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Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War

Author(s):Varon, Elizabeth R.
Reviewer(s):Farrell, Daniel

Published by EH.Net (June 2022).

Elizabeth R. Varon. Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War (College Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. xxiii + 531 pp. $35 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0199335398.

Reviewed by Daniel Farrell, Department of History, University of Cincinnati.

 

Throughout the decades, there has been no shortage of literature to explain the North’s commitment to fighting the Civil War. Elizabeth R. Varon enters this continuously growing field with a single-volume history, Armies of Deliverance, that promises fresh interpretations of the subject. Varon forcefully argues that Abraham Lincoln’s administration successfully built its prowar collation around the idea of deliverance. Within this worldview, Northerners (broadly constructed) argued that Southerners were loyalists at heart, tricked into rebellion, and suffered under an oppressive and tyrannical Confederate government. However, as Varon argues, different constituencies modified their rhetoric to satisfy diverse political needs. While moderate and Radical Republicans differed on the moral question of slavery, both increasingly stressed that emancipation would liberate white Southerners from the slaveholding oligarchy that plunged the nation into war. Conservative prowar Democrats, however, faced the unique problem of presenting a loyal opposition to Lincoln’s administration while simultaneously committing themselves to an uncompromised victory over the Confederacy. To navigate this problem, Democrats stressed that “the key to reunion was rekindling the allegiance of conservative white Southerners by disabusing them of the false notion that the Union was controlled by anti-slavery extremists” (9).

To be sure, Varon’s book wades into longstanding debates. Scholars such as James Oakes and Chandra Manning have emphasized emancipation and black liberation as the driving motivation for the North. Others such as Gary Gallagher and Ian Smith have emphasized saving the Union as the North’s primary goal. Varon finds this dichotomy unsatisfying, arguing it fails to explain how politically diverse Northerners found common ground while simultaneously remaining sharply divided over the war’s meaning. Thus, the politics of deliverance forges a unifying principle for understanding the war, particularly since, according to the author, it existed at the outset and grew in strength over time. Given the fraught nature of partisan politics, deliverance helped ease “tensions within the Union over war aims” (2), allowing the conflict to have a common interpretation to restore Southerners to the blessings and liberties of the United States. Throughout the book, Varon demonstrates the importance of deliverance rhetoric, documenting its continuous use throughout the war.

The book’s structure closely mirrors the Union’s war effort, meaning that Northern political, social, and military events drive the narrative. Such an approach lends itself well to developing the book’s central arguments. Thus, like most works of the Civil War, emancipation takes center stage and is the major turning point of the war. While historians may continue to debate whether the Emancipation Proclamation was strictly a military measure, a genuine reflection of Lincoln’s abolitionist leanings, or something in between, it is undeniable that emancipation fundamentally changed the political nature of the North’s war effort. Here Varon’s argument begins to fracture along partisan lines. Varon makes a convincing case that deliverance was important to Republican rhetoric, but it’s less clear how meaningful it was for the War Democrats. Rather than explaining how Democrats kept faith in the war, Varon instead brings a wealth of information demonstrating how the Peace (Copperhead) wing of the Democratic Party split the organization, especially over their two primary complaints: emancipation and the abuses of civil liberties (which were aimed exclusively against conservative Democrats). Varon’s emphasis on Copperheads raises the question of whether deliverance truly bridged the political divide. Alternative explanations include that War Democrats compromised their principles and acceded to Republican policy goals for the greater service of saving the nation rather than sustaining their confidence in the politics of deliverance. Similarly, Varon acknowledges that some Democrats, particularly soldiers, became disgusted by Copperheads, whom they viewed (aided by Republican propaganda) as essentially traitorous. For many Democrats and conservatives, voting for the Republican ticket was perhaps an act of patriotism rather than a genuine commitment to deliverance.

The book’s structure is less effective in demonstrating Varon’s sub-argument, contending that discourses over “deliverance” similarly provide “a new perspective on Confederate politics” (15). In essence, the Confederacy sought deliverance from abolitionist influences that planters and Southern intellectuals saw as destabilizing their social order. The Confederacy also attempted to “liberate” the Border South, contending that Southern loyalists chaffed under military despotism. Varon explores these themes sporadically, but her Northern emphasis greatly overshadows her contributions to Confederate historiography. Likewise, given that EH.Net caters to economic historians, readers may be curious to know how Varon’s book relates to economic history. While economic issues are mentioned occasionally throughout the text, Armies of Deliverance is not an economic history of the Civil War, nor does it claim to be one.

Regardless of criticism, Varon has successfully written an engaging and thought-provoking new history of the Civil War. Scholars seeking to challenge or expand our understanding of Northern war motivations will be required to engage with Varon’s deliverance argument, as she deftly demonstrates its importance to the rhetoric of unconditional unionism.  Similarly, it is worth noting that Armies of Deliverance doubles as a college textbook. Given its engaging narrative and easily digestible and well-supported central thesis, Armies of Deliverance is a worthy choice for an upper-level college course and one that this reviewer would seriously consider using himself. Varon’s work is an excellent addition to the literature and deserves a spot in anyone’s Civil War library.

 

Daniel Farrell is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Cincinnati, where his research focuses on the culture of pro-war unionism and efforts to suppress anti-war dissent in the Civil War Era North. He is the author of “‘The Nation Cannot Now Be Entrusted to Hands Reeking with the Blood of Loyal Victims’: Prison Propaganda, Hard War, and the Politics of Criminalization,” published in Lorien Foote and Daniel Krebs, eds., Useful Captives: The Role of POWs in American Military Conflicts (University Press of Kansas, 2021).

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Servitude and Slavery
Military and War
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century