In late May 1865, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued a congratulatory order to his soldiers who had fought in the great military campaigns of 1863-1865.

“Three armies had come together from distant fields, with separate histories,” observed Sherman, “yet bound by one common cause — the union of our country, and the perpetuation of the Government of our inheritance.” The soldiers had “done all that men could do” and had “a right to join in the universal joy that fills our land because the war is over, and our Government stands vindicated before the world.”

Sherman cherished what I will call the Union cause — the most widely held explanation of the war’s essential meaning among loyal citizens who took up arms rather than allow 11 slaveholding states to rend the national fabric. The Union cause framed the war as pre-eminently an effort to maintain a viable democratic republic in the face of secessionist actions that threatened both the work of the founders and, by extension, the future of democracy in a world that had yet to embrace self-rule by a free people.

As we enter the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the importance of the Union Cause within a mid-19th-century context has disappeared almost completely from popular understanding of the conflict. The most highly charged political word of the mid-19th-century era, “Union” literally has no meaning apart from labor-related issues for most Americans.

Yet a failure to grasp the centrality of the concept “Union” to the wartime generation prevents informed answers to crucial questions: Why did loyal citizens fight so hard and long? What did they hope to achieve through all their sacrifice and effort?

Millions of Americans who have watched Barbara J. Fields’ memorable commentary in Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War” would probably find the words I quoted from Sherman somewhat puzzling. A professor of history at Columbia University, Fields speaks eloquently in the documentary about the importance of emancipation — while at the same time observing that preservation of the Union was “a goal too shallow to be worth the sacrifice of a single life.”

In several parts of the series, she maintains that only the addition of black freedom to the North’s strategic goals elevated the cause in a way that justified the awful human and material cost.

This statement recalls Frederick Douglass’ speech at Arlington National Cemetery on Decoration Day in 1871, which celebrated Union success but pronounced the war’s greatest outcome the death of “the hell-black system of human bondage.”

This placement of slavery’s end in the forefront of what Union victory accomplished certainly makes sense to modern Americans, most of whom easily, and understandably, grasp emancipation as a noble achievement worth bloody sacrifice.

Anyone even casually familiar with 19th-century American history knows that democracy as practiced in 1860 fell far short of what we would desire. Women, African-Americans (both enslaved and free), and others did not partake fully of what many white Northerners would have defined as liberties and freedoms at the center of their democratic republic.

But it is important to remember the context within which Americans of the time lived and fought — within which, over the preceding decades, political and economic opportunity had been on the rise in the United States while privilege, with the failure of the European revolutions of 1848, had seemed to gain a greater stranglehold on other nations in the western world.

Republicans and Democrats across the North united in opposing secession after Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, and first to last most of the loyal citizenry would have said the war was about restoring the Union.

Republicans and many Democrats eventually accepted emancipation as a useful tool to help defeat the Rebels, to punish the slaveholding class most Northerners blamed for secession and the outbreak of war, and to remove a future internal threat to the stability of the nation; however, except among abolitionists and some Radical Republicans, liberation of the slaves took a back seat to Union.

Abraham Lincoln spoke eloquently, and consistently, for all those who loved the Union. His first inaugural address gave a history lesson regarding the Union.

Older than the Constitution and “perpetual,” it stemmed from the Articles of Association in 1774, the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Articles of Confederation in 1778, and, finally, the Constitution in 1787 — whose framers during a stifling summer of debate in Philadelphia had built on the documents from 1774 to 1778 “to form a more perfect union.”

Summoning images of a shared democratic destiny, Lincoln closed on a lyrical note that tied Americans in 1861 to all previous generations: “The mystic cords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

In 1864, Lincoln and his supporters, hoping to rally the largest possible vote to continue the war, dropped the name “Republican” and ran on a Union party ticket.

The president’s last annual message to Congress, delivered on Dec. 6, 1864, also identified Union as the nation’s overriding goal: “In a great national crisis, like ours, unanimity of action among those seeking a common end is very desirable — almost indispensable. In this case the common end is the maintenance of the Union.

“Emancipation,” added Lincoln, stood “among the means to secure that end.”

Countless U.S. soldiers articulated themes related to the Union Cause during the war. Such sentiments often linked the struggle of 1861-1865 to that of 1776-1783. “Our Fathers made this country, we, their children, are to save it,” wrote an Ohio lieutenant: “Without Union & peace our freedom is worthless.”

Many loyal citizens joined their president in affirming a profound attachment to the Union that stood as what Lincoln, in his annual message to Congress in December 1862, called “the last best hope of earth.”

They believed that, because democracy, liberty and freedom had suffered a setback in the failed European revolutions of 1848, the American democratic example stood out as all the more valuable.

A member of the 2nd Ohio Cavalry employed flowery language to make his point. The war must be prosecuted to victory “for the great principles of liberty and self government at stake,” he wrote, “for should we fail, the onward march of Liberty in the Old World will be retarded at least a century, and Monarchs, Kings and Aristocrats will be more powerful against their subjects than ever.”

Anyone searching to know why loyal citizens saw secession as something that must be suppressed no matter how hideous the price must come to grips with a crucial truth. Union was the key, and for many in the North it had a meaning that extended far beyond the boundaries of the United States. Contrary to what might seem sensible to many modern Americans, the mass of Northern people believed the Union Cause worthy of great sacrifice.

More than a third of a million United States soldiers perished in the war, the very large majority of whom would have ranked restoration of the Union as their main goal.

For the wartime generation, Union promised liberty and freedom that, while restricted in many ways even with emancipation, would expand as the republic moved through the 19th century and into the 20th.

Gary W. Gallagher, the John L. Nau III professor of history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is author of “The Union War.” Readers may send him email at [email protected] This essay was distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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