Northerners’ Failed Mission in the Civil War: Saving the South

Just as every cub reporter entertains the notion of one day writing the Great American Novel, every American historian nurses somewhere the ambition of writing the Great Civil War History. Not that that’s surprising: the American Civil War is the Iliad of the American republic. It compresses into four years enough drama—from battles to blockade runners—and enough unexpectedly dramatic characters, from Ulysses S. Grant to Abraham Lincoln, to make the rest of the American 19th century seem pale by comparison.

It’s also true that some of the greatest historical writing of modern times has been about the Civil War, from Carl Sandburg (Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, 1939), Bruce Catton (A Stillness at Appomattox, 1953), David Herbert Donald (Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, 1960) and James McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom, 1988), all of them Pulitzer winners. This is the ring many are tempted to enter, owing either to the subject or to the company it keeps, and into which Elizabeth Varon, the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia, now boldly steps with Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War.

Varon is one of the prominent figures of the John L. Nau Center for Civil War History at the university, and has already established an impressive record in Civil War history writing, mostly concentrated on aspects of the Confederate experience, but with some unusual twists. Nor is Armies of Deliverance the typical vast-landscape survey; it is, in one respect, not actually a “new history of the Civil War” so much as it is a new interpretation of the Civil War. And in that departure, Varon succeeds grandly.

Granted, the bulk of Varon’s 434 pages of text are devoted to the same large-scale narrative-of-the-war assayed by Battle Cry of Freedom or Russell Weigley’s A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861–1865 (2000). But Varon opens without any of the usual overview of the decades of crisis, or even Fort Sumter, instead beginning with a bang at First Bull Run. Nor, once Robert E. Lee surrenders the Army of Northern Virginia, is there more than a perfunctory glance at Reconstruction (all of 26 pages). But between those two points, Varon’s narrative of the war is sure-footed, comprehensive, and engaging.

What is more—and this is unusual in Civil War survey histories—she presents an extremely well-developed overview of the western theater campaigns, making more sense out of the Confederate offensives of 1862 in the West (the “West” in 1862 meaning the vast middle ground between the Appalachians and the Mississippi Valley). There is substantial attention, as well, paid to the prisoner-of-war and parole systems (and their hideous breakdown), to the prejudice-defying role of black soldiers, and to the rough-and-tumble of civil liberties violations by Union and Confederate governments alike as the war ground on.

The Meaning of Lincoln’s Proclamation

To get all this between two covers and in less than 450 pages requires the sacrifice of a great deal. There is, for instance, hardly anything beyond an occasional aside on Civil War diplomacy. Nor do the Civil War navies receive much more than a long footnote, despite the importance of the Union naval blockade and the potential for diplomatic eruptions triggered both by the blockade and by Confederate commerce-raider vessels (most notably, the British-built Alabama). Politics plays a bigger role in the book, but not a significant one. There is no sense in Armies of Deliverance of the complexities of the politics of the Civil War Union Congresses (the 37th and 38th) except when the Thirteenth Amendment comes up for a vote, or when Charles Sumner crosses swords with Montgomery Blair over Reconstruction. The Confederate Congress hardly makes an appearance at all. Weapons technology, strategic and tactical theory, logistics—these come up empty-handed.

But I would argue in Varon’s defense that, apart from writing a multi-volume epic on the order of Allan Nevins’ magisterial Ordeal of the Union (1947) or Shelby Foote’s wickedly partisan The Civil War (1958), getting the Civil War narrative into the workable space Varon has achieved means that some highly prized clutter simply has to go, and I do not think she has made her cast-asides unwisely. This is, after all, a history wrapped around a single theme—deliverance of the mass of the Southern people from oligarchy – from which too many other Civil War stories would only serve as distractions.

Emancipation, however, remains a vital piece of her narrative, and she is willing to give it enough space that it includes the ongoing debate over the meaning of Lincoln’s Proclamation, whether it was a whole-hearted effort accompanied by some clever political theater, or an unwilling concession that shows Lincoln to have been as racially backward as any other 19th century white American. (And Varon does not try to adjudicate between the two.) She also makes the 1864 election one of the key moments of the war, and reinforces that by highlighting just how much political peril the Lincoln administration was in by the summer of 1864.

But maybe the best test of all is to notice, in the enormous sprawl of this history, how few simple mistakes are made. It does have to be pointed out that the “band of brothers” speech is from Henry V, not Henry IV; that there is evidence that Robert E. Lee was aware that the “Lost Order” was in Union hands within days of its loss; and that Lincoln’s response to Horace Greeley’s “Prayer of Twenty Millions” was published in the Washington National Intelligencer, not the Washington Chronicle (although I will admit to being the one who misled Varon on that point, since she cites me as the authority, and in 1999, I erred by identifying John W. Forney’s Chronicle as the paper of record). But this list of only three bloopers is itself testimony to the scrupulous care Varon has given to accuracy across so vast a stage.

A Painful Irony

What will redeem even this quibbling is the significance of the basic trope around which Varon builds her narrative. It is Varon’s fundamental belief that Northerners entered into—and stayed in—the Civil War out of the conviction that they were rescuing the deluded Southern white masses from the tyranny of Southern slaveholders. Northerners saw the Confederacy as a vast kidnapping by these elites, who had turned the slaveholding states into a closed economic system approximating what Karl Marx called “feudal socialism.”

By overthrowing this slaveholder coup d’etat, and by destroying the yoke of slavery for both white and black, the way would be opened to redeem the South, through opening its doors to “free labor”—to open markets, competitive wage contracts and, in a word, capitalism. “What a commercial world this State of Virginia should be,” marveled a Union army surgeon in 1862. With the overthrow of the slave oligarchs, insisted Henry Ward Beecher, “Schools will multiply. Books and papers will spread. Churches will bless every hamlet.”

Confidence that Northern victory would bring this deliverance in its train motivated the constant refrain in Northern writing that the war was aimed only at the oligarchs, and that poor whites and freed slaves would flock eagerly to the banner of Unionism. Hence the joyful predictions that, sooner or later, a latent Southern Unionism would rise from its repressed well; hence, also, Lincoln’s attempt to negotiate a generous amnesty and Reconstruction policy. Varon acknowledges that other historians have recognized the attraction of “the deluded-masses theory,” but virtually all of them limit its influence to the early months of the war, before the stiffening of Southern resistance led Northerners to embrace instead a “hard war” of conquest and subjugation. Varon sees no such evaporation. To the contrary, she demonstrates the “deliverance” idea’s persistence, marshalling evidence from Edward Everett’s 1863 Gettysburg oration (the “other” Gettysburg address) to soldier diaries to newspaper pronouncements—all the way to Lincoln’s last cabinet meeting on April 14, 1865.

The painful irony of this conviction was that Southerners—and not just the oligarchs—simply did not share it. They repudiated the accusation of oligarchy and instead stressed Southern white solidarity, a solidarity fired by the sufferings they endured during the war. The end of the conflict left Southern whites militarily defeated, but even more defiant in their loss—and more contemptuous of Yankee missionary efforts to convert them to free labor—than they had been in 1861. And from this refusal springs the bitter fruit of Reconstruction.

Were Varon’s Northern redeemers naïve? Perhaps, although she is reluctant to say so. They certainly underestimated how much deliverance they could deliver in the South so long as the oligarchs retained their hold on the economic levers in the postwar years. What is certain is that Varon stands in the line of an emerging new theory of Reconstruction’s failure, which sees it (as Barrington Moore did in his 1966 book Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy) as the repulse of a bourgeois revolution to root out and replace a reactionary economic order, rather than just a failure of nerve, with Northerners paralyzed by their yearnings for racial solidarity with Southern whites. Northerners understood Reconstruction as the moment when a retrograde Southern social system which rejected the principles of the Founders would be extirpated and replaced by a Northern-like free-labor system, which in turn would sweep away the racial prejudices that underpinned slavery. The oppressed Southern Unionists would joyfully embrace the fruits of capitalism, and the American republic would advance to a new stage of republican development.

“The wilderness shall vanish,” predicted New York Republican Congressman Hamilton Ward, “the church and the school-house will appear, and light and knowledge will illumine her dark corners . . . the whole land will revive under the magic touch of free labor, and we shall arise from the ashes of the rebellion to a purer life and a higher destiny, illustrating the grand truth of man’s capacity for self-government.”

That this did not happen—that by 1877, a white supremacist oligarchy had undermined the attempt to graft a bourgeois culture onto the Southern plant and had returned the freed slaves to economic peonage for nearly another century—is one of the saddest of American stories, even if the Civil War is one of its grandest. The oligarchs had succeeded in drawing the hood of race over the eyes of Americans far more effectively than their deliverers had dreamt. Some of them are doing it still today.

[1] Representative Hamilton Ward (R-N.Y.), “President’s Message” (December 13, 1866), Congressional Globe, 39th Congress, 2nd session, p. 118.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on November 18, 2019 at 13:40:29 pm

Hmmmm: "The oligarchs had succeeded in drawing the hood of race over the eyes of Americans far more effectively than their deliverers had dreamt. Some of them are doing it still today."

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Image of Anthony
on November 18, 2019 at 13:54:34 pm

Sounds much like our invasion of Iraq. Liberate them from tyranny, and they'll set themselves en masse on the path of modernity while we go home and congratulate ourselves. The fact is that within minutes of Appomattox, the North began rapidly disbanding its armies and sending them home. Partly out of a respect for Northern public opinion, partly out of a desire to curtail Union spending (of funds that had to be borrowed), the Union armies simply vanished almost overnight leaving no force to occupy & police the Confederate states in those crucial months and years following the surrender, no force effective to confront and defeat/disarm the Southern vigilante bands (incl the KKK) that were filling the power vacuum and terrorizing blacks and non-conforming whites alike.

Another example of how winning the peace is more difficult than winning the war.

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Image of QET
on November 18, 2019 at 14:24:00 pm

The South was full of yankee soldiers after the war for years during Deconstruction. They completed the task started by invasion of destroying the Southern economy and stealing everything they could while not even allowing white people to vote. They created a rancor between the races that didn't otherwise exist and lingers to this day. I think the book this writer is looking for has already been written by Shelby Foote

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Image of Joel Fetner
Joel Fetner
on November 18, 2019 at 15:22:37 pm

The History Channel ran a documentary stating that Lincoln didn't even use the freeing of slaves at the beginning the war. When he did, many soldiers left because that's not what they were fighting for. He added the slavery issue to bolster his position using the moral argument of slavery. He then went on to admit that he would've fought the war, slavery or not was irrelevant-his goal was to preserve the union.

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Image of anony
on November 18, 2019 at 17:02:26 pm

The British writer Eric Blair once stated that "History is a Battlefield!". The continuing battle about the Civil War and what it meant is an excellent example of Mr. Blair's (aka George Orwell) take on the trurh!

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Image of Roy WATTS
on November 18, 2019 at 20:56:12 pm

The war was about money for the Titans in the North. They didn't care about slavery black or white. People have a hard time understanding that. If the North was just great group of humanitarians why did they go commit Mass genocide on the native Americans. The war was about a great northern empire and that's just the way it is.

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Image of Marty Hayes
Marty Hayes
on November 19, 2019 at 03:40:57 am

The was fought for rights of states to
Govern them selves! They did not want
Barecrates from the north telling them
How to live. Majority of southerns where
Poor!, And didn't own slaves. Only the
Rich southerns owned slaves. The war
Was never fought over slaves! It was fought for rights to live the way to. I have
Read lot books about the civil war! I've
Heard say it was over slaves! That's all
Wrong! It was for rights! ✌️

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Image of Timothy Barney
Timothy Barney
on November 19, 2019 at 19:18:03 pm

What a complete joke. The truth is slavery only became a stated issue when the north thought winning would be unachievable. Fact is the North Sac their own economy so people's only choice for an income was to join the Army more facts the South had more people in college then the north did at that time in the South also in addition had more money and was being taxed of it unbelievable rate compared to the north on top of that they received nothing for these taxes they paid get a life stop trying to rewrite history to make it look like the north wasn't a bunch of dumbass Rubes with no way of making money besides stealing it from the south read a book dummy not one that you wrote

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Image of Dean Duran
Dean Duran
on November 19, 2019 at 19:54:39 pm

Instead of sitting around dreaming of ways to rewrite history to make it look more favorable to the aggressors of the North who illegally stole property and rights of sovereign people out of greed. Both authors or so-called should rather investigate history rather than dreaming it to learn the simple facts like slavery wasn't even a factor until the north felt they were going to lose or like they sucked their own economy in the north just to get people to join the Army cuz they didn't want to or how they put the New York Times in jail because they didn't agree with him that all sounds like America to me. Or since you guys are authors I'm sure you can read read the Emancipation Proclamation it only freed slaves from the states that weren't conquered by the North nowhere in the literature does it say all slaves were free no it only says the slaves from the states that were still not occupied what is socialist forces of the North we're free that of course was to Gin up trouble maybe the slaves would Revolt knowing they were free and they could go and that would cause trouble but even a slave knows back then with all that being said the South is now then and always better than the North that goes for landscape people and just the overall feeling. After all who wants to live with people who designed the laws for slavery and who kill innocent people for their land nobody likes that nobody wants to be around that and nobody wants to read your dumbass books get a life

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Dean Duran
on November 20, 2019 at 06:27:48 am

Lincoln said in 1862 if he could end the war by freeing all of the slaves... None of the slaves.... Or some of the slaves... Then he would..... He said what he did regarding slaves he did to forbear the good of the country.

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David Atkinson
on November 20, 2019 at 19:34:10 pm

Love your work Mr. Guelzo!

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Steve kondogianis
on November 27, 2019 at 17:12:18 pm

From the beginning of our nation there was disagreement. Thomas Jefferson believed in checks and balances between the states and federal governments. Alexander Hamilton wanted a strong federal govt. Lincoln's platform for presidency centered on the Morill Tariff Tax. Before Lincoln, there was no income tax, the federal govt. was financed primarily by tax on imported goods. The South's economy was based on mainly agriculture with little industry, and was therefore dependent on buying manufactured products from either Europe, thus tariff tax would be added, or higher priced New England products. Prior to Lincoln, the tariff tax averaged less than 20%. At this rate, the South was paying 70-80% of the federal govt. revenue. AND Lincoln's Morill tariff tax was going to raise the import tax to as much as 47%!!! This would force the South to pay even more import taxes, or buy New England manufactured goods. The New England industrialists and PA. steel factories were Lincoln's supporters. Lincoln also supported a National Bank and other policies that would consolidate more power into the federal govt. from the states. After Lincoln's election, the Corwin Amendment passed both houses of Congress, which was done after seven Southern states had voted to secede from the union. This amendment, which Lincoln voiced his support for in his first innagural address, would in his words, "make slavery irrevokable in the states where it currently exists". Lincoln again offered the South the opportunity to keep their slaves when he issued his preliminary emancipation proclamation in Sept. 1863, telling them that if they would lay down their arms, return to the union,(pay his tariff tax) before 01 Jan. 1863 they could keep their slaves.When they didn't (because that's not what they were fighting for) he issued his famous proclamation, which did not free a single slave in reality. read it, it says that the slaves in the states currently in rebellion against the union would be freed. It did not free the slaves in W. Va. which Lincoln had allowed to secede from Va. AND enter the union as a slave state, nor did it free slaves in states which had not been allowed to secede, such as Md. Kentucky or Missouri. AND it lists counties in Tenn. and parishes in LA. where the union armies controlled, not freeing slaves there either. Lincoln, nor the northern people, fought the bloodiest war in our history to free the slaves, it was, like most wars fought over money and political power. Reconstruction, also was not done by the radical republicans to benefit the African Americans, it also was done for money and political power. Northern politicians flooded south, only to USE the newly freed slaves who now could vote [ even though most northern states refused to allow Blacks to vote in their states until the 15th Amendment, 5 yrs. later} These Northern politicians courted the former slaves' votes with promises of "40 acres and a mule" (empty promises that were not fulfilled) and were elected to the Southern states' governments to pillage anything which Sherman and Sheridan had not already burned or stolen. The "union league" and "freedmens bureau" were set up with the occupying union military's support, to "aid the newly freed slaves" but in reality they used the military muscle to ensure that they voted for the northern republicans. After several years of occupation, there wasn't much left to pillage, so the "carpetbaggers" went back north, taking the union army with them, leaving the poor used and abused ( by the northerners) Southern Blacks, with little means to make a living than before, and a lot of angry Southern whites. Reconstruction caused much more racial tension in the South than it helped, leaving poverty to Southerners, Black and White.

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Doug and Betty Lawrence
on January 12, 2020 at 06:15:05 am

Right on the money. The South rebelled against the same that president trump has stirred now. The roots of which can be traced back to the same money Changers that Jesus drove out of the Temple with the help of the curtain sash cords !!!!!!! I

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Capt Redneck

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.