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Was It a Just War?


War is hell,” said General William T. Sherman fifteen years after the end of a war in which he perhaps did more than anyone else to confirm that description. “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it,” Sherman wrote on another occasion.

Harry Stout certainly agrees. The Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History at Yale University and a well-known scholar of early American religion, Stout regards the Civil War as the “fulcrum” of American history. The members of the generation that fought the war came of age during the era of the Second Great Awakening in American Protestantism. An understanding of their religious values and ideology, therefore, is necessary to appreciate the way in which that fulcrum worked. Stout does not intend to write a “religious history” of the war that would focus “exclusively on chaplains and ministers,” however, but rather a “moral history” that “raises moral issues of right and wrong as seen from the vantage points of both the participants and the historian, who, after painstaking study, applies normative judgments.”

For Stout, the starting points for such a judgment of “the rightness or wrongness of war” are theological definitions of “just war” going back to Saint Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century and Saint Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth. Just war theory is divided into two principal categories: rationales for going to war (jus ad bellum) and principles governing the conduct of war once it has begun (jus in bello). The only just reason for going to war is self-defense; therefore “just wars are always defensive wars” and unprovoked aggression “is always wrong.”

On the question of jus ad bellum, Northerners in 1861 had no trouble making such a moral judgment: Confederates started the war by firing on Fort Sumter, an unprovoked act of aggression that forced the United States to fight a defensive war to preserve its existence as one nation. Abraham Lincoln put it this way in his second inaugural address: “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.”1

Southerners, on the other hand, had no doubt that Lincoln’s government was the aggressor because it refused to bow to Confederate demands for the peaceful surrender of Fort Sumter to the secessionist Confederate government, thereby provoking the Confederacy to open fire. As Jefferson Davis expressed it: “He who makes the assault is not necessarily he that strikes the first blow or fires the first gun.” Lincoln’s attempt to resupply the fort’s garrison with food, said Davis, made “the reduction of Fort Sumter” a “measure of defense rendered absolutely and immediately necessary.”2

Stout’s expressed intention to offer “moral judgments” and a “determination of right or wrong” might cause the reader to expect such a judgment on this crucial question of jus ad bellum. But the reader will be disappointed. “In civil wars,” Stout writes, “it often becomes difficult to discern with finality who is the unjust aggressor and who the just defender.” Really? He had convinced us that it is the duty of the moral historian to make such “a determination of right or wrong,” difficult or not. But because in the American Civil War “each side joined the battle convinced that its cause was just,” the moral historian is somehow absolved from the responsibility of determining right and wrong. In what war, we might ask, did one side or the other not consider its cause just?

In any event, Stout’s book concentrates on the second part of just war theory, the conduct of war (jus in bello), and on the justification of each side’s conduct by the principal moral arbiters of the time, the Protestant clergy. Most nations recognize limitations on the savagery of warfare defined by “rules of engagement” and “laws of war.” The Geneva Conventions, international treaties, and domestic legislation spell out these limitations. They rest on two basic precepts of just war theory: proportionality and discrimination. Proportionality requires that the means be appropriate to the end—a nuclear bomb must not be dropped on a city to destroy a single weapons factory. Discrimination separates combatants from noncombatants—the former are a legitimate target but the latter are not, except in the case of “collateral damage” in which noncombatants are unintentionally killed or wounded or their property destroyed.

Measured by these criteria, in its initial stage the conduct of the Civil War was just because it was a limited conflict between uniformed soldiers whose goals were either Confederate independence or restoration of the Union. But the war grew increasingly unjust, according to Stout, as it escalated to a “total war” by the North to destroy the social and economic infrastructure of the Old South (including slavery) and to build a New South on its ruins. Commander in Chief Abraham Lincoln and his generals, therefore, bore the main responsibility for what became an unjust war.

In his proclamation of April 15, 1861, calling state militia into federal service to suppress the insurrection started by the firing on Fort Sumter, President Lincoln enjoined these troops to avoid “any devastation, any destruction of, or interference with, property, or any disturbance of peaceful citizens.”3 Eight months later, in a message to Congress, Lincoln reiterated his concern that “in considering the policy to be adopted for suppressing the insurrection, I have been anxious and careful that the inevitable conflict for this purpose shall not degenerate into a remorseless revolutionary struggle.”4 Even General Sherman, at this stage of the war, did his best to instill in his soldiers “a common sense of decency…to respect [civilian] life and property,” or “we ought never to hope for any friends in Virginia.”5 As late as July 1862 the North’s senior general at the time, George B. McClellan, insisted that the war “should not be, at all, a War upon population; but against armed forces…. Neither confiscation of property… [n]or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.”6

So far so good; official Union policy was consistent with just war principles of proportionality and discrimination. This policy of a sword for enemy armies and an olive branch for Southern civilians proceeded from an assumption on Lincoln’s part that a residual Unionism would bring both of them back into the United States when Confederate armies were defeated. By the summer of 1862, however, that faith in Southern Unionism was wearing thin. So was the distinction between combatants and noncombatants in the parts of the Confederacy and border states occupied by Union forces. The crops and livestock of Southern civilians were feeding and clothing Confederate armies. Their slaves were the principal labor force in the Confederate war economy. Thousands of Southern civilians became guerrillas who roamed behind Union lines, destroying supplies and ambushing unarmed as well as armed Unionists. Little more than a year after his reference to respecting Southern property in order to win friends, Sherman had become convinced that

all in the South are enemies of all in the North…. The whole country is full of guerrilla bands…. The entire South, man, woman, and child, is against us, armed and determined…. We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make [them] feel the hard hand of war.7

Lincoln did not put it as starkly as Sherman, but by midsummer 1862 he was moving toward similar conclusions. “Lincoln came to understand,” writes Stout, “that if his aim of preserving the Union was to be achieved, the war would have to be escalated to a total war on both citizens and soldiers.” The newly appointed commander of Union forces in northern Virginia, General John Pope, issued a series of orders authorizing his troops to “subsist upon the country,” to hold civilians responsible for shooting at Union soldiers from their houses, to execute captured guerrillas who fired on Union troops, to expel from occupied territory any civilians who refused to take an oath of allegiance to the United States, and to treat them as spies if they returned. Lincoln approved these orders as well as an executive order by the War Department authorizing commanders “to seize and use any property, real or personal,” that would help the war effort. To professed Southern Unionists who protested such actions, Lincoln responded bluntly:

What would you do in my position? Would you…prosecute [the war] in future with elder-stalk squirts charged with rose-water?… Would you give up the contest, leaving any available means unapplied?

For Stout, these actions and words should be seen as the beginning of a movement down a slippery slope to the barbarism of an unjust war. Lincoln’s “taste for blood,” he writes, bore “a large portion of the responsibility for unimaginable suffering and death” and for “campaigns of such unmitigated violence, slaughter, and civilian suffering.” In the end this policy may have won the war—but at an immoral cost. “Lincoln’s war strategy was and remains genius. That does not make it right.”

In Stout’s view, the only redeeming feature of the obscenely destructive total war was the abolition of slavery. “The justness of abolition and the freedom of four million,” he writes, “dictates that any moral history of slavery unconditionally conclude that the right side won, no matter what the casualties and sacrifices.” Stout is uncomfortably aware that emancipation was an integral and essential part of the escalation to total war. Slaves were property owned by enemy civilians; their confiscation and emancipation and the ultimate abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment entailed the loss of the largest single category of Southern property. As a practical matter, Stout acknowledges, “emancipation was necessary as a means to total war.” But it also gave total war “an unprecedented moral stature, allowing the Northern public to fasten on the ‘good’ of emancipation without ever inquiring into the ‘bad’ of unjust conduct in a total war.”

For all of his forcefulness in praising abolition and his indignation in damning an unjust war against Southern civilians, and his awkward admission that the latter was necessary to achieve the former, Stout never makes clear which he regards as the greater evil: slavery or total war. Instead, he resorts to what can only be labeled an evasion: “But this book is not a moral history of slavery. It is a moral history of a war, where questions of proportionality and discrimination continue to remain in play.”

By a twist of logic difficult to follow, Stout considers black soldiers fighting for freedom to have been engaged in a just war even if white soldiers fighting for the same cause were not. “If anyone had a ‘cause’ that could meet all the moral scruples of a just war, it was the slaves and freedmen,” he believes. “The willingness of black soldiers to fight and die helped to transform the moral meaning of the Civil War from a war for Union to a ‘crusade’ for freedom.”

  1. 1

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler, nine volumes (Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), Vol. 8, p. 332.

  2. 2

    Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, two volumes (reprint edition, Da Capo, 1990), Vol. 1, p. 252.

  3. 3

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 4, p. 332.

  4. 4

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, pp. 48–49.

  5. 5

    Sherman to his wife, July 28, 1861 and undated, probably August 1861, in Home Letters of General Sherman, edited by M.A. DeWolfe Howe (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909), pp. 209, 214.

  6. 6

    The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, edited by Stephen W. Sears (Ticknor and Fields, 1989), p. 344.

  7. 7

    John Bennett Walters, Merchant of Terror: General Sherman and Total War (Bobbs-Merrill, 1973) pp. 57–58, 59, 60; Walters, “General William T. Sherman and Total War,” Journal of Southern History, Vol. 14 (1948), p. 463.

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