Is America More Polarized Then Ever?

Civil War dead

Annie’s recent Out of the Zoo column raised this question.  Check it out here.

I think Annie must have inspired University of Virginia Civil War historian Gary Gallagher. 🙂

Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation:

It has become common to say that the United States in 2020 is more divided politically and culturally than at any other point in our national past.

As a historian who has written and taught about the Civil War era for several decades, I know that current divisions pale in comparison to those of the mid-19th century.

Between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox in April 1865, the nation literally broke apart.

More than 3 million men took up arms, and hundreds of thousands of black and white civilians in the Confederacy became refugees. Four million enslaved African Americans were freed from bondage.

After the war ended, the country soon entered a decade of virulent, and often violent, disagreement about how best to order a biracial society in the absence of slavery.

To compare anything that has transpired in the past few years to this cataclysmic upheaval represents a spectacular lack of understanding about American history.

Read the rest here.

Civil War Historian Gary Gallagher on Being a Historian


Erik Moshe of History News Network interviews Gary W. Gallagher, the John L. Nau III Professor of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia.

Here is a taste:

What books are you reading now?

I re-read Jane Austen’s novels every year (well, all but Northanger Abbey), and I am working on Persuasion right now. I am also very much enjoying Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, which evokes the academic world in ways alternately hilarious and painful. As for works of history, I am reading Joe Jackson’s Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary—for the second time, having first encountered it while on a prize jury. I find it a remarkably successful use of biography to get at a range of questions relating to Lakota and, more broadly, American history.

What is your favorite history book?

I do not have a book that stands out as my clear favorite, but I always profit from returning to David M. Potter’s work. The essays in The South and the Sectional Conflict, particularly “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” remind me of the long-term value of scholarship that reflects superior analytical gifts, intellectual integrity, and deep immersion in sources.

Why did you choose history as your career?

I can say with great firmness that I did not choose it in the hope of retiring early with a large bank account! I have been drawn to history since I was in grade school, and I was fortunate to have excellent teachers at various points in my schooling who urged me to follow my interests. By my second year of undergraduate school, I knew I would try to become an academic historian. I urge my own students to find a profession they love, one that makes them excited about going to work, rather than dreading it, every day. I cannot imagine a better way to spend a professional life than teaching and writing about history.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

The baseline is performing the hard work that yields a good foundation of knowledge—a foundation that should be made stronger by continuing to engage in research throughout a career. In the classroom, the quality of conveying genuine engagement with the topic is essential. Students can tell immediately if a teacher is going through the motions, and they respond, properly, by withdrawing intellectually or dropping the class. In terms of scholarship, historians must be able to sustain solitary work, often for protracted periods. Anyone who prefers always to be part of a team probably should avoid historical research. Perhaps the most important quality is a determination to go where the evidence leads, whatever initial expectations might have been. Hewing to a promising thesis or theory in the face of preponderant evidence to the contrary is, at least in my view, unforgivable.

Read the entire interview here.

Gary Gallagher on the Movie "Lincoln" and the Gettysburg Address

If you are a Civil War buff you will want to read this interview with University of Virginia historian Gary Gallagher conducted by Clayton Butler of The Civil War Trust.  He talks about Civil War scholarship, some of the projects that his graduate students are tackling, and the movie Lincoln.  In light of today’s 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, here is a taste of the interview:

CWT: I know you’ve written on the Civil War in film and popular art. What did you think of Lincoln?
GG: I thought Daniel Day-Lewis was transcendent. I don’t think any other actor should ever play Lincoln. I think the movie had some parts that don’t work very well at all, and I think it’s very much a reflection of how we understand the Civil War now, in the sesquicentennial. That is – it’s mainly important for emancipation. So you get the ludicrous early scenes where soldiers are reciting the Gettysburg Address, which is cast as a speech mainly about ending slavery, to Lincoln. Lincoln couldn’t have recited the Gettysburg Address at that point! The idea that anybody else would have memorized the Gettysburg Address is just ludicrous. Virtually no one paid much attention to the Gettysburg Address during the Civil War. Very few newspapers paid much attention to it, only the tiniest part of the loyal population paid much attention to it.
CWT: Edward Everett seemed to like it!
GG: Yes. He did. He seemed to like it. A couple of Democratic newspapers picked up on it, but for the most part it was met with absolute silence. Harper’s Weekly buried it. No commentary, just the text. It became much more important, of course, when Lincoln was assassinated, and now it’s one of the great American speeches. I think the greatest American political speech is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, by a pretty wide margin, but the Gettysburg Address is splendid as well. Lincoln actually could say something in a few words. That art has been lost by all our current politicians, who basically can’t say anything in many, many words.