The American War: A History of the Civil War Era by Gary W. Gallagher and Joan Waugh. Flip Learning, 2015. Paper, ISBN: 978-0991037537. $34.95.
In the preface to James I. Robertson, Jr., and William C. Davis’ Bringing the Civil War to the Classroom (2002), those distinguished Civil War historians (both of whom were my graduate professors at Virginia Tech) observed that there is no period in American history that “is more fascinating to study—or more difficult to teach—than the American Civil War.” Few historians, teachers, and college professors would take issue with Robertson’s and Davis’ assessment. With more than 60,000 titles to date published about the conflict, covering a vast array of topics, the Civil War can indeed be a daunting subject to teach—particularly when one needs to distill what Bruce Catton dubbed “the most significant single experience in our national existence” down to one or two semesters.
For many years, teachers and professors have relied on histories of the conflict written by such notables as James McPherson, Allen C. Guelzo, Steven Woodworth, and Charles P. Roland as foundational textbooks for courses in Civil War history. Now, two of the nation’s most eminent historians and professors, Gary Gallagher and Joan Waugh, have produced a history of the period likely to supplant previously assigned texts.
At first glance, this volume appears much like other general histories of the period. The authors do an excellent job of tracing secession’s roots, from the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to the widening gap between free and slave states in the antebellum period (exacerbated by slavery’s expansion into the territories). Once the authors dissolve the Union, they present a fine overview of the conflict’s major military events—from the firing on Fort Sumter to the Civil War’s end in the spring of 1865.
This highly accessible and succinct history does more than merely recount events. In fact, the authors spend little time discussing actual events or breaking down the cumbersome minutiae of battles and campaigns. Instead, Gallagher’s and Waugh’s focus is on why those events mattered. For example, instead of offering a detailed examination of Union general Philip H. Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Campaign, the authors focus on the economic and political consequences of the campaign. While general readers might find the limited discussion of battles and campaigns somewhat frustrating at times (the authors do provide an extensive “Further Reading” section at the book’s end) those who teach the Civil War will find the authors’ attention to why an event or campaign mattered extremely appealing.
Interspersed throughout this wonderful volume are thematic chapters that focus on a variety of topics—including soldiers, emancipation, and women. Those sections clearly reveal the complex ways in which the conflict impacted people from a variety of backgrounds, and how attitudes among those individuals evolved as the war progressed. Additionally, some of the authors’ discussions in the book’s thematic chapters illustrate the Civil War’s long-lasting legacy. For example, in the chapter entitled “Women and the War,” after offering a sharp analysis of women’s roles as members of aid societies, nurses, spies, and factory workers, the authors show how the “new confidence” that women gained as a result of their participation in the conflict helped pave the way for the emergence of a “new woman” (164). Although not realized for half a century after the Civil War’s end, that “new woman” who emerged as result of the conflict became a crucial stepping-stone on the path to women’s suffrage.
The American War not only helps bring clarity to some of the Civil War’s more complex topics, but at times does what historian David Blight called for Civil War historians to do fifteen years ago in his magisterial Race and Reunion (2001)—“shuck” the Civil War from “its shell of sentimentalism.” For instance, Gallagher and Waugh view the Civil War as a “contest between two mid-nineteenth century nation-states.” Conceptualizing the conflict as a war between two nations greatly challenges “the popular image of a fratricidal struggle between reluctant opponents who thought of themselves as American brothers, or the more ubiquitous conception of a conflict between the North and the South” (127).
Beyond the book’s fine examination of the Civil War, the authors present a succinct and excellent overview of Reconstruction, from Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan through the Compromise of 1877. Again, in their attempt to not just chronicle events, but to offer greater understanding, Gallagher and Waugh present their thoughts on why Reconstruction can be simultaneously considered a success and failure.
Gallagher and Waugh conclude their text with a chapter on the complexities of Civil War memory—something that is glaringly absent from many of the standard histories of the Civil War era. The authors present an overview of the four main memories of the conflict—the Union Cause, the Emancipation Cause, the Lost Cause, and the Reconciliation Cause. Additionally, they examine how films such as Gone with the Wind have shaped popular perceptions of the conflict.
The authors also point out deficiencies in the Civil War’s historiography, offering suggestions on what Civil War historians and their students should consider writing about in the future. For example, as part of their chapter “The Process of Emancipation,” the authors point out the limited amount of scholarship on “personal servants” in the Confederate army—if examined more closely, the topic would no doubt dispel the persistent neo-Confederate myth that throngs of African American soldiers willingly fought for the Confederacy.
The American War—even-handed in its praise and criticism of both sides, superbly written, and keen in its analysis—offers arguably the best, one-volume history of the Civil War era to appear to date. While individuals with a general interest in the Civil War era would certainly benefit from reading this book, those who teach Civil War era history will find this book a useful foundation upon which to build a course.
Jonathan A. Noyalas, the author of many books on the Civil War era, is Assistant Professor of History & Director of the Center for Civil War History at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Virginia.