Redeeming the South Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War

In the borough of Manhattan, near the entrance to Central Park, stands a majestic, gilded, equestrian statue memorializing General William Tecumseh Sherman.

It is the last major work of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens who had previously modelled several busts of the General; one notices immediately that the likeness is quite good.

However, the depiction of a gleaming, grim-faced, rough-hewn Sherman astride a golden horse is amusing to modern eyes.

What makes it even more curious is the glorious, golden angel triumphantly preceding Sherman. She has been created in the classical, allegorical style, noble and triumphant.

Her upraised fist grips a palm branch while beneath the hooves of Sherman’s horse is a branch of Georgia Pine. The angel is open-mouthed, as if she is heralding the approach of a conqueror, a liberator, a savior.

Historian Elizabeth R. Varon’s recent work, Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War, tells the story that Gaudens’ statue so magnificently suggests. Northerners perceived themselves as moral crusaders meant to restore the blessings of Union to the unfortunate victims of an insidious and treasonous Slave Power, the South’s “deluded masses.” “Bringing civilization in its wake,” northern armies would redeem the South from its poverty and backwardness. A new economy would spring forth based upon northern values of industriousness and free labor. This sense of mission was important to northern politicians, soldiers, and civilians well into the Reconstruction period.

Varon skillfully weaves her theme through a narrative that covers major battles and politics, the experiences of women and African-Americans. She frequently acknowledges the insights of fellow-historians, and adds a rich array of new voices to the historical record. The story is told, admittedly, from a sympathetic Northern perspective. Neither Confederate governance nor military efforts are neglected, but in Armies of Deliverance, the emphasis is placed upon the North’s evolving war aims and political conflicts.

The challenges facing the Lincoln administration were immense and unprecedented. Abolitionists within the Republican Party wanted their President to move quickly towards emancipation. Many northern Democrats blamed the war upon abolitionists, and shared General George McClellan’s opinion that the war was needed solely to “reestablish law and order.” Lincoln needed to give consideration to the burgeoning numbers of fugitive slaves and weigh the arguments for and against their enlistment in the U.S. Army. As the federal armies conquered territory, Lincoln needed to plan for the reentry of seceded states into the Union.

Disagreements between northern Democrats and Republicans intensified as the war progressed, particularly after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and establishment of the draft. A strong peace movement arose within the Democratic Party which advocated a negotiated settlement with the South and an end to the slaughter. Peace Democrats rejected emancipation and argued for a Union as it had once been (something Jefferson Davis would never agree to). Draft riots broke out across the North, most terribly in New York City, fired by the fears of immigrants that free blacks would take jobs away from them. Within his own cabinet, Treasury Secretary Samuel P. Chase plotted to supplant Lincoln as the Republican nominee for President in the 1864 election.

Of course, the North’s lasting moral crusade was the liberation of the South’s four million slaves. This was achieved by northern armies and politicians, and, notably, by African-Americans themselves. Varon describes the crucial role blacks played in their own emancipation, from serving as a spy (Harriet Tubman), to endeavoring to shape public opinion ( Frederick Douglass and journalist Robert Hamilton), or simply escaping plantations to the protection of the Union armies. African-American abolitionists saw themselves as a “redeemer race,” one destined help the United States live up to its original promise. As the United States Colored Troops moved into combat roles, Lincoln wrote in a public letter that they were “the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion.”

Not all northerners expected the “deluded masses” of the South to welcome Union armies of deliverance. After Antietam, a correspondent for the Christian Recorder interviewed wounded Confederate prisoners in the area. His conclusion: “We are not yet cured of our folly in believing what deserters and spies tell us, that there are men in the rebel army who have no love for the cause,” He added, chillingly, that there was “perfect discipline” in the ranks, and “bitter hatred . . real and intense,” for their foes. To their peril, the North blinded themselves to the strong regional patriotism that existed even among many southern unionists.

The policies of hard-war executed by Generals Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman, and Philip Sheridan further embittered the South. Varon refers to a conclusion drawn by historian Lisa Tendrich Frank: Sherman’s troops “had the effect of reinvigorating elite women’s Confederate patriotism.” Emma Holmes was one such woman. Holmes recorded in her diary how she had mocked two of Sherman’s soldiers: “I taunted them with warring on women and children (and) their pretense of fighting for the old flag.” Holmes warned them that the South “would never be subdued.”

Varon’s admirable volume can serve as an introduction to the Civil War or as a fresh perspective for the initiated. Furthermore, it is an excellent read. Varon presents her information in a clear, organized, and comprehensive manner; she seems to sense just how much attention to give each topic. Her history is proof that there is far more we can learn about the Civil War. There are voices that deserve to be heard, issues and events that require greater study.

Title: Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War

Author: Elizabeth R. Varon

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 488

Price: $34.95