Whatever other motives the Federals had for fighting the war, the ideal of ‘Union’ was the glue that held Northern resolve together.

The loyal American citizenry fought a war for Union that also killed slavery. In a conflict that stretched across four years and claimed more than 800,000 U.S. casualties (killed or wounded in battle, died of disease or captured), the nation experienced huge swings of civilian and military morale before crushing Confederate resistance. Union always remained the paramount goal, a fact clearly expressed by Abraham Lincoln in speeches and other statements designed to garner the widest popular support for the war effort. What Walt Whitman said of Lincoln and Union in the wake of the president’s assassination applied equally to most loyal Americans. “UNIONISM, in its truest and amplest sense, form’d the hard-pan of his character,” wrote the poet, who defined it as “a new virtue, unknown to other lands, and hardly yet really known here, but the foundation and tie of all, as the future will grandly develop.” That hardpan of Unionism held millions of Americans to the task of suppressing the slaveholders’ rebellion, even as the human and material cost mushroomed.

Whitman celebrated a Union that for the mass of loyal citizens represented the cherished legacy of the founding generation, a democratic republic with a constitution that guaranteed political liberty and afforded individuals a chance to better themselves economically. From the perspective of loyal Americans, their republic stood as the only hope for democracy in a western world that, since the failed European revolutions of the 1840s, had fallen more deeply into the stifling embrace of oligarchy. Slaveholding aristocrats who established the Confederacy, believed untold Unionists, posed a direct threat not only to the long-term success of the American republic but also to the broader future of democracy. Should armies of citizen-soldiers fail to restore the Union, forces of privilege on both sides of the Atlantic could pronounce ordinary people incapable of self-government and render irrelevant the military sacrifices and political genius of the Revolutionary fathers.

The meaning of Union has been almost completely effaced from popular understanding of the Civil War. Modern Americans often question why any- one would risk life or fortune for something as nebulous as “the Union.” A war to end slavery makes more sense, something powerfully reinforced by films such as Glory and Gettysburg. Although Lincoln remains a towering figure, few Americans associate him with the widely held idea of the Union, as he put it in his second annual message to Congress in December 1862, as “the last best, hope of earth.” Even within the specialized world of Civil War enthusiasts who purchase prints and other contemporary artworks, the Union and its military idols take a decidedly secondary position behind such Lost Cause icons as Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson.

Recapturing how the concept of Union resonated throughout the loyal states in the Civil War era is critical to grasping Northern motivation. No single word in our contemporary political vocabulary shoulders so much historical, political and ideological meaning; none can stir deep emotional currents so easily.

Devotion to the Union functioned as a bonding agent among Americans who believed, as a citizenry and a nation under the Constitution, they were destined for greatness on the world stage. For devout Unionists, the Constitution had been framed by the people rather than created as a compact among states. It formed a government, as President Andrew Jackson insisted during the nullification crisis of the early 1830s, “in which all the people are represented, which operates directly on the people individually, not upon the States.” Secession, added Jackson in language that anticipated Unionist arguments in 1860-61, “does not break a league, but destroys the unity of a nation.” Thirty years ago, the eminent historian Kenneth M. Stampp used the writings and speeches of Jackson, Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams and other figures from the early republic to make a salient point: “By 1833, to the nationalists the Union had become an absolute, an end in itself; and, in retrospect, it seems clear that by then the time had passed when the people of a state might resort to the remedy of secession without confronting the coercive authority of the federal government.”

That many slaveholding Southerners saw menace rather than protection in the Union following Lincoln’s election highlighted a fundamental division foreshadowed by John C. Calhoun almost exactly 30 years earlier. At a dinner on April 13, 1830, President Jackson had toasted,“Our Union. It must be preserved.” Vice President Calhoun, his hands shaking slightly as he struggled to master his emotions, answered in what Unionists at the time and thereafter would construe as inflammatory language: “The Union, next to our liberty most dear. May we all remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the states and by distributing equally the benefits and the burdens of the Union.”

Many Northerners might wonder how the Union threatened slaveholders and their liberty. Its Constitution, with a three-fifths clause that counted non-voting slaves for purposes of national representation, made every ballot cast in a slave state worth more than one cast north of the Ohio River and Mason’s and Dixon’s Line. Slaveholders and their allies also had dominated the presidency since the nation’s founding. For these and other reasons, Calhoun’s toast, and innumerable similar statements from slaveholding politicians over the succeeding decades, struck Northern Unionists as self-serving defensiveness.

Abraham Lincoln spoke eloquently for all those who loved the Union and believed it guaranteed rather than threatened liberty. His statements designed for public consumption reflect a remarkable consistency regarding the centrality of Union to the war effort. As a group, the messages, letters and speeches reveal how the president, whose political skills matched those of anyone who has held the presidency, sought to galvanize support for a massively destructive war.

Throughout the conflict, Lincoln evoked the multiple meanings of Union—as a priceless inheritance from the founding generation, a guarantor of liberty and freedom and opportunity, and a gonfalon of democracy in a world sadly dominated by oligarchs and monarchs. He also dealt with Union in ways that aligned very closely with his definition of a nation, which, he observed in December 1862, “may be said to consist of its territory, its people, and its laws.” Shaped by Lincoln’s reading of public opinion, these statements regarding Union reach across a century and a half to help clarify what motivated most white Northerners.

The president’s first inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1861, 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 1774-78 “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 chords 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.”

Four months later, in a message to Congress, Lincoln developed important themes related to Union—which together anticipated his later definition of nation. He labeled the conflict “essentially a people’s contest,” phrasing tied to the opening words of the Constitution’s preamble and certain to touch all who considered themselves part of “We the people.” Ballots had “fairly, and constitutionally” decided the election of 1860, and it remained for “our people…to demonstrate to the world, that those who can fairly carry an election, can also suppress a rebellion.”

Lincoln also moved beyond the boundaries of the United States, staking out lofty ideological ground in arguing that secession “presents the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes.” (Had Lincoln spoken the words “of the people, by the people,” as he would later in his address at Gettysburg, his emphasis surely would have been on “people” rather than on the prepositions.) Finally, he explained precisely what Union promised those who lived under the protection of its government. The “leading object, is to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders— to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” This last section aligned perfectly with the Republican Party’s devotion to free labor ideology, which promised an opportunity, through the careful application of one’s own labor, to move from the laboring to the propertied class.

The summer of 1862 found the Union beset by a shortage of manpower, military defeats in Virginia at the Seven Days’ and Second Bull Run, and political wrangling over emancipation. Lincoln’s administration flirted with the idea of conscription before finding other ways to meet immediate goals for enlistments. Winning battles lay beyond the president’s immediate control, but he wrote an unequivocal reply to an editorial by Horace Greeley, published in the New York Tribune in mid-August and titled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions.” Greeley had urged a more rigorous effort to free slaves owned by Rebels, as authorized by the Second Confiscation Act. Such action would hurt the Confederacy and “fight Slavery with Liberty.”

Lincoln answered on August 22 (his response appeared in Washington’s Daily National Intelligencer the next day), reiterating his “oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free” but leaving no doubt about his overriding goal. “My paramount object in this struggle,” stated Lincoln, “is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” These three sentences summarized Lincoln’s “purpose according to my view of official duty.”

The reply to Greeley has inspired numerous attacks on Lincoln as a racist who cared little about enslaved people, as well as elaborate defenses of his reasoning. In fact, the letter stands as a straightforward expression of his consistent commitment to and invocation of Union to rally the largest segment of the loyal states’ white population—which at the same time signaled the president’s willingness to consider emancipation as one tool to suppress the Rebels.

The next few months brought three examples of Lincoln tying emancipation to Union. In each instance, he sought to dampen wide-scale and vociferous hostility among Democrats who would support a war for Union but not one for the liberation of slaves. The United States could prevail against the Confederacy only if it maintained at least a degree of bipartisan support for the military effort, which prompted Lincoln to justify emancipation as a war measure necessary to deny vital labor to the Rebels.

In the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued on September 22, 1862, he announced “that hereafter, as heretofore, the war will be prosecuted for the object of practically restoring the constitutional relation between the United States, and each of the states, and the people thereof, in which states that relation is, or may be, suspended.” The final proclamation of January 1, 1863, rested on the power vested in Lincoln as “Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.” Later in the document, Lincoln characterized it as “an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity.” Neither version alluded in any way to the morality of ending slavery, though Lincoln invoked the “gracious favor of Almighty God.”

In between the proclamations, Lincoln took up emancipation in his annual message to Congress of December 1, 1862. Well aware of opposition in the Border States and within the ranks of the Democratic Party, he outlined a case for gradual, compensated emancipation accompanied by voluntary colonization of freed people. His plan, which included three proposed amendments to the Constitution, would not harm free white labor, he assured those fearful of competition with black workers, but would discomfit the Rebels and safeguard the freedom and liberties of all loyal citizens. Admonishing members of Congress that they, and he, would be called to account by subsequent generations for their actions during the “fiery trial through which we pass,” Lincoln remarked, “We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We—even we here— hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.” Looking beyond the borders of the United States, he spoke of American democracy as a great beacon of promise. “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth,” he said in raising the stakes for emancipation as a tool to help vanquish the Rebel threat to Union. “Other means may succeed; this could not fail,” he concluded. “The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

In 1864, Lincoln and his supporters dropped the name “Republican” and ran on a Union Party ticket with Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee as the vice presidential candidate. Secretary of State William Henry Seward had supported a Union Party movement in the first spring of the war, observing in a memorandum to Lincoln that “we must Change the question before the Public from one upon Slavery, or about Slavery for a question upon Union or Disunion.” Throughout the conflict, a number of Republicans had run on the state level as Union candidates. A grim military situation in the summer of 1864 spread despair across the loyal states and weakened Republican prospects, prompting Lincoln’s famous blind memorandum of August 23, which he asked his Cabinet to endorse on the verso. “This morning, as for some days past,” read the text,“it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.” The Union ticket might attract Democratic votes in November 1864, as well as help lay the groundwork for a national party when Confederate states returned to the fold. In the end, William Tecumseh Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and Philip H. Sheridan’s decisive victories in the Shenandoah Valley transformed civilian morale and re-elected Lincoln. But jettisoning the party label “Republican” speaks to the power of Union as a rallying cry—or at least to a pervasive belief in such power.

Some Democrats responded as those who supported a Union ticket expected. At the Baltimore convention that nominated Lincoln, the temporary chairman, Robert J. Breckinridge of Kentucky, said to the delegates, “I see before me not only primitive Republicans and primitive Abolitionists, but I see also primitive Democrats and primitive Whigs….As a Union party I will follow you to the ends of the earth.” If Lincoln were running as candidate of the Republican Party, added Breckinridge, a prominent Border State Presbyterian who held moderately antislavery views, “I will not follow you one foot.”

Lincoln’s last annual message to Congress reiterated the main points of the platform on which he and his party had mounted their successful campaign. The platform’s first resolution defined as the “highest duty of every American citizen” a willingness to maintain the integrity of the Union, its Constitution and its laws against rebels and traitors. The second expressed determination to prosecute the war until Confederates surrendered unconditionally. The third pronounced slavery “the cause and now…the strength of this rebellion,” condemned it as “hostile to the principles of republican government,” and proposed an amendment to the Constitution forever prohibiting it in all parts of the United States. Buoyed by the results of the election, Lincoln celebrated its unequivocal message that most loyal citizens stood ready to finish the work of saving the Union. The wavering sentiment of July and August 1864 seemed far distant. More votes were cast in 1864 than in 1860 (including many thousands by United States soldiers in the field), which demonstrated, said the president,“the important fact…that we have more men now than we had when the war began; that we are not exhausted, nor in process of exhaustion; that we are gaining strength, and may, if need be, maintain the contest indefinitely.” Union would be protected, the people’s “common end” achieved.

A mass of evidence from all four years of the conflict confirms Lincoln’s astute reading of the loyal citizenry. Herman Melville put the case very directly in the dedication for his collection of war poetry: “The Battle-Pieces In This Volume Are Dedicated To The Memory Of The THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND Who In The War For The Maintenance Of The Union Fell Devotedly Under The Flag Of Their Fathers.” Attachment to Union, more than any other factor by far, motivated loyal citizens bent on defeating the rebellion. Because such factors are impossible to quantify, scholars can argue about their relative importance and whether they waxed and waned under the stress of an expanding war. But the preeminence of Union cannot be denied by anyone immersed in the written, illustrative and other materials from the war years.


Excerpted from The Union War by Gary W. Gallagher, published in April 2011 by Harvard University Press. © 2011 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Originally published in the July 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here