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.