Book Review: Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War


by Elizabeth R. Varon

Oxford and New York: University Press, 2019. Pp. 560. Illus., map., gloss., notes, index. $34.95. ISBN: 019086060X

An Innovative Interpretation of the Civil War

This new work from Prof. Varon (University of Virginia) is not a traditional story of North versus South, but rather a re-evaluation or new interpretation of why the war happened, why the Union was victorious, and how the Confederacy was defeated. While it’s reasonably clear that the Confederacy fought to preserve slavery, that was not necessarily clear at the time and, in addition, the motivations of those who supported the Union were quite complex.

Varon persuasively argues that Lincoln’s belief, shared by many in the Union, that that the majority of the Confederacy’s non-slave holding citizens did not support secession, and would return to loyalty to the Union if given a chance, was incorrect. She argues that although many soldiers, Northern citizens, Radical Republics, and Lincoln himself strongly believed that his amnesty plan, his 10% Plan, and his 1864 re-election victory, as well as the increasing success of the Union armies, would bring reluctant Secessionists back to support of the Union, the message did not resonate across the South. While West Virginia did become a new state, and some Southern Unionists became Union soldiers, Lincoln’s reasonable attempts to coax the seceding states to resume ties to the Union fold did not succeed.

Varon argues that the way the fighting changed from a “soft war” – such as George B. McClellan and other Democratic Unionists favored, to a “hard war” such as U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman supported, reflected the failure of “soft war” to preserve the Union.

In the north, most people favored preservation of the Union, but not abolition, which was a factor delaying the Emancipation Proclamation. Once it was issued, abolitionists were brought to full support of the war, while many others began to see slavery as the root of disunion.

Varon is an excellent writer, and does a particularly good job analyzing the implications of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, on the Union’s ultimate victory, and its longer term consequences.

Varon makes use of people’s voices, permitting the reader to gain a sense of how ordinary people experienced what happened throughout the four years of the conflict, the tangible experience of the fighting, and also offers us looks at what was going on in the houses of Congress as well as on the battlefields and farms and cities. In her treatment of military operations, Varon allows the reader a look at the tactics and strategies of the campaigns. She concludes with a look at the aftermath of the war and the ultimate failure of Reconstruction.

This book is an enjoyable read, engaging and well researched. By looking into letters and diaries of men and women, the written justifications for their actions by many generals on both sides (particularly inferior ones), political tracts by supporters and opponents of various politicians, and other leaders of all perspectives, both North and South, Varon allows us looks into the minds of the people who lived through the war. This is a substantial contribution to our understanding of the motivations, strategies, tensions, controversies, and triumphs that had characterized their lives and experiences.

This reviewer highly recommends Armies of Deliverance for anyone interested in the Civil War.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. He earlier reviewed The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War, Civil War Places, The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863, America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War, The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation



Note: Armies of Deliverance is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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