VARON: Armies of Deliverance (2019)

Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War by Elizabeth R. Varon. Oxford University Press, 2019. Cloth, IBSN: 978-0190860608. $34.95.

As a National Park Service interpretive ranger and now as a college educator, I have been asked innumerable times to recommend the best one-volume book on the Civil War. Without pause, the answer has always been James M. McPherson’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner, Battle Cry of Freedom, a narrative history that has long been a standard text in college classrooms and a staple of Civil War historiography. With the release of Elizabeth R. Varon’s Armies of Deliverance, however, there may be reason to give pause.

McPherson, utilizing then current research, spent the first third of his narrative setting the stage and tracing the causes of the Civil War during antebellum America. Today, there is little disagreement (at least between academics) about the centrality of slavery to the war’s causes; as such, Varon begins her narrative with the start of the war, touching on a question that has scholars more divided these days. If most Northerners were not abolitionists—and most Southerners were not slaveholders—why did they fight so stubbornly in a conflict caused by disagreements over slavery?

On the Union side of the question, two camps have emerged. There are historians who emphasize that Northerners fought primarily to save the Union, eventually embracing emancipation only because it was seen as necessary to win the war. Others point out that the Republicans gained popular northern support because of an emancipationist agenda, insisting that from the outset of the war party leaders viewed the conflict as a crusade to end slavery.

In Armies of Deliverance, Varon acknowledges that emancipation divided Northerners. Many saw the war as a fight against slavery, but others viewed emancipation only as a means of preserving the Union. Instead of trying to discover some sort of proportion between the two motives (a futile effort), Varon is more fascinated with finding the common ground that allowed both sides to work together to defeat the Confederacy. The North was fighting, she insists, to deliver the South and American politics from the overly represented grasp of the “slave power” that had, in the minds of Republicans, duped southern whites into secession.

Taking this deliverance theme further, Varon applies it to the Confederacy as well, insisting that southern nationalism was rooted in their fight to deliver their lands—and their future—from the clutches of the invading hordes of evil Yankees. Further, African Americans had their own agenda, both North and South, to deliver their race from slavery and an inferior citizenship status.

Varon’s deliverance theme is debatable but nevertheless compelling. She does not let it stand in the way of a strong narrative that blends military, political, social, and cultural history. Successfully concocting such a brew is a difficult task that few writers have done as well as Varon, especially when rooting it in a chronological history of the war’s military events. All the key battles are here, described in crisp prose that never becomes overly dramatic or romanticized. She is an excellent writer. Even as the book treads familiar ground, itnever becomes anything less than a page turning delight speeding the reader along through a 434-page narrative. Varon’s battle descriptions advance mostly standard interpretations, but they are well-handled and based on current research. Interpretive disagreements and controversies among historians are sometimes noted, but they never get in the way of the sheer fun of reading the story.

To Varon’s credit (and unlike McPherson), she does not try to find “turning points” in the war. In fact, her lucid descriptions of Gettysburg and Vicksburg are immediately followed by a rejection of the habit of describing those events as turning points, encouraging readers to interpret events as contemporaries did: within the context of the political and emotional realities of the moment. Southerners, for example, were actually emboldened after Gettysburg and Vicksburg because the New York City draft riots that followed were an indication that despite the victories, Union dissatisfaction with the war was increasing. Continued resistance, many southerners reasoned, might yet succeed in shattering the northern coalition against the Confederacy. Further, the height of southern hopes came nearly a year after Gettysburg. Indeed, Varon’s entire book (particularly in handling emancipation) ably demonstrates why historians should primarily uncover how contemporaries viewed events from the perspective of their place and time, rather than deductively looking backwards from our perspective with the results in mind.

The biggest strength of Armies of Deliverance is that, like McPherson, Varon skillfully uses the war’s military battles as doorways for opening up her narrative to other aspects of the war. For example, her discussion of Shiloh flows directly into one about the gendered dynamics of the Christian Sanitary Commission, then on to how the work of female nurses inspired Julia Ward Howe to make her own contribution to the war effort, resulting in the song “Battle Hymn of The Republic.” This then flows smoothly into a discussion of Civil War music.

Later, the Battle of Stones River and its staggering casualties becomes a portal for Varon to touch on the themes of Drew Gilpin Faust’s hallmark work, This Republic of Suffering. Chancellorsville and Stonewall Jackson’s death allow the author to ruminate on how both sides perceived God’s providential purposes in the war’s events. Rather than dwelling on turning points, Gettysburg becomes an avenue for exploring the change in how the armies dealt with battlefield casualties and of their evolving hospital systems. And so forth. Varon nicely synthesizes much of the best recent works of historians. It is a shame that Oxford University Press did not include a bibliography, but Varon’s footnotes are a treasure trove of the latest research in the field.

But Armies of Deliverance is not built on secondary sources alone. Thanks to current research, Varon brings in more varied perspectives than McPherson could, evidencing her assertions with myriad voices from primary sources. Varon largely presents the war from the viewpoint of contemporaries experiencing the conflict as it unfolded before them. Other historians have made far weightier assertions based on fewer primary sources than presented in Armies of Deliverance; Varon builds her work on firmer ground and then demonstrates it.

There are problems, however. Because “deliverance” works better in describing Union and African American goals than it does the Confederate aims, sticking to that theme causes Varon to focus disproportionately on the North. It also means that some important aspects of the war get left out. Yet she wisely never hammers at the deliverance theme too hard and, in the end, it supplies an original and at least thought provoking framework for understanding the war.

Still, Armies of Deliverance’s greatest achievement is in Elizabeth R. Varon’s exceptional synthesis of the work of many historians. The book is for both academics and general readers looking for an exceptionally written narrative history of the Civil War: one built on current research and presented as contemporaries viewed it. Has the book replaced McPherson? Only time will tell, but with its much slimmer word count, more focused scope, and judicious use of the words of a wider array of actors, I am not so sure of what my answer will be the next time I am asked for the best one-volume history of the Civil War.



Glenn David Brasheris a history instructor at the University of Alabama and the author of The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation (2012), winner of the 2013 Wiley-Silver Prize from the Center for Civil War Research.


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