Varon, also a member of the executive council of UVA’s John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History, offers a new approach and a new argument in this overview of the war.
“I try to offer a holistic narrative that unfolds in real time and that interweaves military developments with electoral politics and emancipation, and the struggles of non-combatants on the home front,” Varon said.
In blending military history with social history, Varon uses accounts of major battles and campaigns to open discussions of topics such as the role of women in Civil War medicine and how the resistance of enslaved people shaped Union emancipation policy.
“In order to give immediacy to the narrative of events, I quote extensively from letters, diaries, editorials, speeches, sermons and all kinds of in-the-moment sources,” Varon said. “I was fortunate to have access to a vast and remarkable archive of soldiers’ letters that were curated by John Nau, from his own personal collection of Civil War soldiers’ letters, many of which had not been used before by scholars. These were amazingly vivid windows into how men coped with the challenges of combat.
“This gives readers a really palpable sense of those lived experiences and drama of the war on the ground.”
Gary W. Gallagher, John L. Nau III Professor Emeritus in the History of the American Civil War and the founding director of the Nau Center, called Varon’s book “a splendid treatment of the American Civil War.”
“In a field crowded with histories of the massive conflict, this book combines analytical acuity and narrative power in impressive proportion,” he said. “It rewards anyone seeking a compelling examination of the topic.”
Varon shares the modern scholarly consensus that the Confederacy was formed to defend slavery. At the same time, she wanted to explain why the Union forces fought. Scholars have disagreed on Northern war aims, with some emphasizing that Northerners wanted to preserve the nation, while other scholars assert that the North fought to abolish slavery. Varon notes that U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, was able to mobilize a broad coalition of Northerners and anti-Confederate Southerners, including African Americans, around a theme of “deliverance.”
“‘Deliverance’ was a key word in 19th-century Northern wartime discourse that you find appearing again and again, in all these firsthand sources,” Varon said. “Northerners believed they were fighting a war to deliver the Southern masses from the dominance of an elite slaveholding oligarchy – a ‘slave power conspiracy’ as Northerners put it, that had retarded the South’s moral and material progress.”
According to this Northern theory, elite slaveholders – who were a tiny minority of the Southern population, but held the overwhelming balance of power and wealth – terrorized, seduced and duped Southerners into seceding against their best interests.
Varon points out that Northerners underestimated how deeply white Southerners were invested in slavery, how deeply even non-slaveholders had bought into the idea that slavery was a system of social control and of economic gain that was central to their way of life.
“My challenge in the book became to explain in a sense why Northerners bought in so tenaciously to the idea that they could save the South even in the face of massive evidence that the Confederates didn’t want to be saved,” Varon said. “In a sense, the book is about a war of ideas and ideologies. I tried to explain how deliverance rhetoric fulfilled political needs, spiritual needs and emotional needs, and thereby helped Northerners sustain their morale and momentum.”