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Reviewed by:
  • Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War by Elizabeth R. Varon
  • Aaron Sheehan-Dean (bio)
Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War. By Elizabeth R. Varon. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 528. Cloth, $34.95.)

Even as we historians strive to complicate traditional narratives, we thrive on binaries. Was the nineteenth-century South defined more by change or by continuity? Was Reconstruction a tragedy because of the limited vision of white northerners or because of their boldness? One of our current fixations concerns whether northerners supported emancipation eagerly or grudgingly during the Civil War. Historians including James Oakes, Gary Gallagher, and Adam Smith have squared off over this topic in recent years. Their answers provide starkly different portraits of the northern public, of the nature of the Civil War, and of how historical change itself operates.

To see beyond current historiographical boundaries requires uncommon wisdom. Elizabeth Varon’s Armies of Deliverance promises a “new history of the Civil War.” She satisfies this bold claim by offering an interpretation of the conflict that subsumes the competing perspectives on northerners and slavery. In Varon’s account, what held the factitious and diverse North together during the war was a belief that Union victory would uplift not just black southerners but white southerners as well, all held in thrall by the stultifying slave power. Wisely, Varon does not dispute that some white northerners entered the war as committed abolitionists, already convinced that the Constitution guaranteed liberty for all residents [End Page 281] of the United States, or that others entered the war deeply suspicious of abolitionists, indifferent to the fate of enslaved people, and unconcerned about slavery’s future in North America. Varon shows how the politics of deliverance—premised on northerners’ confidence in free labor, moderate reform, territorial expansion, and the dynamic emerging industrial economy—blurred their divisions.

Varon’s framing of deliverance absorbs other historiographical debates as well. Her account responds to Edward Ayers’s criticism of James McPherson’s emphasis on modernity. Varon never endorses the idea that northerners embodied a modern or moral posture, but she shows that northerners believed they did. As a narrator, Varon is aware of the contingent and often ironic nature of the North’s confidence in its superiority. Nonetheless, she is correct that northerners eager to redeem the South set themselves a hard task. War is an awkward tool to use to persuade people that you have their best interests at heart. But, as Varon shows, deliverance was a useful delusion for white northerners to maintain if they wanted to reunify with southerners. As a reader, I also took pleasure in the cleverness (and boldness) of taking a word as problematic in the southern lexicon as “deliverance”—at least since the 1972 film of the same name—and describing how northerners believed it was a gift for southerners. Varon never pretends that white southerners received the offer with anything other than contempt.

One of the striking points that emerges from Varon’s account is the usefulness of ambiguity in federal policies that need wide support. Any framework that could draw together radicals like Charles Sumner and conservatives like George McClellan needed to be vague. Although Sumner and McClellan both take turns on stage, Varon’s narrative highlights new actors like Moncure Conway, Edward Everett, and Parson Brownlow who usually populate the wings. Lincoln’s slow movement on emancipation fits the political nuances and ambiguity of the deliverance theme. In her telling, Lincoln’s caution was designed to bring reluctant northerners along. It may have had this effect, though most recent histories of emancipation (by Glenn Brasher and Amy Taylor, for instance) describe the process as so decentralized, chaotic, and contingent that it’s hard to see Lincoln’s hand behind it. Despite this interpretive quibble, Varon’s treatment of emancipation marks another of the book’s strengths. Reflecting recent writing on the nature and importance of emancipation, that story forms the center of her narrative. She addresses the process of emancipation, the role of black soldiers, and the broader seesaw battle over slavery in all its complexity. [End Page 282]

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