Eric Foner: Why the North Fought the Civil War
The latest effort to explain this deep commitment to the nation’s survival comes from Gary W. Gallagher, the author of several highly regarded works on Civil War military history. In “The Union War,” Gallagher offers not so much a history of wartime patriotism as a series of meditations on the meaning of the Union to Northerners, the role of slavery in the conflict and how historians have interpreted (and in his view misinterpreted) these matters.
The Civil War, Gallagher announces at the outset, was “a war for Union that also killed slavery.” Emancipation was an outcome (an “astounding” outcome, Lincoln remarked in his second Inaugural Address) but, Gallagher insists, it always “took a back seat” to the paramount goal of saving the Union. Most Northerners, he says, remained indifferent to the plight of the slaves. They embraced emancipation only when they concluded it had become necessary to win the war. They fought because they regarded the United States as a unique experiment in democracy that guaranteed political liberty and economic opportunity in a world overrun by tyranny. Saving the Union, in the words of Secretary of State William H. Seward, meant “the saving of popular government for the world.”...
Before the war, slavery powerfully affected the concept of self-government. Large numbers of Americans identified democratic citizenship as a privilege of whites alone — a position embraced by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Which is why the transformation wrought by the Civil War was so remarkable. As George William Curtis, the editor of Harper’s Weekly, observed in 1865, the war transformed a government “for white men” into one “for mankind.” That was something worth fighting for.
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