Just as every cub reporter entertains the notion of one day writing the Great American Novel, every American historian nurses somewhere the ambition of writing the Great Civil War History. Not that that’s surprising: the American Civil War is the Iliad of the American republic. It compresses into four years enough drama—from battles to blockade runners—and enough unexpectedly dramatic characters, from Ulysses S. Grant to Abraham Lincoln, to make the rest of the American 19th century seem pale by comparison.
It’s also true that some of the greatest historical writing of modern times has been about the Civil War, from Carl Sandburg (Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, 1939), Bruce Catton (A Stillness at Appomattox, 1953), David Herbert Donald (Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, 1960) and James McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom, 1988), all of them Pulitzer winners. This is the ring many are tempted to enter, owing either to the subject or to the company it keeps, and into which Elizabeth Varon, the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia, now boldly steps with Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War.
Varon is one of the prominent figures of the John L. Nau Center for Civil War History at the university, and has already established an impressive record in Civil War history writing, mostly concentrated on aspects of the Confederate experience, but with some unusual twists. Nor is Armies of Deliverance the typical vast-landscape survey; it is, in one respect, not actually a “new history of the Civil War” so much as it is a new interpretation of the Civil War. And in that departure, Varon succeeds grandly.