A Review of Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2019) by Elizabeth R. Varon.
Yankee arrogance may be the most dangerous malady on the planet. “Communist engineering” is deadly, to be sure. Before Wuhan, there was Chernobyl, Sverdlovsk, and the Great Leap Forward. But whereas communism has a shelf life, Yankee arrogance never dies. Yankees grow stronger by the decade, more convinced of their superiority with every catastrophe they inflict on the world they’re “saving”.
There have been many studies on Yankee arrogance written over the years. Many of these are unintentional. When David Halberstam wrote The Best and the Brightest, for example, he probably did not mean to imply that the debacle of Vietnam was caused by a couple of Massachusetts boys and a know-it-all from San Francisco. But it is hard to escape that conclusion all the same. (Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Texan, carried on the Yankees’ project of soteriology by cluster bomb, and so earned for himself the title of Honorary Northerner—which, come to think of it, should be the subtitle of Robert Caro’s bibliographic saga about Mr. Great Society.) On the intentional side must be mentioned Ronald and Donald Kennedy’s 2018 Yankee Empire, perhaps the finest explanation and indictment of Yankee arrogance written since the heyday of Murray Rothbard, James J. Martin, and Harry Elmer Barnes.
Now into the fray comes freshly Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War. The book’s author is Elizabeth R. Varon, Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia and author of several other books on the War of Northern Aggression. Taken straightforwardly, Varon’s latest book is a “new history” because it tries to understand why Northern mechanics and farmhands signed up for an invasion of the South. Read aslant, however, the book is an unintentional encyclopedia of the arrogance of a race of people who believed—sincerely—that they not only could, but should, invade others’ homes and tell them what they ought to do, or else.
The title of the book tells all: the “armies of deliverance” set out from Northern territories because the great majority of people in the North believed Southerners to be “deluded,” living in ignorance and waiting, unbeknownst to themselves, for some great host to disabuse them—by means of “hard war” if necessary—of their benighted attachment to their homeland.
In the Introduction Varon writes:
Northerners imagined the Civil War as a war of deliverance, waged to deliver the South from the clutches of a conspiracy and to deliver to it the blessings of free society and of modern civilization. Northerners did not expect white Southerners to rise up en masse and overthrow secession. But Southerners, especially from the non-slaveholding majority, would increasingly welcome liberation from Confederate falsehood and despotism. This belief in deliverance was not a naive hope that faded, but instead a deep commitment that grew stronger over the course of the war. That is because the idea resolved the tensions within the Union over war aims. A distinct politics of deliverance—a set of appeals that fused ‘soft war’ incentives and ‘hard war’ punishments, and sought to reconcile the liberation of white Southerners with the emancipation of enslaved blacks—unified a pro-war coalition in the Union and sustained its morale. ‘As the guns of Grant and Sherman shake down their idols and clear the air’, [a] Harper’s essay prophesied, ‘these men, deluded fellow-citizens of ours, will see that in this country whatever degrades labor injures every laboring man, and that equal rights before the law is the only foundation of permanent peace and union.’ Grant and Sherman, symbols of hard war, also stood at the head of powerful armies of deliverance. (2)
Varon delivers on her promise to present the War of Northern Aggression as a war of deliverance. This is not due to Varon’s invention but to her scholarly acumen, her faithful retailing of a myriad of accounts from the time without ornamentation or embellishment. In Northern newspapers, diaries, letters, dispatches, speeches, sermons, novels, poems, and plays, the South was presented time and again as “deluded,” laboring under an unfortunate misunderstanding and in desperate need of an awakening by their Northern brethren. This kind of thinking was everywhere, and it was suffused with evangelical justification. Sophronia E. Bucklin, who had acted as a nurse to Confederate prisoners of the Yankee host, hoped, in her 1869 memoir, that “some of these men died repentant, coming back in spirit to their allegiance to the old flag.” (269-270) Anna Dickinson, a particularly uppity abolitionist, was heralded by Northerners as their “Joan of Arc”. (237) The Yankees really did think that they were killing droves of poor Southerners in order to save them from their religio-political backwardness. Over three parts and twelve chapters, Varon ranges across the visual and textual evidence of the day, piecing together a portrait of Northern war aims that, however open to gainsaying by less disingenuous minds, is nevertheless without a doubt an accurate portrayal of what Northerners really did tell themselves and each other about why they found it necessary to bayonet their countrymen so that they could be free.
The backdrop to Varon’s narrative is, of course, the War itself, and it is the glaring hypocrisy of raising armies and invading, marauding, pillaging, raping, and murdering in the name of “deliverance” that also sobered many of the early Yankee calls for a short war to knock some sense into the Rebels, a kind of smelling-salts theory of warfare according to which one or two passes would suffice to bring the unfortunate patient to. As the war slogged on and the horrors multiplied, as Matthew Brady and his team of photographers began sending back images of Northern and Southern boys blown to bits on the field of “deliverance,” Yankees were forced to devise some more substantial aim for the slaughter than the breezy slogans with which the first wave of volunteers was sent to the front in the heady springtime of Ft. Sumter and Bull Run.
The mastermind of the invented rationale for the war was Abraham Lincoln, who emerges from Varon’s pages as precisely the oily Iago that Southerners know him to have been. Varon’s sixth chapter, “The Emancipation Proclamation,” is at the center of the book because the proclamation—or, more precisely, the machinations surrounding it—was at the center of the strange alchemy of the war years: how does one justify destroying what one is professing to liberate? The answer was perhaps the greatest bait-and-switch exercise since Athens changed the rules from “drive out the Persians” to “pay tribute to Pericles” between the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. Whereas the war-whooping Yankees in 1861 had gone off to emancipate Southern whites from their delusions, the sobered Yankees two years later found that Southerners were not especially desirous of Northern-style liberation, and so shifted their justification to the black population instead. Only a handful of wild-eyed radicals such as John Brown, Horace Greeley, and John C. Frémont, rightly dismissed as outright lunatics by a majority both North and South, had spoken of emancipation in 1860. Lincoln unequivocally quashed the notion, as he assumed office in 1861, that the North had any designs on slavery or slaves. By 1863, with the blood draining from the North and the war costs mounting—both in terms of life, limb, and lucre as well as in terms of the civil rights that Lincoln destroyed—it was necessary to find some grander purpose for the slaughter than a futile drive to free people who wanted none of the “deliverance” on offer. Hence, freeing the slaves: an ad hoc PR stunt by a desperate tyrant and infused with none of the moral heroism now imputed to the deed by latter-day Lincoln evangelists. The Emancipation Proclamation was simply a function of the arrogance that sent armies of deliverance below the Mason-Dixon Line in the first place. Frustrated by the reality of Other People’s Lives, Yankee arrogance seized on another excuse for the naked exercise of state power, which was always the real aim of the war anyway.
Consider, on this score, Varon’s illuminating passages on the Port Royal experiment, the details of which reveal the forked nature of Yankee reasoning about their invasion. On the one hand, as the war dragged on the new talking points became freeing the blacks over freeing the whites. On the other hand, freeing the blacks was justified as a means of freeing the whites, the latter from their “delusions” in daring to contradict the absolute will of Washington. The Port Royal proto-New Dealers swarmed the Sea Islands of South Carolina in early 1862 as the vanguard of Yankee arrogance and a prolegomenon of Yankee treatment of captive blacks over the century and a half to come. Yankee contempt for freedmen is apparent in government plantations in major cities today, and this desire to “emancipate” people who could not be trusted to fend for themselves was also on full display among the “Northern volunteers,” the “missionaries and other do-gooders, with their agenda of social uplift,” who descended on Port Royal “to educate, evangelize, and provide humanitarian relief to the former slaves”. The freedmen, naturally, wanted to get on with their lives, and requested “the economic autonomy to grow foodstuffs and the chance to obtain the confiscated lands on which they worked”. (191) This is an eminently reasonable set of requests, but the Northerners were having none of it. In the event, the newly-“emancipated” slaves were immediately put back to work by their Northern “deliverers”… picking cotton.
The entire point of the Port Royal Experiment, and of the Emancipation Proclamation and the war itself, was thus not to free the slaves but, in perennial Yankee fashion, to convince the world of the justness of their own schemes. Varon argues that:
Northerners at Port Royal saw themselves as an advance guard of Southern deliverance. As the occupation newspaper New South, published in Port Royal by Union army postmaster John Henry Sears, put it, if news of the experiment’s success could somehow reach the ‘deluded and unfortunate people with whom we are contending’, they would ‘perhaps see how desperate is their own condition, and submit more readily to the government which has never wished to do more than bring them back to their allegiance.’ (191)
“Submit more readily to the government”: this is what the Yankees meant by “deliverance” and “emancipation,” and it applied equally to conquered whites and blacks alike. It didn’t matter who was being delivered, as long as it was the federal government doing the delivering, and as long as “delivering” was construed to mean “submission to Washington, DC”.
This absolute assurance of their own righteousness was what drove the Yankee from his Ohio and Wisconsin and Vermont, down to Dixie to educate the Southerner in the healing power of submission to benevolent Leviathan. Service in the army, far from causing Yankees to waver in their Rousseauan commitment to dismembering their counterparts in order to set them free, only strengthened their resolve. Copperheads and honest Democrats in the North continued to press Lincoln and his team of American Marxists for a solid explanation for the bloodshed and rapine being visited upon their countrymen, but were answered with the usual arguments, familiar also from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, that the war itself necessitated its own continuation. Lincoln demurred with affected homespun epigrams until he could resist the political realities no longer and was forced to make the war the centerpiece of deliverance, and forced also to halo it with righteousness.
Once Lincoln had determined to have his war at all costs, there was no stopping the Yankee juggernaut in all its righteous might. The Yankees “liberated” Chattanooga, liberated Vicksburg by reducing its population to a starved and diseased remnant, liberated Atlanta by torching it, liberated Richmond by doing the same. On April 8, Varon recounts, “the Washington, D.C., National Republican painted a wishful picture of such blessings”:
The rebellionists … have nearly got the lesson by heart that their pretensions of superiority, so long and so vauntingly persisted in, were ill-founded; and this discovery is fast preparing them to return to the Union fold wiser men and better citizens. The Union re-established with all roots of bitterness plucked up and buried in oblivion, the North and South, East and West joining hands fraternally—a more homogenous people than ever before… Under such benign auspices, intellectual advancement will be as certain as rapid; literature and the arts and sciences will receive the amplest encouragement, and the accomplishments and refinements of society their highest polish. (408-409) (emphasis in original)
“With malice towards none,” Lincoln declared, and many Northerners agreed that the “benign auspices” of governmental triumph portended well for a bright future ahead, seeing in the desolation of the war a field helpfully cleared for even more and better “deliverance” to come.
The Yankee arrogance did not stop with the Orwellian “war is peace” line. It is a short step, after all, from self-righteousness to self-deification, and the Yankees indulged in a lot of both. “The news of Lee’s capitulation on April 9—Palm Sunday,” Varon remarks, “brought forth an outpouring of providential rhetoric from Northerners.” Setting the auto-apotheosis tone, the New York Times editorialized on April 11 that:
It is wonderful to mark the solemn character of the joy that now spreads the land. … Never since the hosannas of that Palm Sunday in Jerusalem has such irrepressible praise roiled up from every street to the pure vault of heaven. With this gratitude for deliverance is mingled a fresh assurance that Heaven has reserved for our republic a destiny more glorious than can yet be conceived. Americans now feel that it is less than ever a presumption in them to believe themselves a chosen people. (409)
This chosen people, who, in the eyes of one editorialist, at least, now rivaled, if not surpassed, Christ, immediately set to work delivering the Lakota, and by the turn of the century had delivered the Cubans, the Puerto Ricans, the Hawaiians, and the Filipinos, to name just a few whom the chosen people had willed to emancipate.
Armies of Deliverance is an excellent introduction to the true motivations of Yankees in their invasion and devastation of the Old South. Varon writes clearly and fluently, and her prose is rooted in a truly impressive body of research and archival mastery. She has a knack for finding the right source to quote at the right time. Scholars who regurgitate secondary sources usually bore their readers to tears, but Varon works in the parchment of the past and so her storytelling is crisp, vibrant, immediate, and true. This is superb history writing, with very limited obiter dicta. Varon’s scholarly dedication to getting the facts of the past down straight is packaged in a narrative but not badly bent to a presentist agenda. There can be little doubt that Varon is no Southern partisan, but to her great credit she almost completely absents herself from the story, preferring instead to let her subjects speak for themselves.
Those subjects speak volumes. The South was overrun by, let us admit it, ideological lunatics in the spring of 1861, and the consequences of that Yankee arrogance have still not found their end. It is well to buy and read Elizabeth Varon’s splendid Armies of Deliverance and to remember that common to the invaders were sentiments such as these, expressed by a certain Lt. Samuel Fiske, 14th Connecticut Infantry, as he surveyed the carnage of Antietam:
I saw over all this scene of devastation and horror, yesternight, one of the loveliest double rainbows that ever mortal eyes looked upon. … I took it as an emblem of success to our blessed Union cause, that out of the horrors of battle shall arise the blessings of a more secure freedom and stable system of liberal government. (149)
It is doubtful that any sane person could look over a field of battle, see a double rainbow, and take it as God’s blessing of the butchery that had the day before ensued. Many—most—Yankeees could do just that, though. Read Elizabeth Varon’s newest book and find out for yourself just what goes through the minds, then and now, of our self-proclaimed deliverers.