Gary Gallagher and the Continuing Civil War

Nearly a month ago the Twitterverse tweeted with commentary on a lecture delivered at the University of Virginia by Gary Gallagher. Apparently Gary was determined to take on current understandings of the American Civil War, namely the emphasis paid to emancipation and the debate over when the Civil War ended. Gary took several authors to task concerning the first point, which received most of his attention, before turning to the second point at the 40:45 mark of the video below:

As I understand it, Gary’s argument is that present concerns shape our inquiry of the past, framing the questions and suggesting the answers we seek. There’s nothing exceptional about that observation: it’s often at the core of many a historiographical essay, the sort of discovery usually reserved for first year graduate seminars and for the occasionally perceptive undergraduate.

(Note: as an undergraduate student at UVa, I took a course under Robert D. Cross, who is honored by this lecture series. We met in his residence on The Lawn, one of the Pavilions, to discuss … the history of New England (HIUS 570). He later read my honors thesis … and I found him a gentleman as well as a scholar. But I digress.)

Although Gary doesn’t mention it explicitly, it appears to me that one of the targets of the latter part of his lecture is Greg Downs, whose After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (2015) has impressed many readers, including yours truly, with its careful examination of the transition from war to peace in the years between 1865 and 1871. Greg is very explicit about how events of the last fifteen years have shaped how he has viewed the period under study. Some critics would call that presentism, and, judging from what Gary had to say, he would agree. If we are to accept this argument, the notion that the Civil War continued after Appomattox has been shaped by recent headlines and our experiences in the Middle East.

It’s an attractive, even seductive explanation. One could cite Downs’s own prose in support of it. One could also point to the number of declarations made over the past decade about how we need to understand that the war did not end at Appomattox (or Bennett’s Place, or somewhere else in 1865) as a way to understand the conflict in a larger sense … a suggestion usually made as if this is a new idea for which the observer deserves much credit for being so clever and insightful.

But it’s also wrong … or at least incomplete.

I wish I could say that the idea the the Civil War did not end in 1865 first came to mind in 1989 with the completion of a certain dissertation that was published two years later, namely my own Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 (1991). Originally, this manuscript was supposed to take Grant from the end of the war through the end of his presidency, echoing much of what I had done in the above-mentioned honors thesis, which was way too long for an honors thesis, as I who now supervise them know only too well. Do as I say, Barrett students, not as I did. As I commenced writing the dissertation, however, I found myself going back before 1865 to discover a great deal about Grant’s thinking about the means and ends of war, politics, and peace, so much so that I looked at Grant’s prewar thinking about politics, slavery, and the sectional conflict prior to 1861 in the dissertation’s first chapter. That was about as close to writing about antebellum antislavery politics as I got for years, even though originally that (and neither Grant nor the Civil War and Reconstruction) had been my intended field of inquiry when I came to Wisconsin in 1979.

Before long, however, I found that telling Grant’s story during the war and his tenure as general-in-chief during Reconstruction was so engaging, so absorbing, that I would have to end my work with his election as president in 1868. After all, so the expression goes, there are two types of dissertations: good ones and finished ones. Even then, I could look at Grant as a political actor, note how his attitudes and assumptions about issues changed, and how the means and ends of the war and Reconstruction changed as well. It didn’t hurt that during much of that time I was working as an assistant editor with The Papers of Andrew Johnson, located at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, followed by three years teaching history at Wofford College, located in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a haven of KKK activity during Reconstruction.

Now I knew it was true that sometimes scholarly inquiry is shaped by present circumstances, and this was somewhat the case in the 1980s, but for a much different reason than one might suppose. Although I had written about Grant as far back as 1979, one event that refocused my attention on him was the appearance of William S. McFeely’s 1981 biography, which won the Pulitzer Prize after receiving a glowing review from McFeely’s own dissertation adviser, C. Vann Woodward. Many readers speculated that McFeely’s take on Grant was shaped largely by the collapse of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. That consideration did not disturb me: McFeely’s handling of evidence was another matter altogether, as I suggested in an article published in 1987 in Civil War History that served as my introduction to big time scholarship.

By that time I was fully into writing the dissertation while working full time. However, as I handed in chapter after chapter, one of my readers suggested that what the dissertation lacked was several interpretive themes that held it together from beginning to end. Yes, the manuscript showed that Grant was not quite a political ignoramus, and that his attitudes on the war, reunion, reconciliation, and race changed over time and as circumstances shifted. But, if this was to be something more than simply a Grant-centered study, one with larger implications, what could they be?

It was at that point, after a great deal of thinking and reflection, that I came upon a rather valuable insight: namely, that there was a Clausewitzian connection between means and ends as well as between war and politics that gave Grant’s own evolving understanding of the conflict a much broader meaning. Defining the ends of conflict helped one select the appropriate means to wage it; war and politics were part of a broader continuum, and, if war was politics by other means, as the corruption of Clausewitz’s writing expressed it, than Reconstruction as a political act was often war by other means, especially when it came to terrorism.

I remind you that I came to that conclusion in the late 1980s.

Nor was I alone in viewing Reconstruction this way. Back in 1981 Richard N. Current had contributed a chapter to a book of essays on Grant. Entitled “President Grant and the Continuing War,” it explored how Reconstruction defined what the Civil War achieved (and what it did not achieve) as well as Grant’s role in securing what Michael Les Benedict, quoting Richard Henry Dana, called “the fruits of victory,” all the way back in 1975 (and which I first used in 1979 in my first published article).

One can see signs of my thinking in the introduction to Let Us Have Peace, a book shaped greatly by the work and suggestions of many historians, none more so than my adviser, Richard H. Sewell, and second reader Allan G. Bogue. I say this simply to give credit where credit is due, and to remind readers of how intellectual creativity is the product of the interaction of minds and previous work upon the “author,” often rendering the first person form (as in “my work”) problematic. I spoke of “the interrelationships of warmaking and peacemaking” during the Civil War and Reconstruction, arguing that

Conquering the Confederacy was but one step of the Union effort; reintegrating the defeated South into the reunited states was of equal importance. Reconstruction began at Fort Sumter; Appomattox, although an essential step, left much unsettled. The struggle for reunion spanned both war and peace.

To Grant, I claimed, “the Civil War and Reconstruction were part of the same long struggle to preserve the Union, destroy slavery, and establish a durable peace to secure what Grant’s contemporaries called ‘the fruits of victory.'”

Nor was Grant alone in that understanding. William T. Sherman noted that “Reconstruction was a corollary of the war” in writing about Grant; Philip H. Sheridan declared that the only way to secure “peace and quiet” was to ensure that “the States which were in rebellion surrender their attempts at political power as absolutely as Lee surrendered the Military strength of the rebellion at Appomattox Court House.”

In short, my insight, founded on the insights of others, that the war in a larger sense did not end at Appomattox was shared by several key players in the event itself … no presentism there, just a rendering of what some folks thought at the time (I’d add Frederick Douglass and some other folks to this list, but that’s another essay).

All this reminds me of an observation Allan Bogue made to me in a seminar during my first year of graduate school. In an effort to counter the usual easy claims of “relevance,” he turned to me as an example of someone who was studying things that could not easily be relevant in 1980, including impeachment, disputed elections, and military occupations (he did not mention terrorism). Of course, since then we’ve had the Clinton impeachment, the election of 2000, 9/11, and wars followed by occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In each case I found myself recruited as an expert to place current events in past context.

So I have to disagree with Gary Gallagher. The notion that the Civil War did not end at Appomattox is not the product of recent events. It may have gained more traction for that reason, but that’s not the same thing. Moreover, I think Gary ought to have known better. After all, who served as the in-house reader for Let Us Have Peace when it was being reviewed by the University of North Carolina Press? Gary W. Gallagher.

 

 

28 thoughts on “Gary Gallagher and the Continuing Civil War

  1. Brad May 11, 2016 / 12:47 pm

    Your ending is classic!

    I have always thought that the Civil War ended in 1865 or better put, as others have, the South lost the War but won the peace.

  2. James F. Epperson May 11, 2016 / 12:56 pm

    I also loved the ending, but the entire essay is really good.

  3. Will Hickox May 11, 2016 / 2:15 pm

    What do you think of his comments on historians emphasizing emancipation? I thought his “Union War” made some good points in refuting Chandra Manning and others, but he oddly did it in part by using the same model (sampling period accounts) that he attacks them for using.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 11, 2016 / 3:58 pm

      I think he pressed his case too far and in a combative manner. It was as if he was a blogger.🙂

  4. Gary Amundson May 11, 2016 / 4:15 pm

    I must say that I really enjoy posts such as this one which discuss historiography and the process by which a work of history relates to other scholarship and to the times in which it was written. Posts of this nature are one of the main reasons that I am a regular reader of, though infrequent commenter on, this blog. I must comment, though, when I find a post as enjoyable as this one.
    Thank you.

  5. rcolton3 May 11, 2016 / 7:46 pm

    I think Gallagher has it right. The importance of maintaining the Union was paramount. The Regimental History of the 13th Vermont begins with To preserve the Union and the Life of the Republic. My great grandfather and his brother both served in the 13th Vermont, and my great grand uncle went on to serve in the 17th Vermont as well through the rest of the War. Vermont then had few if any black residents. Most Americans in the 19th century never traveled more 10 miles from their home. Thus, it is reasonable to consider that they were not fighting for the abolition of slavery as Chandra Manning would have us believe. Gallagher is correct that most 19th century Americans were racists (as we define it today) Elizabeth Varon demonstrates that abolitionists were clearly a minority in the North in her “Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1859.” Gallagher in the Union War has noted some of the far-out claims in recent scholarship, for example that the war was the beginning of American imperialism, when in fact, the war was largely fought by volunteers who then returned home. Or, that the Grand Review discriminated against women because they could only watch the parade,Or, that USCT were purposely excluded from the Grand Review (for which no one has produced documentary evidence) Or, the importance of the Gettysburg Adress at the time. It was barely reported in the newspapers. Dr.Simpson takes Gallagher to task for “not knowing better” because he had read Dr. Simpson’s 1st book published 25 years ago. Gallagher is not saying that concept of the continuing civil war is all new. He is pointing out his belief that it has been carried too far. Gallagher makes good points about the differences between the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the war. What I think Gallagher is stating about reconstruction and the concept of the continuing Civil War is 1. We forget and fail to understand the importance of Union and 2.some advocates of the continuing Civil War are losing sight of what a cataclysmic event the War of the Rebellion from 1861 to 1865 was. The fighting in many of these battles was as bad or worse than those of WWI or WWII. There were more men killed than all our other wars combined.There were far more unknown soldiers on both sides. The Union had at least 150,000 soldiers who could not be identified after reburial efforts in late 1865 and 1866. While Grant tried to carry on Lincoln’s ideas, Andrew Johnson (as Gallagher noted) had given up a great deal of the chances of Lincoln’s ideas becoming successful. Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan were writing after the war and Sherman did not see blacks as equals. Also, Professor Gallagher mentioned at the beginning that the task of the historian is to try and interpret and understand the past without viewing the past through our morals and beliefs and imposing them on the past.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 11, 2016 / 10:02 pm

      It probably helps to have read the book by James Oakes before evaluating its argument. As for the rest, I stand by my argument. One of the problems with discussing historiography is that all too often one tends to simplify (and even sometimes distort) what was said in order to set up what sometimes amounts to a strawman for a counterclaim. This seems to be the case in your characterization of Manning’s argument. I don’t think “we” fail to understand the importance of the Union: I think that to say so is to engage in exactly that sort of distortion. Moreover, one can understand what happened between 1861 and 1865 while also appreciating that what happened afterwards did much to shape what that event achieved and did not achieve. As for the last point, that’s a commonplace observation, so I wouldn’t attach anything profound to it.

      I don’t see the connection between whether Vermont had black residents (even Gallagher made this point) and whether Vermonters were interested in the destruction of slavery. Yet one might want to consult, for example, this study of the Liberty Party in Vermont (https://vermonthistory.org/journal/misc/LibertyParty.pdf) or this study of Vermont’s Republicans (http://www.amazon.com/Star-That-Set-Republican-1854-1974/dp/0739106007/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1463029866&sr=1-1&keywords=9780739106006) before you make claims about Vermont’s views on slavery.

    • John Foskett May 13, 2016 / 9:39 am

      I’d be careful about minimizing the cost of WWI from the US side. Look at the total deaths (over 100,000). Then evaluate that from the perspective that the US became actively involved in combat only in late May, 1918, lasting until November 11, 1918 – not quite 6 months. I’ll give you the “Spanish flu” if you give me the ACW casualties resulting from various diseases.

  6. Shoshana Bee May 11, 2016 / 10:34 pm

    How unlikely that I would be treated to an article containing the two CW topics that I have spent the most time on: Reconstruction and Grant. My 5 month journey into the agony and ecstasy of CW study includes a Grant biography, Grant Memoirs-in-progress & at least a 100hrs of Reconstruction videos, articles, lectures, diagraming, charting, etc. Of course, none of this effort qualifies me for anything other than to say that it only heightened my appreciation for this blog article and the complicated issues addressed. As an aside, the voracious note-taker that I am, I thought it fun to look back and see what my first impression of Grant was: “A man of opinions and actions rendered from experience, rather than convention.”( My comments on Reconstruction are best not repeated.)

  7. HankC May 12, 2016 / 8:19 am

    all very interesting.

    Regarding “present concerns shape our inquiry of the past, framing the questions and suggesting the answers we seek”.

    The ‘present’ quickly becomes hte ‘past’ even while the events in question are ongoing.

    Gettysburg would be several orders of magnitude less regarded, marked and visited if not for Lincoln’s address.

    What if Lincoln released the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation after Perryville rather than Antietam?

    In these cases, Lincoln’s view of the ‘past’, however recent, suggested answers to him and framed our future questions.

  8. OhioGuy May 12, 2016 / 1:54 pm

    Thanks, Brooks, I found your little essay an interesting read. I have a lot of trouble getting a handle on where Gallagher is coming from, to use a colloquial term. I’ve read his book, The Confederate War, as well as some articles he’s written. I always get the impression he builds up strawmen in order to tear them down. In the aforementioned book he does make a good case for a sense of Confederate nationalism, but I’m not sure the extent to which historians had denied the existent of this phenomenon in the first place. In fact, my impression is just the opposite of Gallagher’s. It seems to me that there has been less focus on what some have called the “war within the war” — the cleavages within the south that kept the region from being unified in its war efforts. In no area was this more apparent than in the mountainous areas of northern Alabama, northern Georgia, western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and, of course, western Virginia. So, it I think Gallagher sets up a strawman that the prevailing wisdom is that the south didn’t have a sense of nationalism and then debunks it. I believe, however, that for decades the “settled wisdom” had been of a “unified South” against a more divided North with its Copperheads and NYC race riots, etc. I may be completely wrong in my assessments here as I’m not a Civil War scholar but just a retired academic with a consuming interest in the late Rebellion.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 12, 2016 / 5:32 pm

      I sense that The Confederate War was written as an answer to a book entitled Why The South Lost the Civil War (1986), by by Richard E. Beringer, William N. Still. Jr., Archer Jones, and Herman Hattaway. That book argued that white southerners lacked the will to win independence. Other people had also been writing about Confederate nationalism (including Drew Gilpin Faust), but the “lack of will” thesis got a lot of attention.

      • OhioGuy May 12, 2016 / 6:09 pm

        Thanks, Brooks, for putting The Confederate War into a perspective I was unaware of. I learn a lot following this blog.🙂

  9. Interested Student May 12, 2016 / 3:18 pm

    Dr. Simpson, I am very interested in your opinion about whether or not Confederate monuments should be removed from (1) generic public spaces like in front of courthouses or regular public green spaces; (2) National Military Parks, like Gettysburg and Chickamauga; (3) or both. Obviously, removal of monuments is binary, so there really has to be the kind of exact answer that academics so desperately hate. I also want to ask your opinion that if you believe the answer is yes, do you also believe that monuments to “bad” wars should be removed in toto, like (assuming there are some) the ones celebrating the U.S. war against Mexico? Or the Vietnam War Wall in Washington, D.C.? (As an aside, having seen your lectures on CSPAN-3, it appears to me you don’t duck tough issues, so please, let it rip.) Thank you.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 12, 2016 / 5:26 pm

      Here are my answers:

      [1] That decision belongs to the community where the statue is located. So, if it’s a monument on state grounds, it’s up to the state. If it’s on city grounds/county grounds, then it’s up to the city/county. Let’s take an example. I happen to like the Lee and Jackson monuments in Charlottesville. I liked them when I was a student there. I also like the Lee/Jackson monument in Baltimore. But if the people there want to remove them, I see no reason why my preference should outweigh theirs.

      [2] No.

      [3] See [1] and [2].

      As I have not answered “yes,” the remainder of your inquiry can be set aside.

  10. chancery May 12, 2016 / 4:01 pm

    Brooks,

    Two questions. First, was the link to your essay supposed to be to a downloadable copy? I found myself at a paywall, and unless I missed something, Project Muse does not seem to have an equivalent to the limited free individual membership available from JSTOR.

    I was able to grab a copy by firing up an alumni portal that my university provides, but others may not have (or know about) such resource. (I keep meaning to post a public service message about ways to enjoy the riches of JSTOR and similar academic treasuries, but haven’t gotten around it.)

    Second, in a comment you mentioned a book by James Oakes, although I didn’t see a mention of a title. (Haven’t listened to the talk yet, perhaps it’s there.)

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 12, 2016 / 5:20 pm

      No, the article’s not a downloadable copy.

      James Oakes’s book is entitled Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865. I also recommend his much shorter book, The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War.

  11. Joshism May 13, 2016 / 4:54 pm

    I think the Civil War ended in 1865.

    Another war, if you want to call it that, started in 1865.

  12. Al Mackey May 14, 2016 / 6:06 pm

    I think the argument that Congress continued fighting the war, thus justifying having a military officer overseeing Reconstruction districts, until various states were “redeemed” is persuasive. Yes, the war between organized armies ended in 1865. The confederacy as an entity ended in 1865. In that sense, the war ended in 1865; however, that’s not the only way to look at it. The Supreme Court ruled that legally the war didn’t end until Andrew Johnson’s 1866 proclamation declaring it ended in the final state of Texas. A struggle continued afterward, during Reconstruction, in the form of a violent insurgency that included terrorism. If we consider the underlying issue of the Civil War, from the confederate point of view, to be the status of African-Americans in the South, then one can be forgiven for making the case that the war continued well past 1865, though it continued by other means. This history stuff gets very complicated very quickly.

  13. David May 16, 2016 / 3:26 am

    Sorry I am late with this comment.

    This discussion seems to me to be a lot of semantic navel gazing. War is the conflict of arms between opposing forces. Once one of those forces surrenders, and in this case the country supporting those forces goes out of existence, the war is over. The ongoing political, social, and economic effects of that war remain to be resolved, but the war is over. To say otherwise redefines the meaning of war.

    Please do not get the idea that I believe that the post-war political, social, and economic issues are not worth studying. They are. Emphatically so. Indeed, in the long run, the post-war wrangling may be more important than the war itself.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 16, 2016 / 6:39 am

      So war requires the existence of nation-states on both sides?

      • David May 16, 2016 / 8:40 am

        To quote myself: War is the conflict of arms between opposing forces.

        In this case (the U.S. civil war), that was a nation-state and a proclaimed nation-state. I am not of the opinion that the conflict must always be between nation states. But it is between two entities: two nation states; two groups of nation-states, a nation-state and a guerrilla movement; two guerilla movements. whatever. But the key thing is conflict of arms.

        • Brooks D. Simpson May 16, 2016 / 10:57 am

          Then what do you term white supremacist terrorist groups who engage in a conflict of arms that must be countered by a traditional military force?

          Your definition lends itself to the claim that Reconstruction was a continuing war.

          This is why I think it unwise to term this discussion one of semantic navel gazing, because one may fall victim to one’s own criticism.

          • David May 16, 2016 / 11:14 am

            You ask: Then what do you term white supremacist terrorist groups who engage in a conflict of arms that must be countered by a traditional military force?

            I call that violent political action. It’s not war.

            I do not agree that my definition lends itself to considering Reconstruction a continuing war. You may interpret it that way if you’d like, but since it is my definition, I’ll just say it does not.

          • Brooks D. Simpson May 16, 2016 / 1:13 pm

            Exactly. Your definition. That’s my point. When you offered, “War is the conflict of arms between opposing forces,” you opened the door to semantic navel gazing. It would all depend on how one defines “opposing forces.” Students of Fourth Generation Warfare understand that differently than you do. For a critic of 4GW, see http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub632.pdf

  14. David May 17, 2016 / 3:28 am

    I am not a war theorist. I try to take a common-sense approach to what is and is not war. Perhaps my viewpoint is along the lines of Justice Potter Stewart and pornography: I know it when I see it. If you want to define what was happening during Reconstruction as a war, that is fine, but it is not part of what is commonly thought of as the Civil War.

    I’ll be reading that paper on 4GW with interest. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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