Tuesday, August 20, 2019

News: Amriecan Civil War In The Parks: The Future Is Not As Dire As Some Would Have It

Are Tourists Falling Out of Love with Civil War Battlefields? Public Historians Respond, Nick Sacco, Muster Online Newsletter of the Society of Civil War Historians, August 20, 2019

Last year I published a post on this website about visitation trends to Civil War historic sites within the National Park Service (NPS) during the Civil War Sesquicentennial from 2011 to 2015. After looking at the numbers I concluded that visitation to these sites remained relatively strong, but not everyone feels the same way. Two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and Politico argue historic sites throughout the United States are losing both visitors and their general relevance as tourist attractions. The Wall Street Journal article focused specifically on Civil War battlefields and painted a bleak picture of the future; no more battle reenactments or living history performances, gift shops going out of business, and a generation of young people who lack “respect” for history.[1]

While it is fair to discuss the future of Civil War battlefields and historic sites more broadly, these articles fall short in one crucial way: they leave out the perspectives of the public historians who make their living interpreting history at these sites. Curious to learn more myself, I put a call out on social media asking for comments in response to three of my own questions about visitation to Civil War sites. A few public historians who work at these sites responded and their comments are summarized below.[2]

1. What do think about visitation trends to Civil War battlefields today?

Almost everyone who responded warned that visitation numbers needed to be placed into context. Eric Leonard pointed out that NPS historic sites experienced a forty-year decline in visitation from roughly 1976 until the mid-2000s. “The Civil War Sesquicentennial and ‘Find Your Park’ campaigns have helped buck that trend,” argues Leonard. Jake Wynn pointed out that non-military historical sites have something new to offer visitors. He cited the National Museum of Civil War Medicine as an example of a site that has experienced tremendous growth over the past ten years.

Stephanie Arduini gave a thoughtful answer, stating that “All history sites are trying to understand the larger decline in numbers, but [I] suspect it’s a combination of competition for limited time/funds, disconnect with older narratives not relevant to contemporary audiences or are too nostalgic at the expense of accuracy, and even aspects of design/platform for how visitors want to engage.” And Chris Barr reminded me that people visit historic sites for a range of reasons not necessarily connected to history education. “A lot of our parks that are near relatively large urban areas have growing visitation. Runners, hikers, joggers, etc…. Those people are every bit as much visitors as anybody.”  It seems that the bigger question, as Leonard suggested in his comments, is how to make all historic sites more relevant in the future.

2. Do children have a lack of respect for history? 

A common talking point I’ve seen online suggests that young people are glued to their cell phones and not interested in visiting historic sites. At the same time, I have also seen articles contending that nature sites such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone are “being loved to death” because of record visitation and young people who will stop at nothing to get the perfect image for Instagram.[3]

In both cases alleged visitation trends are unfairly blamed on young people. In reality, the primary drivers of historic site visitation are currently older Americans (Generation X and Baby Boomers, for example) who have more time and disposable income to travel. Ultimately young people are shaped by the environment around them, and they are more likely to be interested in history if they are exposed to it early in life. The comments I received from others echoed my own sentiments.
Barr suggested that young people respect history as much as previous generations and that “one day [in the future] today’s young people will grumble about kids not respecting or caring.” He also pointed out that the history curriculum in K-12 education has evolved and the Civil War simply isn’t given much emphasis as it used to. “If you’re 70 years old right now the Civil War Centennial hit when you were in middle or high school,” said Barr. “The conflict loomed large and took up a huge part of the curriculum you studied. Your grandparents may have been alive in the 1800s and there’s a chance you may have even met an elderly Civil War vet when you were a little kid. You definitely knew children of Civil War soldiers and the conflict was still in living memory.”

But today “somebody in an 11th grade US History course right now was born in 2003, the same year the US invaded Iraq. Your curriculum has to run all the way up through probably 9/11.” It isn’t so much that students don’t respect history, Barr argued, but that they might “feel a stronger connection to eras other than the Civil War.”

Several commenters spoke to the need of finding new ways to hook students into Civil War history using more primary source documents and interactive activities. Arduini spoke to the larger challenge of building an environment—both at historic sites and elsewhere—in which “learning is built based on their curiosity and inquiry instead of rote memorization, and also where the adults in their lives feel both comfortable and confident supporting their learning.” That challenge partly means finding ways to deal with decreased field trips for students amid increased time for standardized tests in the classroom. Leonard asserted that blaming young people for visitation declines is “lazy and stupid” and cited the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program as an effective example of providing students the chance to learn and “speak to their experiences.”

Finally, Andrew Druart offered an optimistic take on the future. Druart, who leads the “Civil War Kids” initiative for the American Battlefield Trust, cited Pamplin Park in Petersburg, Virginia, as an example of a site that emphasizes youth education by “finding personal connections and reading diaries from those who lived it help kids better understand the human perspective.”

3. What new, dynamic ideas can sites implement to achieve relevance? 

All commenters stressed the importance of finding new strategies for meeting young people where they are. Several emphasized the importance of audience-centered education and facilitated dialogue techniques in educational programming. Barr explained the challenge to me in a straightforward way: “Many of us who choose to work in these sites are ‘buffs’ to varying degrees. Where we fail is when we try to come up with something to force our interests on somebody else.”

Understanding what visitors bring to the table (and why other people choose not to visit at all) is a crucial aspect moving forward. “We all have this idea that building relevance or connection is still going to be a ranger-centered or historian-centered endeavor. [But] relevance and audience building won’t come from a cool new topic to talk about, or a new subject to emphasize on a tour. It’s going to come from us being facilitators for the public to make their own connections and experiences,” said Barr.

Arudini and Wynn both highlighted the importance of using historical artifacts and documents in education programming. Arudini suggested that part of the challenge is using “contemporary design that helps people feel like the stories are contemporary and relevant.” She cited the new American Civil War Museum’s efforts to use colorized photos in their permanent exhibits and a larger effort to build partnerships with organizations not previously associated with Civil War history sites as two different ways to create a culture of honesty, accuracy, and inclusion in the museum’s historical interpretations. And Leonard differed slightly from Barr’s arguments by stressing the importance of more explicitly interpreting the Reconstruction era as a relevant and crucial historical moment in U.S. history.

“All [Civil War sites] have Reconstruction stories,” he asserted. Leonard would also like to see a reevaluation of living history programs, both in content and methods. “Are we doing living history because visitors have come to expect it, or because it’s the most effective means for communicating a subject?”

Should Civil War battlefields and related sites be worried about future visitation trends? I believe that the Wall Street Journal article painted too gloomy a picture that almost implies a crisis is at hand. I also reject the notion that young people are to blame. Nevertheless I fully agree with the various commenters that new ideas for innovative outreach, programming, and interpretation are crucial moving forward. There are no easy answers, but we need to keep placing the perspective of public historians working at Civil War historic sites front and center as this conversation continues.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay reflect the personal views of those who were willing to be interviewed. They do not reflect the views of their previous or current employers.

Full Text Source: The Muster

Bibliographic Citations

[1] Cameron McWhirter, “Civil War Battlefields Lose Ground as Tourist Draws,” Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2019, accessed May 30, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/civil-war-battlefields-lose-ground-as-tourist-draws-11558776600; M. Scott Mahaskey and Peter Canellos, “Are Americans Falling Out of Love with their Landmarks?,” Politico, July 4, 2019, accessed July 7, 2019, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/07/04/are-americans-falling-out-of-love-with-their-landmarks-227258.

[2] Most of these conversations took place on Twitter through Direct Messaging on July 7 and July 8, 2019, between Jake Wynn (@JayQuinn1993), Chris Barr (@cwbarr), Stephanie Arduini (@ACWMuseum), Andrew Druart (@AndrewDruart), and myself (@NickSacco55). The conversation between Eric Leonard and myself took place on July 7, 2019, through Facebook Messenger.

[3] John Coski, “Whither Public History?,” The Civil War Monitor, June 25, 2018, accessed June 26, 2019, https://www.civilwarmonitor.com/blog/whither-public-history; I responded to Coski on my personal website. See Nick Sacco, “The Times Are A Changin’,” Exploring the Past, July 9, 2019, accessed July 9, 2019, https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/2019/07/09/the-times-are-a-changin/; See also National Public Radio, “Instagramming Crowds Pack National Parks,” National Public Radio, May 28, 2019, accessed May 28, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/05/28/726658317/instagramming-crowds-pack-national-parks.

Friday, July 05, 2019

New and Noteworthy: A Soldier's Letters Home as Source Material

                                                                      ‘Letters From Gettysburg’ Music Review: Singing a Soldier’s Story

A new recording features the composer’s five-movement work commemorating the Civil War battle, which draws from the letters of a mortally wounded soldier and his mother.

Composers who write works about war often gravitate toward vocal settings—nothing evokes the mixed currents of terror, bravery, pain and confusion as unequivocally as the human voice—and for the most part, they seek their texts in the works of battlefield poets and chroniclers, from Homer and Li Po, to Walt Whitman and Wilfred Owen, whose work captures both the immediacy of mortal danger and the tragedy of wasted life.

When Avner Dorman was commissioned by Gettysburg College, where he teaches composition, to write a work commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle that was fought in the school’s vicinity, he decided to look for street-level realism rather than poetic artistry. His first stop was the college’s Civil War Institute, where he examined soldiers’ letters, and opted to focus on a single combatant, on the theory that one soldier’s observations could yield universal truths about the experience of war. The soldier he settled on was Lt. Rush Palmer Cady, a New Yorker who was wounded on the battle’s first day—a bullet passed through his arm and lodged in his lung—and died 23 days later, on July 24, 1863.
Cady’s letters, and some from his mother, who traveled to his bedside and wrote to her husband as she grappled with the inevitability of their son’s death, are the basis of “Letters From Gettysburg,” a wrenching score for choir, soprano and baritone soloists and percussion ensemble that had its premiere at the college in April 2013. It is now the title piece of a new collection of Mr. Dorman’s works on Canary Classics, the label run by the violinist Gil Shaham. (Works Mr. Dorman composed for Mr. Shaham and his sister, the pianist Orli Shaham, fill out the disc.) Mr. Dorman, a prolific Israeli composer who studied with John Corigliano and shares his former teacher’s penchant for an eclectic, emotionally direct musical language, chose not to set the letters intact, but to instead use fragments, mined for their imagery and emotional punch. Some are long enough to paint vignettes from the battle; others are splintered into short phrases, or even single words, distributed through the choir.

In “Battle,” the third and most complex of the work’s five movements, phrases like “Ammunition—sixty rounds apiece,” “Military honors—of his soldier grave,” “So much blood and suffering,” “fires all night,” and the words “death,” “mud,” “pain,” “rain” and “remains” are chanted chaotically and ad libitum by the choir, effectively compressing Cady’s narrative into the aural equivalent of a brisk film montage. A more formal choral setting emerges from this improvised stream of images, offering a more conventional narrative (“A shell which struck our rear hit a large stack of guns, killed a captain lieutenant and took off the arm and leg.…”), and leads to the choir singing the word “Blood!” repeatedly, in a three-note harmonic cluster.In parts of the first and fourth movements, “Kiss Me Mother” and “Dear Brave Boy,” which draw on the letters from Cady’s mother, Mr. Dorman’s choral writing moves inexorably from consonance to dissonance, increasing the tension with each syllable. Amanda Heim, the soprano soloist, sings the mother’s text, in the finale, with a moving sense of pained calmness—a quality heard in much of the choral writing as well. Lee Poulis, the baritone, gives a trenchant account of Cady’s first letter home in “Since I Was Wounded,” the work’s fifth movement                                                                                                                                                                   Mr. Dorman’s colorful but disciplined, intensely focused style is suited to the subject matter, and he has produced a work that appeals to pacifist sensibilities by showing the devastation of war as human, personal and direct. The Gettysburg College Choir and the Tremolo Percussion Ensemble—which is used vigorously in the “Battle” movement, and more subtly elsewhere—perform the piece with eloquence and precision under the baton of Robert Natter in this 2015 studio recording.Different sides of Mr. Dorman’s instrumental writing are on display in “After Brahms—Three Intermezzos for Piano” (2014) and “Nigunim (Violin Sonata No. 3)” (2011). “After Brahms” channels the sensibility of Brahms’s late piano music, in both its explosively turbulent and gently introspective manifestations, and is played with both power and poetry by Orli Shaham. “Nigunim” builds on the modal melodic turns of Jewish music (a nigun is a short, repeating melody that can be used in anything from prayer to klezmer performances; nigunim is the plural), expanded upon and recast in the Romantic bravura style. In that spirit, Gil Shaham gives the piece a high-energy, virtuosic reading, with firm support from Ms. Shaham on the piano.Still, both works have been issued on earlier Canary Classics discs, so while it’s good to revisit them, listeners interested in Mr. Dorman’s work would undoubtedly have preferred music that has not yet been recorded.                                Full Text Found at  Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2019            Amazon.com link to compact disk. 

New and Noteworthy: Army of the Potomac's Intelligence Gathering and Gettsyburg,

Major General George H. Sharpe and The Creation of American Military Intelligence in the Civil War, Peter G. Tsouras, Casemate Publishing, 583 pages, bibliographic notes, illustrations, maps, bibliography, 2018. $34.95

Review written by Stephen E. Towne, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

In this book, prolific military historian Peter Tsouras provides a detailed account of the operations of the Bureau of Military Information (BMI) in the Army of the Potomac from its creation in February 1863 through Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox (9 April 1865). Framed as a biography of its founding leader, then Col. George H. Sharpe of the 120th New York Volunteer Infantry regiment, the book builds on previous studies by Edwin Fishel and William Feis. That said, Tsouras has done yeoman's work in finding new records documenting the work of Sharpe's intelligence unit.

George Sharpe was an affluent, well-connected attorney in upstate New York before the war and then, briefly, a captain in the 20th New York State Militia regiment mobilized in 1861. During the mass recruiting drive in summer 1862, he raised the 120th New York regiment and assumed its command. The regiment participated on the periphery in the disastrous battle of Fredericksburg in December.

Tsouras begins his story soon after Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker assumed command of the Army of the Potomac. His predecessors, generals George B. McClellan and Ambrose E. Burnside, had not left him any military-intelligence resources. McClellan had relied on detectives hired by Allan Pinkerton, the head of a Chicago detective agency whose gross overestimates of the strength of Lee's army paralyzed the Union general. When President Abraham Lincoln dismissed McClellan from command, Pinkerton's detectives went home. Hooker, naturally eager for accurate information on Confederate troop strength and deployments, chose Sharpe to establish an intelligence operation as an adjunct to his headquarters and to collect useful information on Lee's army. Sharpe quickly found scouts who could infiltrate rebel lines and talented aides to oversee interrogations of deserters and compile Lee's order of battle.

Tsouras's accounts of the derring-do of BMI scouts behind rebel lines are most entertaining, but their length and granular detail are oppressive and obscure the larger picture of the value of Sharpe's efforts. Following as he does in Fishel and Feis's footsteps, the author delivers no new historical understanding of Union military intelligence. Other shortcomings include the many typos and repetitions in the narrative, as well as, more problematically, the author's penchant for using present-day military-intelligence terminology and acronyms in a Civil War context. Thus, we read that Sharpe was the creator of "all-source military intelligence." The BMI can and should be approached as a case study of military intelligence work done before it was institutionalized by the US Army in the twentieth century. But historians must resist the "whiggish" temptation to compare the practices of the "bad old days" to what are assumed to be today's better ones.
 The author's evaluation of Sharpe as the unique example of top-rate intelligence work in the Civil War follows Fishel's myopic focus on the Army of the Potomac and overlooks significant intelligence operations in other Union armies and commands. For example, no historian has made a comprehensive study of Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans's significant intelligence work while he was commanding the Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee starting in fall 1862. The general directed a remarkably effective intelligence operation against Confederate forces in his front together with a far-flung security service throughout several states in his rear. In 1861, he used Ohio police detectives in western Virginia. In 1864, while in command of the Department of the Missouri with headquarters in St. Louis, he refined and expanded an already large intelligence apparatus that ranged from New Orleans to New York. In short, Rosecrans may have been the most consistent and sophisticated user of intelligence during the war. Until historians study these other operations, we must put off crowning Sharpe as the originator of high-quality Civil War intelligence work.
 George Sharpe's BMI was perhaps the best intelligence unit in the Union Army, but it certainly was not the first or, arguably, the most effective. Peter Tsouras's exhaustive research to piece together an account of Sharpe's wartime career should prompt historians to examine other important military-intelligence operations in the Civil War.

Full text of this review is found online at:  Michigan War Studies Reviews

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

New and Noteworthy: Frederick Douglass, A Prophet of Freedoms and The Discovery of Truths

Prophet of Freedom,  David Blight, 912 pp., illustrations, bibliographic notes, bibliography, Simon and Schuster Publishing, 2018,  $39.95

Reviewed by Nathan Varnhold, Emerging Civil War Online

Understanding the life of the most famous and most outspoken black abolitionist in American history is no easy task, but David W. Blight has spent most of his career attempting to simplify a complicated subject. His latest publication, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, is a testament to his twenty-plus year career devoted to understanding Frederick Douglass; the man, the words, the historical figure. It does not disappoint. Historians have access to Douglass’s life works – speeches, writings, letters, and his autobiographies – but those same historians struggle to define him. Blight summarized the difficulties he faced in a book talk at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. 

Whenever the renowned author thought he had a firm idea of Douglass, a new letter or article would surface and pull Douglass from his grasp. Think of holding an ice cube. You have a firm grip on the cube only to watch it melt and drip through your fingers. This biography is Blight’s attempt to fully and deeply understand Frederick Douglass.
Douglass is initially introduced as Frederick Bailey, an enslaved black born in Talbot County, Maryland. Rather quickly Blight shows the transformation of Bailey, an American slave, into Douglass, a freedman. Even though an evolution takes place, Frederick Douglass remained haunted, yet inspired, by Bailey. Bailey’s life fueled the black abolitionist for answers but reminded him that some answers will escape him, some questions cannot be answered. Blight makes this an important facet. Blight sees this plight for answers instrumental in Douglass’s evolution. 

The freedman searches for meaningful answers and the discovery of truth. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is one such speech used by Blight to show Douglass’s constant struggle for truth and answers. Do black Americans have a place in American history and on the American continent? What meaning does independence have on black Americans? These questions tackle the past, present, and the future of black lives in the United States. For Douglass, the answers to these questions become central to equality, protection, participation, and advancement. Autobiographies offered another platform for Douglass to dispel myths, answer questions, and find truth.

The first few chapters read as a literary analysis and an overview of Douglass’s first autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. A conscious decision to begin with the 1845 autobiography allowed Blight an easy introduction to the starting point for this biography’s research. For the first-time, Douglass introduced the complexities of his experience as an American slave in print. He existed as a human within a society, within an institution, that denied all aspects of humanity to an enslaved race. Blight showed how Douglass challenged the perception of humanity by giving the enslaved individual human fears, human emotions, and human characteristics; something more than a name on a property list. The autobiography challenged societal norms and gave Douglass his very first national platform. Blight’s literary analysis recounts a journey for answers and closure to a past, a past Douglass allowed no one to forget. He carried his past with him like a talisman–to assault the minds of the American public.

To assault typically denotes violence. It is an aggressive term, but then again Douglass proved an aggressive and an unrelenting individual through words. Blight used the verb not to illustrate Douglass as a violent human but to justify the subtitle of his biography: Prophet of Freedom. Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, whom Blight uses extensively in his work, stated “the prophet is a human” who “employs notes one octave too high for our ear…an assaulter of the mind. Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends.”[1] Heschel tells us that prophets are not heard in the moment. Instead, prophets incept an idea into the minds of listeners. These ideas slowly eat away at the subconscious of the individual and promote action. Therefore, words spoken by Douglass remain an everlasting lesson. Lessons for the present and lessons for the future. Blight’s use of Heschel becomes key to understanding the religiosity of Frederick Douglass and knowing the label, Prophet of Freedom.
Christianity, millennialism, and the Bible became central to Douglass’s life and central to the idea of a Prophet. In fact, the black abolitionist’s religiosity is one of Blight’s themes for this book. Blight connected Douglass with Moses. Both individuals argued against forced labor and helped bring freedom to an enslaved population. Douglass’s beliefs allowed him to attack the southern misconceptions of Christianity and the Bible through his understanding of the Old Testament as a marker for natural law. Natural law stood as the basic premise for equality to all people, not ordained to only one race. Blight specializes in the Civil War Era and memory studies. His understanding of religious texts and theology strengthened his innate ability to simplify a complicated historical figure, connect Douglass to a larger audience, and justify the use of Prophet.

Image result for david BlightOther themes include Douglass’s autobiographies, his individual evolution, the relationship between his public and private lives, and Douglass’s intellect. Each theme promoted the orators constant and consistent assault upon the minds of the American public. Just as Douglass transformed as an individual, his tactics changed throughout his life. From his three autobiographies written to a specific audience, to his speeches and articles printed throughout the nation, Blight used extensive records to showcase the orator’s impact on a nation, thus lending credence to the notion of Douglass the Prophet. The nation went through a tumultuous time and Blight argues that the life of Frederick Douglass, more than any other American, tells the transformation of the United States.

Simply stated, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is worth the read. Blight’s masterful prose, use of sources, connection to his subject, and his overall knowledge offers something for everyone. From the academic to the casual reader everyone will walk away knowing that the life of Frederick Douglass was a microcosm of an entire century. Unlike other biographies that focus on a subject in the confines of an event, Blight studied, and continues to study the life of Douglass, to emphasize an era. The lessons of the past have not fully been learned. This biography is a look at the prolonged struggle for freedom and equality that continue today.

Full Text Source: Emerging Civil War

New and Noteworthy: Biblical Deliverance, Slavery and Northern Motivations for the War

Why did the North fight the Civil War?, Gregory Downs, Washington Post, June 14 2019, a review of Armies of Deliverance

Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War, Elizabeth Varon, Oxford University Press, 528 pp., illustrations, maps, bibliographic notes, bibliography, 2019,  $34.95.

Everyone knows that Confederates fought the Civil War to preserve and extend the slave system that produced their wealth and shaped their society. But what, exactly, did white Northerners fight for? In her often-riveting “Armies of Deliverance,” Elizabeth R. Varon answers that question in a new way, with important ramifications for how we understand the nation’s most significant conflict, the meaning of anti-slavery politics and the disappointments of postwar Reconstruction.

Because Confederates launched the first assaults of the Civil War, and because Confederates so eagerly trumpeted their defenses of slavery, Northern motivations can seem irrelevant. Confederates attacked the United States, and the United States fought back. Yet historians have debated Northern motivations vigorously over the past few decades, because those motivations tell us a good deal about why the Civil War came, what kind of war it was and what its impact would be upon U.S. society. One loosely defined group of historians argues that most white Northerners aimed primarily to restore the Union: to preserve the nation and not to transform it. Other historians, meanwhile, claim that white Northerners generally sought to extend freedom by creating a new nation without slavery. The answer turns on which Northerners one examines — common soldiers, female teachers and nurses, free black activists, Ohio Valley politicians, officers in high command — and how one evaluates inherently slippery evidence about motivation.

This debate has real ramifications for how we understand the Civil War era. Did secessionists have genuine reason to fear white Northern intentions? Was the war restrained, or did it approach a total war? And did the Civil War fundamentally transform the lives of the 4 million enslaved Americans and undermine the nation’s foundations in white supremacy? Historians who emphasize the desire to restore the union generally argue that secessionists miscalculated white Northern intentions and that many white Northerners saw their job as returning, not remaking, white Southerners — even secessionists. Thus, they argue, white Northerners favored restraint during and after the Civil War to ease the reintegration of white Southerners. Those historians who emphasize the freedom story are more likely to see Southern secession as a reasoned response to transformative Northern goals, to trace increasingly bold war measures and to narrate ambitious plans for national re-creation in Reconstruction.

The argument between scholars on either side of the union and freedom debate is important but in danger of becoming repetitive. So it is a relief to watch Varon strive elegantly to escape that binary perspective and establish her own interpretive framework for white Northern motivations. Her answer is deliverance. Christians, North and South, looked to biblical stories of deliverance to explain how society could be transformed. For Confederates, deliverance was simple: They would be delivered from the tyranny of Northern political opinion. Enslaved people similarly saw deliverance in stark terms: escape from the tyranny of masters.

But how did white Northerners understand deliverance? Varon argues that many of them believed that white Southerners needed deliverance from their “scheming leaders,” the despotic planters who shut down public debate and dominated the political system. Once freed, the great mass of white Southerners would begin to think for themselves and, ineluctably, emulate the prosperous and free North. White Southerners’ political independence would then free the nation from the sway that planters exercised over politics and policy, a sway Northerners denounced as a despotic slave power. Deliverance, Varon writes, “resolved the tensions within the Union over war aims” between conservative Democrats and anti-slavery activists because a language of deliverance “could serve so many ends” — it supported everything from conciliatory war measures to abolition.

The imprecise nature of deliverance allows Varon to fold parts of both the union and freedom arguments into her own. Freedom scholars are right that the North intended to remake the South, but union scholars are right that the North didn’t act from a desire to free slaves so much as a will to free the South’s white farmers and small planters from the tyranny of the slaveholding owners of vast plantations.

Image result for elizabeth VaronVaron’s argument is at times more novel than persuasive. Although she is a distinguished historian of antebellum politics, she rushes past the coming of the Civil War; the conflict is underway already in Chapter 1. This might be fitting in a work about wartime tactics but less so in a book about deeper motivations. The Civil War was an ideological conflict, developed over decades of painstaking political and intellectual fights that she largely skims past. Those conflicts shaped the concepts of deliverance, freedom and union. To understand the power of deliverance, we would need to see more about how the concept developed over time.

So, too, does Varon rush through her argument about the consequences of the Civil War. Deliverance may have fueled white Northern overconfidence in the efficacy of Reconstruction, and unconcern for freedpeople may have spawned apathy. But still, deliverance cannot explain the boldness and resilience of Republican support for civil and voting rights, nor can Republicans’ mixed motivations tell us much about the efficacy of their steps toward emancipation in 1861, abolition in 1865 and enfranchisement in 1867. A thorough reckoning with Reconstruction must engage with other issues: the fog of war, the idealistic vision of a self-perpetuating democracy, the resilience of local power, the weakness of the federal government. And above all that lies what seems the ultimate explanation for the disappointments of Reconstruction: an unbearably bloody white Southern counterrevolution. After all that is taken into account, it is not clear how much is left for notions of deliverance to explain.

While Varon doesn’t quite deliver on her argument about deliverance, she narrates battles and campaigns with an unusually deft, at times even gorgeous touch. This is some of the finest battle writing around, and a sweeping analysis of both United States and Confederate strategy and tactics. While the book can’t displace James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom,” still perhaps the single greatest volume ever written on the Civil War or even on United States history, it belongs beside it on the shelf. Given the volume of writing about the Civil War over the past 150 years, that is no small feat.