The Civil War Confederacy And Historical Tropes In The Confederate War By Gary Gallagher

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The Civil War was a devastating conflict between the North and the South. The Union was a tight alliance of states, while the Confederacy was the group of Southern states that broke away from the Union and declared independence, thus rebelling and causing war with the Union. “The Confederate War” encapsulates this conflict by representing both sides, and the Confederacy in particular, with a fresh perspective. “The Confederate War” questions the stereotypes of the Confederacy and historical tropes that have been in the mainstream eye and are common.

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Gallagher’s portrait highlights a powerful sense of Confederate patriotism and unity in the face of a determined adversary. Drawing on letters, diaries, and newspapers of the day, he attempts to show that Southerners held not only an unflagging belief in their way of life, which sustained them to their deaths on the battlefield, but also a widespread expectation of victory and a strong popular will closely attuned to military events. Specifically that Robert E. Lee would capture Ulysses Grant and the major Union army with it in a decisive victory. In fact, the army’s “offensive-defensive” strategy came remarkably close to triumph, claims Gallagher—in contrast to the many historians who believe that a more purely defensive strategy or a guerrilla resistance could have won the war for the South. To understand why the South lost, Gallagher says we need look no further than the war itself: after a long struggle that brought enormous loss of life and property and more specifically the Battle of Appomattox courthouse. Southerners finally realized that they had been beaten on the battlefield.

The Battle of Appomattox Court House, fought in Appomattox County, Virginia, on the morning of April 9, 1865, was one of the last battles of the American Civil War. It was a decisive Union victory where the Surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to the Union Army of the Potomac basically marked the end of the Confederacy, and led to the subsequent surrender of remaining leading Confederate armies. Gallagher criticizes other historians for what he claims are “working backwards from Appomattox.”

Gary Gallagher makes it clear that he is not a neo-confederate and that he grew up in Los Angeles. However, he walks a dangerous line when talking about the bravery and resolve of confederate soldiers. For me personally, I couldn’t care less as to how hard the Confederacy fought to uphold the institution of slavery and achieve independence from the Union, or how hard they fought to kill Union soldiers. The fact of the matter remains that the only thing this shows is their conviction to their sick and twisted ideology from the modern lense, rather than a testament to their character as men and the validity of their cause.

I understand that the Civil War was a deeper conflict than upholding the institution of slavery, and was also about states rights and rising tensions between the North and South, and maybe I’m just missing the point. But when discussing such controversial issues, one must look at the implications of your statements. In modern discourse of politics there is still heated debate going on regarding the taking down of Confederate statues. Far-right news articles talk about the bravery of the Wehrmacht on D-Day. While it is important to get the right view of history and that Gallagher has contested many historians and challenged their perception of the Civil War, and while it is beneficial to look at these conflicts with enlightened perspectives, in my opinion Gallagher fetishizes the Confederate soldier and his cause.

Gary Gallagher clearly has considered this, and demonstrates self-awareness to such criticism: “Any historian who argues that the Confederate people demonstrated robust devotion to their slave-based republic, possessed feelings of national community, and sacrificed more than any other segment of white society in US history, runs the risk of being labeled a neo-Confederate”. And while I find it important to consider this fresh perspective, I am equally skeptical as there could be a greater political bias going on in his revisions.

If one is to believe the average historian, the South never had a chance. Most historians say that the Confederacy lost because of internal issues with poor morale, failed military strategy, etc. However, Gallagher states that we should not ask why the Confederacy collapsed so soon but rather how it lasted so long. In “The Confederate War,” he reexamines the Confederate experience through the actions and words of the people who lived it to show how the home front responded to the war, endured great hardships, and assembled armies that fought with tremendous spirit and determination. While Gallagher admits “Although class tension, unhappiness with intrusive government policies, desertion, and war weariness all form part of the Confederate mosaic” He continues in bolstering his argument in saying, “they must be set against the larger picture of thousands of soldiers persevering against mountain odds, civilians enduring great human and material hardship in the pursuit of independence and southern white society maintaining remarkable resilience until the last stage of the war.”

Gallagher presents a challenge to the current historical majority consensus that lack of will, absence of national unity, and flawed military strategy is what caused the Confederacy to lose the Civil War. Gallagher presents testimonies, letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts that harp about the grit and resolve of rebel soldiers and civilians and the belief of the validity of their cause. For me, this is not enough to dismantle the years of evidence and education to the contrary of what is presented in this book. While this does prove, to some extent, that the individuals who are testifying believe in the cause, I am not completely convinced that this was a majority opinion. What gives this historian the credibility to challenge all these other historians?

To his credit, he resists the urge to backtrack from Appomattox when explaining military failure (as he accuses other historians of doing) Gary puts the Confederate war effort in a larger historical framework and draws parallels to the successful rebellion of the American Revolution. He poses a number of interesting questions for historians, requesting that scholars not ask why “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight” failed, but why so many non-slaveholders fought for so long. But his share of testimonials to the resolve of the Confederacy, despite perception of it being a Lost Cause, unchallenged by critical questioning, feels redundant. Soldiers’ letters, reenlistment figures, and editorials which all imply high morale when taken at face value by Gallagher–could easily be viewed as propaganda. This seems more like a work for historians rather than general readers because of the important yet contrarian questions it presents rather than decisive answers about the historical context of the civil war and the Confederacy.

I am personally of the mind that the Confederacy was a group of traitors who fought to uphold the instution of slavery. In fact, I only felt sympathy for the Confederacy when considering that the soldiers were only pawns in a game of chess and were fighting on behalf of the rich slave masters because they had to. Even if I were to take everything Gallagher presented at face value, the only difference it would make is that I would think less of the Confederacy that they would fight tooth and nail and passionately to preserve it, not more fondly of it, as Gallagher would presume. Perhaps my own political bias makes this reading and the ideas and arguments presented in it harder to digest. At times it feels like a propaganda piece with a larger political agenda at stake. I am conflicted between what has always been taught, and this new perspective.

07 September 2020

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