slaveholders as oligarchs who had complete control over this. They overstress that, but that was their view of it. So they believe union was not only worth arguing for, it was worth putting on a uniform, picking up a musket, and getting killed for, and that’s hard to get people to understand now.

Greg Kaster:

Right. I mean, we don’t have that… First of all, we don’t talk about the union anymore.

Gary Gallagher:

Never. No. Never.

Greg Kaster:

It’s a function of the war, it’s a nation. Is it Jim who writes about the Gettysburg address, how many times Lincoln uses the word nation in there?

Gary Gallagher:

Yeah. I mean, I always point people toward… A common way to frame the war is that it began as a war for union but turned into a war for union and emancipation with those as twin goals, twin goals for the loyal citizenry. And that just isn’t, in my view, accurate. The primary goal is always union. But most people embraced emancipation as one of the tools to achieve union. And Lincoln’s last annual message to Congress in December 1864 very specifically puts it that way, and he is still trying to keep the most people on board with the war as possible and that includes the Democrats. He says, and I’ll paraphrase him, “In a great war like this, you need an overriding goal, and in our war, it’s union.” But then he says, “We need the 13th Amendment,” which had already passed in the Senate, but not in the House, “Because that will be one of the tools we need to achieve union.”

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Again, it still challenges me because the way I was trained, what I was taught, and how I taught the Civil War for the longest time is exactly what you just said a minute ago, which is it starts as a union war but it becomes an emancipation revolutionary. Now, I know some historians, James Oakes and whose work I respect a great deal as well, it’s no, it’s almost like it’s an emancipation war from day one [crosstalk 00:42:24].

Gary Gallagher:

From the beginning or… I mean, a number of books had made that. The book 1860… Anyway, I don’t need to go through the historiography. You have a number of books that basically say that that’s what it is from the beginning. And I just don’t think you can read the sources and arrive at that conclusion. I just don’t think that you can. I mean, in one sense, of course, Greg, it does become a great emancipation war because it’s because of the war that slavery is killed. But you have to be very careful in how you frame what exactly that means. Yes, it’s an emancipation war, but if we pulled people in the loyal stage at the end of the war and said, “What is the great outcome of this war?” I think a very large majority of them would have said, “Well, we’ve restored the union.” “And it’s a good thing that slavery is dead,” they would have said, “Because now there is no issue that can threaten the union from within again.”

Greg Kaster:

Right. Yes. It’s not that you are saying… I’m not sure you want to say this about you. You are not saying slavery didn’t… Of course, the war was about slavery. There would have been no war, I think.

Gary Gallagher:

Absolutely. The longest chapter in The Union War is on emancipation. People did say that, in essence, that’s what I was saying. And they said that I didn’t value the service of USCT troops. No, I was trying to gauge how people at the time saw the service of USCT troops and they saw it as complementary to the main action that was going on. That USCT soldiers did not play key roles in most of the great battles of the war. That’s how the people at the time… They weren’t even in the Army for the first half of the war, of course, so there’re no black troops at Gettysburg, or Chancellorsville, or Fredericksburg, or Antietam.

And so I was trying to recapture how the loyal citizenry at the time looked at things and some people turned that around and said that I didn’t value that and didn’t think emancipation was important. Of course, I never said that. And of course, I don’t believe that. And of course, I know they… And I say in the book, there wouldn’t have been a war or secession without slavery.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And one of the things I like about that book, and you just did it again here, and what I loved about the seminar is when you point out what is in fact the case, so yes, there was no USCT right before the first several years of the war. How many battles did they see? And also you’re focusing, excuse me, you’re focusing on, you just said it, the loyal white citizenry. You’re not just focusing on the Republican party or the Radical Republican party.

Gary Gallagher:

No. Democrats were 45% of the loyal citizenry. White Democrats were 45% of the loyal citizenry. And we know very good and well there were no abolitionists, or I can’t name none, maybe there were three, among the Democrats of the United… I mean, they were very [elantly 00:45:30] racist, most of them, by our standards. There is a spectrum of racism in the 19th century. Mostly Democrats are over on the end of it where we don’t want people to be.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Yeah, that’s another important point to get students to understand. I heard that with Lincoln, there is a spectrum, right?

Gary Gallagher:

A really broad spectrum. There is. And Lincoln is much closer to the end of the spectrum where we would want him to be, although by our standards, he still held very prejudiced views in a lot of ways as did most of the abolitionists.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Exactly. Most of the white abolitionists. That’s exactly right. Undeniable and yet complicated because… I mean, Frederick Douglas’s attitudes towards Lincoln changed. And I think I read Mary… Mary Todd may have given Douglas Lincoln’s walking cane or something.

Gary Gallagher:

No. I think we have to take Douglas seriously. And Douglas really did, his views about Lincoln changed dramatically in the course of the war. They just did.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. The statue you mentioned, the memorial of Capitol… I mean, that with Lincoln and the kneeling with hands up. I mean, blacks at that time… I mean, that’s not very controversial. That didn’t come down, I guess, but African-Americans at the time raised money for it.

Gary Gallagher:

They did. They absolutely did. And Lincoln’s picture would have been on the walls in African-American households and for decades. Of course, African-Americans voted solidly Republican until the New Deal.

Greg Kaster:

Right. [crosstalk 00:47:01]

Gary Gallagher:

Something is going on there. I don’t I think-

Greg Kaster:

I think they’re from the Farm Security Administration. During the depression, you see pictures of sharecroppers shack or whatever, but pictures of Lincoln and maybe Washington on the walls. Oh, boy, complicated. As you’ve said, history, it’s not black and white. It’s usually not simple, it’s complicated.

Gary Gallagher:

Greg, the other thing, you asked about misconceptions. I can’t believe our hour is almost up. I think one of the most disheartening things for me as I watch discussions and debates about the past, especially as they connect to the present, is this unrelenting desire now for a really simplistic version of the past that is populated by heroes on one side, villains on the other. They’re all clearly marked out. We know who we’re not supposed to like, who we are supposed to like. We want it to be black and white, we want a sound bite passed, and that absolutely means you won’t understand the past if that’s what’s [crosstalk 00:48:09].

Greg Kaster:

That’s a great sound bite itself, which I’m also writing down here. Sound bite passed. Yes. I tell my students, “It’s not melodrama. It’s not a cartoon. It’s not bad guys, good guys.”

Gary Gallagher:

Nope. And however complicated they think something was, it was more complicated than that. That is maybe the greatest lesson I’ve learned in my life as a historian and that is just that. However, just when I think I have a handle on something, for some reason, I go do a little more research and think, “Damn it. I’ve been teaching that. I have to change the way I teach that now because I didn’t have it right. It’s more complicated than I thought it was.”

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s also a great point. This leads into the monument’s controversy we’re touching on. So is the Lee statue down in Charlottesville?

Gary Gallagher:

Yes. They took Lee down, and Jackson down, and Lewis & Clark, and Sacagawea down, and George Rogers Clark down. Took them all down in one fell swoop in Charlottesville.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, I didn’t know. So I’ve read your little essay you shared with us in the seminar. Talk to us a little bit about your own position on the monuments coming down [crosstalk 00:49:21] Charlottesville.

Gary Gallagher:

I’ll say, first of all, that I think it’s a local issue. And that wherever the monuments are, it’s the people who live there who should have decided. I don’t think I should have anything to say about a monument in some other state or some other place. But having said that, I view the memorial landscape as a historical source. I really do believe that. I think that they’re very powerful tools for people in our world to interpret the past and explain the past and try to convey to people the difference between history and memory, which is another thing most Americans have no clue about. They don’t know the difference between history and historical memory.

You know this because I talked to you and the group of teachers about it. I used the confederate memorial landscape in Charlottesville, which used to have five components, as a teaching tool. Would walk around and talk about it. And so, for me, the ideal way to deal with this memorial landscape is to keep it in place but reinterpret it and to add memorials to previously neglected or slided events or groups. That would be my ideal way of doing it.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s my thinking about this. Again, I think the point about local is very important that you just made. But I am more interested in putting more up.

Gary Gallagher:

I am too. I am too.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:50:46] on that. And as you say, I think it’s in that essay, imagine you’re in Charlottesville and there’s a statue of what Leon on horseback, is it, but across the way is a monument to blacks, right?

Gary Gallagher:

To the 250 black men from Albemarle county who went into USCT units. I mean, that would have been my ideal for that little park. And now there’s leases, it’s gone, and they’ve got flowers planted there now and nobody will ever know that it even existed. And I also think it’s important to be reminded of rough edges in the past. I really do. And so anyway, that is how… And I certainly would leave the confederate monuments up on National Park Service, Civil War battlefields even. I mean, there was a bill in Congress to take all of them down, which may seem so stupefyingly wrongheaded that it’s hard to wrap my mind around it.

Greg Kaster:

I agree. I mean, I wasn’t crazy about seeing Lee and Davis statue in Statuary Hall.

Gary Gallagher:

No. I think that’s a separate case. And so it doesn’t bother me that Lee is gone and Davis, and I think most of the other confederates, they used to be… I forget. There were maybe a dozen of them or so up in one way or another often for reasons that weren’t especially related to the Civil War, but they still were confederate figures. I have no problem with that whatsoever.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. By the way, what you just said reminded me, another point you make about the monuments is that it’s also too easy to say they’re all part of a white supremacist-

Gary Gallagher:

No. That’s simply not true, although that is said more often than anything else about them. Just isn’t true.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Give an example of how it’s not true, please.

Gary Gallagher:

Well, I try to get students to understand the scale of loss in the Confederate South, among white southerners who supported the Confederacy. Those are the people who are confederates. I always tell students, “Southerner and confederate, those are not synonyms. South and Confederacy, those are not synonyms.” But for the confederates, they lost… I think the best recent scholarship suggests at least 30% of their entire white military age male population killed during the war, 30%. The loss was higher than the French, or British, or German, or Russian losses in World War I. So it’s loss on a catastrophic scale. And a lot of the early monuments are monuments to this lost generation of young men. That’s what they are. That doesn’t have… I mean, now, do the people who support putting them up, are they white supremacists? Of course they are. But they’re not putting them up to strengthen white supremacy. They have laws and cops with guns and national guards to keep white supremacy in place. They don’t need a monument with a confederate infantryman on top to do that.

Greg Kaster:

Good point. Scary point but true. Yeah, we’re running out of time, which I hate because there’s so much more I want to talk to you about, but let’s-

Gary Gallagher:

I can’t believe an hour… It’s 10:56. It’s hard to believe.

Greg Kaster:

I know. It flies by. I tell people, “You’re going to talk to me for 60 minutes.” Yes. And it flies by. Just quickly, and again, I know this is a whole another package. What about Grant’s reputation? I mean, he was called by some at the time the butcher. His reputation through this, it’s improved is my sense.

Gary Gallagher:

Oh, absolutely. Grant is a great example to use to show the difference between history and memory. And how the historical Grant was a gigantic figure in the mid-19th century. He’s by far the most famous American for all the rest of the 19th century. At the end of the war, he and Lincoln were sort of equal figures. Lincoln made a little bit different, of course, by his martyrdom. That adds a difference here, but Grant, he had the biggest funeral in the United States history, as the largest mausoleum in North America. The Grant’s tomb was the most visited tourist attraction in New York City until the depression. Grant was a huge figure. But over time, and partly because of what ex-confederates did about him, he was turned into someone who was caricature as a drunk and a butcher. He wasn’t a butcher. Lee’s casualties were higher than Grant’s as a proportion of the truth, but Grant is the butcher and is a corrupt president.

And part of the corrupt president thing, he did have corrupt people around him but a lot of the animosity toward him as president was because he was the only one of the Gilded Age presidents who pushed hard for any kind of racial accommodation in the former confederate states. He’s the only one who deployed the United States troops to deal with the Ku Klux Klan. So Grant doesn’t deserve to be dismissed the way he has been. And I think it’s very good that the scholarship has taken a decisive turn toward a much more positive view of Grant in the work of Brooke Simpson and Joan Waugh and Ron White. And anyway, all of the recent Grant stuff is much more positive.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Maybe Lin-Manuel is working on a musical as we speak.

Gary Gallagher:

Maybe so. Maybe that’ll be… I mean, I just wrote a little thing about Grant historiography, and it got to the point… I used an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, which dates me, but there’s an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies that has a drunken Grant in it.

Greg Kaster:

I actually remember that [inaudible 00:56:22].

Gary Gallagher:

Yes. Yes. And because of YouTube, you can find the actual episode and quote directly from it, which I did. Granny thinks it’s actually US Grant and think he’s only lived that long because alcohol has preserved his liver.

Greg Kaster:

Excellent. Yeah. That was one of the shows I watched religiously. So we’re basically out of time and I know you have to go, but before we leave one another, I want to ask you about your library because that was such a treat that came at the end of the seminar where you kind of invited us to your house. We had dinner, pizza, it was great. And then just this amazing library across several rooms. Is it only in the basement or was it upstairs?

Gary Gallagher:

No. I have three libraries in the basement. I bought the house before it was finished because it had a huge empty basement with nine foot ceilings. And I just closed my eyes and imagined all the way to the books right down on the slab, so it would be safe. I also added a fourth library upstairs. Now, I’ve loved the book since I was a little boy and have collected books throughout my life and ended up… When you were here, there were about 6,000 in the house. I’m in the midst of moving now and I’m going to have to downsize radically. And this is going to mean tough choices for me. I’m going to see a lot of books, several thousands books, go out the door here as I-

Greg Kaster:

Are you giving them away to libraries or-?

Gary Gallagher:

I’ve given some away, I’m selling some to the dealers, I’ve passed them on to former graduate students. Most people don’t want books now, of course. In fact, you can’t even give books away in some ways now. Libraries don’t even want them.

Greg Kaster:

That’s right. That’s been my experience. Well, I’ve never had to do this, it wasn’t an issue, but I just require the students… it has to be a print book, printed out, but not online. And a lot of students resist that. I mean, I suppose I’d get called into the principal’s office at some point. But yeah, again, back to the power of the book, right?

Gary Gallagher:

For me, I love books as tools, but I also love them as objects. To me, there’s a tactile dimension to reading and it’s really important. And different books… I mean, you can open a book and then you get a scent from the book. Anyway, the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, honest to God, you can still open it up and it has this very particular smell and it must be from the inks, or from the paper, or from something, and I can smell that and it immediately transports me back to Alamosa, Colorado, and the delight of reading about the Civil War as a boy. It’s just incredible. Just incredible.

Greg Kaster:

[inaudible 00:59:03]. There you go. Yes, powerful. All those memories.

Gary Gallagher:

It is. And dust jackets are powerful. I love dust jackets. And anyway, books just, as my girlfriend, Jane Austen, says that, “With your books and hangings around you, paintings, art, and books make a huge difference in life.” They do.

Greg Kaster:

No kidding. It’s so true. That’s a good point to end, a good place to end. I hope you’d be able to part with most of those books. Good luck sorting all that out. This has been just a real pleasure.

Gary Gallagher:

Greg, it’s been great fun. I’ve really had fun talking to you.

Greg Kaster:

Likewise. And as I said before we started recording, get you to Gustavus at some point, I hope soon.

Gary Gallagher:

Let’s do that.

Greg Kaster:

Gary, take good care. Thanks again for all the teaching of us, the 18, and all your writing. And by the way, folks, The Enduring… Wow, that’s just a fun book. It is so good. I started reading that during the seminar just for fun. I love it. It’s excellent.

Gary Gallagher:

Glad you enjoyed it.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, great teaching book too. Take good care. Thank you so much.

Gary Gallagher:

You’re welcome.

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Learning for Life @ Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing, Gustavus graduate Will Clark, class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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