(Taught by Professor Gary Gallagher, The Teaching Company)
Professor Gallagher’s course represents, almost as a war unto itself (!), a massive, elegantly-presented and very worthwhile undertaking. He provides us with forty-eight inviting, in-depth and detailed lectures that focus on the nature, conditions, causes, political strategies, and military campaigns of the costly Civil War between the Northern and the Southern States; an internal war which marks the identity of the United States in a radically unique way. The very fact of this war’s permanent recounting, continual exploration and constant re-interpretation ——both at the academic and non-academic levels—– reveals to us the very strength of the United States as a modern democracy and the necessary conditions for the rise of a politically powerful republic in any historical moment. For it was then that the United States really moved from using the verb “are” to the verb “is” in reference to itself. Truly, it seems, a healthy —–though painful—- memory may bring forth greatness. But, how can one see this uniqueness? Comparatively.
Canada —-country of which I am a citizen—- has really had no such internal war (it even boasts of a “Quiet Revolution” in the Province of Quebec). Little wonder the identities of these two modern liberal democracies can be so different even if there are obviously shared underlying realities and manners of self-understanding. No wonder how different at times is their population’s understanding of their role in armed conflict throughout the world. In contrast, as a citizen of Colombia one easily appreciates that there is a much closer possibility for an understanding of the dilemmas both past and present which both countries have had to face historically. Little wonder the USA and Colombia are currently well-intentioned allies (though at times the friendship seems quite one-sided). However, Colombia has not been able to win decisively the fundamental, if not perfect, unity that the USA won after the terribly disruptive Civil War. In this respect, courses such as these are of central concern for Colombian citizens in positions of leadership as we have gained much in securing our democratic liberties and freedoms via a costly bloody struggle primarily against narc-terrorists (also paramilitaries and drug cartels), but still have a long way to truly secure our greater happiness as a republican nation with a complex reality like few others. Examples of such resolutions may aid us even if ours is in no way a civil war in the accepted understanding of the term. This is the more so in that we are reaching the bicentennial of our first struggles for independence in 1810 against the Spanish Crown.
In other words, my not being a citizen of the USA ——not really knowing in detail who was Lee or Grant or Davies, or what happened at Vicksburg or Antietam or Richmond (not to mention the lesser known names; can a well-formed US citizen really imagine/accept this?)—— can be immensely helpful in trying to gather the relevance of a such a study beyond the borders of the historical imagination of the United States. Perhaps an understanding such as the one provided by this course reveals, as Thucydides believed, the permanence of certain elements of the human condition regarding political conflict and the constraints of war. For surely, in the same manner, few —if any—- US citizens will know who was Rondón (to whom the much more famous Bolivar said “Coronel Rondón, salve usted la patria“), or Anzoátegui or Sucre or know much of the Battle of Boyacá or Carabobo or Pichincha. In this limited sense, maybe an understanding such as the one provided by this course reveals core elements of our political nature as human beings beyond the vicissitudes of this or that conflict, this or that epoch. As Thucydides writes in his powerful The Peloponnesian War and the Athenians —which in very important respects contrasts dramatically with Gallagher’s course as the acknowledged Greek historian focuses primordially on military and diplomatic history (with little mention of economics, or everyday life, or the life of prisoners, etc.)— his is a book for all times, a book which reveals what gathers permanence beyond endless historical variation:
“In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win applause for the moment, but as a possession for all time.” (my emphasis: TPW: Book I, 22, 4; Strassler edition)
But leaving this point aside, Professor Gallagher’s inspiring understanding of the dynamic of the war and all its complex and unique protagonists, its multiple causes and its harsh day-to-day realities is delivered in such a passionate and careful manner that, although of great length in itself, one finishes the course with a feeling that actually little has been said in contrast to the true dynamic of the war itself! Moreover, Professor Gallagher’s serious undertaking is broken at times by a very fine sense of humor which reminds us that a certain elegant kind of humor can never be overcome by the dramatic tragedy of events. This is particularly so in his recounting of the nature of some of the Generals and their absolutely unique personalities. Perhaps one can recall the unforgettable case of the General, seen as having an extremely difficult personality, and who is said to have denied his own letter for provisions! “You have picked a fight with yourself now”, he is supposed to have been told by a superior. Quite revealing indeed.
And the course has been adeptly designed so that the military campaigns —–obviously the core of any war study—– are actually broken down into different sections within the course itself, providing skillfully planned pauses which allow for an understanding of other war dynamics besides the central military dynamic itself. Thus Professor Gallagher allows us to begin to deal with many other complex elements of any war, among them: the role, self-understanding and everyday life of women and their very dissimilar realities and family relations both in the North and in the South (made famous by Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind); the diverse manners in which both home fronts perceived and were actually touched by the war, particularly in the South which was where most of the actual battles and displacements took place; the history and actual condition of the enslaved African-Americans in their struggle for emancipation and for the privileges of citizenship in their country; the role of political leaders in both conflicting parties and the emergence of emancipation as both the central purpose and cause for the war itself (later denied by Southern leaders trying to reinterpret the very conditions of their loss); the complex and differing economic dynamics and both the strengths and weaknesses of the conflicting groups in terms of funding the war; the harsh life of soldiers in both camps, their relation to their leaders, the memory of their sacrifice and the dynamics of conscription which allowed for the permanence of large active armies during those years; the appalling conditions which prisoners of war had to face, particularly, but not solely, in Andersonville; the progressive growth of the displaced and of refugees in those areas of military action in the South; and, finally but fundamentally, the very special and crucial final consideration by Gallagher regarding the memory of the war itself and how it has marked the current self-interpretation of both South (the loser) and North (the winner) up to this day. Similarly it is not by chance that all of Quebec’s license plates read: “Je me souviens”.
Without a doubt, special consideration must be given to the role that Lincoln played under such trying circumstances: denying recognition to what he named the “so-called” Secession States, trying to keep within the Union the undecided Border States, putting forth the changing views on emancipation and the possible responses to the question of slavery, confronting head on his struggle against the Copperheads when military campaigns were being lost, facing serenely his struggle against much more punitive radical republicans when decisive military struggles were won, presenting his desire to bring forth a generous end to the war by means of a non-punitive attempt at Reconstruction (vs the Wade-Davis Bill), revealing his day-to-day interaction with Generals including Hooker who actually left the President waiting downstairs in his own home (!), searching for victorious generals such as Grant to replace Generals such as McClellan, and far above all else, bestowing to us all of his writing which includes such memorable war speeches as that of Gettysburg. Undoubtedly to have a better understanding of all these elements it becomes incumbent to listen to Professor Zarefsky’s course entitled Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words here at The Teaching Company which provides a clearer view of the relation between politics, the life of statesmen and stateswomen, and war (my review: here ).
But it is the manner in which the military campaigns are brought to life that really marks the peak of the course, moving back and forth from the Western to the Eastern fronts in the long years which at first were thought would be few: recounting the start of the war in the Attack of Fort Sumter on April, 1861, the battles for Richmond and Petersburg, the Battles which took place in the Shenandoah Valley, the Seven Days Battles, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, the Battle of Chancerlorsville, Mannasas, Atlanta, and many others up to the surrender of Lee in Appomattox in 65. Moreover, Professor Gallagher provides a truly enlightening discussion of the different Generals which guided their troops into these horrifying battles. Surely this has to be one of the most important facets of the course as it provides an important view on the nature of those whose task it is to actually lead and fight the battle themselves. For this alone this course is worth gold. (Note: To follow these campaigns finding a map on-line of the war is very helpful. There is a National Geographic map on-line which is EXTREMELY USEFUL: here )
Truly there is so little to find at fault with this course. But maybe one could say the following:
1. Primarily, as regards the philosophical presuppositions of the course itself, perhaps one could recall what was said above in terms of Thucydides’ views on how it is one should approach an understanding of the dynamics of war. As we recall, he, in contrast to Gallagher, saw little need to mention the role of economics, or the everyday-life of the characters in question. The complex reasons for this surely are not to be developed here, but nonetheless they should strike us as quite intriguing and puzzling, to say the least.
2. It might be of great help in understanding the greater relevance of a course such as this to briefly take a look at Aristotle, at least in two very important regards: a) as he provides a unique and very important analysis of courage in his Ethics, where military/patriotic courage is both seen to be of crucial importance for the health of a Republic, but at the same time is seriously questioned in a unique and ingenious way as regards its relation to the pursuit of happiness and the life of courageous reflection, and b) to better understand why it is that in the course itself professor Gallagher goes into details regarding the actual physical condition of the various Generals themselves and how they as leaders were “perceived” by his troops. In this regard looking more in-depth at the virtue of magnanimity as developed in Aristotle’s Ethics is here of great relevance. For as Aristotle notes among many other things regarding such men of action and how they perceive themselves and are perceived by others: “Again, slow movement seems to be characteristic of the magnanimous person, and a deep voice, and steady speech …” (NE, IV, 4, 1125a12)
and finally, 3. Philosophical historians such as Charles Taylor might ask whether the desire to understand “those who fought the war in their own terms”, a crucial and very important reminder by Gallagher regarding how we are to understand the war itself as historians, should be counterbalanced by a search for the more permanent why’s as regards the nature of war itself. That is to say, one cannot but wish to hear Professor Gallagher’s understanding of the relation between the variability of historical understanding and the possibility of permanent transhistorical Truth in this domain.
Once again, that such remarkable and memorable courses, by such amazingly talented professors as Professor Gallagher, are made available to us by The Teaching Company is something that we should be extremely grateful for.