Gary Gallagher recently retired from a 30-year career teaching history at Penn State and the University of Virginia. A prolific scholar, he has mentored many students who are leading Civil War experts and is also an important member of this magazine’s advisory board, as well as a columnist. Fortunately, Gallagher will continue his scholarship. He is working on several book projects and will continue to be involved in the University of Virginia’s Nau Center for Civil War History. One project involves essays by 25 historians describing a Civil War site that has affected each profoundly. The field of Civil War history, Gallagher says, is more vibrant than ever.
CWT: How did you get interested in the Civil War?
GG: I grew up on a Colorado farm and I got interested by reading an April 1961 article in National Geographic that anticipated the centennial and featured a lot of the sketches that the British artist Frank Vizetelly had done during the war. It just captivated me. I was 10 when I bought The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. That absolutely became a presence in my life; I practically memorized it. By the time I was in high school, I probably had 250-300 books about the war.
CWT: How has the field shifted over the decades?
GG: When I was young, most of the books focused on military or political topics, and a little bit of diplomacy. Bell Wiley pioneered writing about common soldiers and African Americans in the Confederacy, and since then there has been an unbelievable broadening of the field. The social history wave was first, then gender history, memory—topics that are hot now were discussed a little bit, like guerrilla war, the home front, and so forth. Memoirs became interesting to me early on. I had an undergraduate teacher—a Civil War specialist—who never even mentioned a battle. That was my first real exposure to somebody who had a really different view of the war than what I had learned as a boy and in high school.
CWT: How has the perception of the war changed?
GG: The Lost Cause was powerful down through the 1960s. Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind are dramatic expressions of that. But since the centennial, a much larger amount of attention has been been paid to emancipation, related to the mature civil rights movement. In terms of popular culture, I don’t think we would have the African American Civil War memorial in Washington, D.C., if not for the movie Glory. I think before that film came out, most people were literally not aware that black soldiers had fought in the Civil War. It shows just how much of an effect a movie can have, a much greater effect than any historian’s book or books. In many ways, people get their impressions of the Civil War more from popular culture than they do from anything that historians write.
CWT: What drew students to your class?
GG: Some come to class because they got interested in battles, and others are drawn to it because the questions are so huge—whether the work of the founding generation would survive, whether slavery would continue or not, and some even have a sense of how much was at stake in defining the relative powers of local and state governments. You’d have to work really hard to make the Civil War boring.
CWT: How do you develop interest among your students?
GG: One of the best ways to have them really engage with the war is through the voices of the people who lived through it. For example, I often use the diary of Kate Stone, the daughter of a Louisiana slaveholder. She’s their age, and lives in a Jane Austen kind of world, then loses a brother and becomes a refugee. Stone’s account is a way of getting at major themes of what was going on inside the Confederacy’s white populace. I used other firsthand accounts to get students into the world view of other parts of the Civil War population.
CWT: Is there a Civil War question that nags at you?
GG: When you study something for a long time you realize that the more you learn about something, the less certain you can be about almost anything. It’s so complicated, and there is so much evidence that the wartime generation bequeathed to us. This literate population engaged in great events, wrote about it both in the midst of events and then retrospectively, and it just gives historians such a great mass of evidence to work through. It’s changed my view about Gettysburg. When I was young, I thought it was the turning point of the war, but the more I read about it, the more I was persuaded that it wasn’t really that at all. There were a number of other battles that were much more important in terms of how they shaped the broader direction of the war. There’s such a wealth of evidence. It’s really intimidating.
You’d have to work really hard to make the Civil War boring
CWT: The Civil War still makes news.
GG: The Civil War continues to resonate in such powerful ways, and I really do believe that if you don’t try to come to terms with how people have remembered and used the war, you have no chance of understanding United States history. It’s a culmination of huge questions that grew out of the generation that wrote the Constitution and created the nation. And then it puts in place elements relating to race and governmental relationships at different levels. The current controversies over the Confederate memorial landscape are only one element of how the Civil War has a continuing power to affect America. I think it is wonderful to make people confront the past. There are lots of warts with the Civil War, but there are also lots of empowering elements in terms of how the field has expanded.
CWT: How long will the Civil War remain topical?
GG: I have no idea, and neither does anyone else. I’ve done a lot of work with high school teachers over the years, and I think some schools are shying away from the Civil War because they think it’s too controversial. I think that’s absolutely the wrong approach. I find that heartbreaking. I think pretending things didn’t happen or pretending things weren’t complicated is really a destructive approach to engaging with the past.
CWT: What part of your career are you most proud of?
GG: I’ve been extremely lucky. For more than 30 years I have been paid to teach and write about the Civil War, give lectures and battlefield tours, and it has been wonderful. I think some of the books I’ve written, both The Confederate War and The Union War, have had an impact on the academic side of things. The book that has surely reached the most readers is Porter Alexander’s memoir, Fighting for the Confederacy, probably the most quoted primary account on the Army of Northern Virginia. That’s because of the inherent quality of Alexander’s analytical and descriptive powers.
CWT: Anything you would like to add?
GG: The first article I ever published was in Civil War Times about Abraham Lincoln and the plan for black colonization on Île à Vache off the coast of Haiti. I read the magazine in the early 1960s and started subscribing in 1965. I soon bought all the back issues, so I have a complete run of Civil War Times. It’s been part of my life for almost as long as I’ve been interested in the Civil War. ✯
Interview conducted by Senior Editor Sarah Richardson