What was the North fighting for?

In the American Civil War, Confederate leaders fought for states' rights and to keep slaves, but the North's motivations were more complex.  

Armies of Deliverance by Elizabeth R. Varon, Oxford University Press, 520 pp

“Of all the ongoing debates over the Civil War,” University of Virginia history professor Elizabeth Varon writes in her thought-provoking new book Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War, “perhaps none has proven so difficult to resolve as the issue of Northern war aims. What was the North fighting for?”

Did Northern citizens and lawmakers primarily want to save the Union from being ripped in two? Were they responding to the growing strength of the abolitionist movement? The ordinary rank-and-file soldiers fought for the age-old reasons: pay and the draft. But what about their leaders? For the South, the question was thorny but easy: They fought to preserve the institution of slavery, yes, but also for the nebulous concept of “states’ rights” – the Southern states believed they had every right to secede from the Union any time they chose (just as, to use more recent examples, Texas and particularly California believe the same thing today) and bridled at the idea of being brought back into the fold by brute force.

For the North, motivations have always been murkier. Did ordinary shopkeepers in Delaware or small-hold farmers in Vermont truly care if their Southern counterparts owned slaves? Even after reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s hugely bestselling 1852 novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in which the iniquities of slavery were laid bare to hundreds of thousands of Northerners, would those Northerners really have gone to war on the point?

Plenty in the North were certain the answer was – had to be – yes. “God forbid,” wrote the great Frederick Douglass, “that when the smoke and thunder of this slaveholding war shall have rolled from the troubled face of our country it shall be said that the harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved.” By the late 1850s, antislavery furor in the North (and throughout many of the border states) was at a shouting pitch.

It’s Elizabeth Varon’s contention that this antislavery furor ran through the South as well. Hence the title of her book: In this interpretation, the North had a dual motivation – not only to free the slaves but to free the Southern citizenry from slaveholders. The author paints a portrait of the Civil War-era South that is counterintuitive; it’s not a traditional story of North versus South but rather a story of North and South versus the Confederacy.

It was a view sometimes reflected in the beliefs of the North’s foremost generals. Ulysses S. Grant, for example, wrote to his wife: “In my mind there is no question but that this war could be ended at once if the whole Southern people could express their unbiased feeling untrammeled by leaders.” Likewise William Tecumseh Sherman, whose devastatingly punitive march through Georgia is here recast by Varon as a gesture of liberation: “Sherman’s March is a tale of devastation and defiance, but also of the promises of deliverance,” she writes. “Sherman’s strategy was based on his belief that he could ‘arouse the latent enmity’ of Georgia to Jeff Davis.”

Running alongside this revisionist narrative in “Armies of Deliverance” is a more-or-less straightforward political and military history of the Civil War, done very well. Varon creates thrilling set pieces of all the familiar battles and controversies, and she does a particularly shrewd and sensitive job of parsing the significance of both the Emancipation Proclamation and the 1864 election, in which Lincoln once again emerges as a canny politician – the thinker at the heart of a campaign strategy designed to win over key votes in those border states.

It’s the other strand of the book that will get historians and Civil War buffs discussing and arguing. Indeed, some of that arguing starts in Varon’s own book, where she often acknowledges an obdurate resentment in the South that very much filtered down to the ordinary citizenry. “Confederate civilians were unwilling,” Varon writes, “at the bitter end, to acknowledge the flaws or divisions in their society, and pessimistic about the prospect of reconciliation with the hated Yankees.”

“To the bitter end” and phrases like it crop up far too often in Southern literature and the Southern press to make “Armies of Deliverance” a rock-solid recasting of the nature of the Civil War. But readers don’t need to be convinced in order to be fascinated.

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