• Email
  • Print

Was It a Just War?

1.

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.”

The Union army’s organization of black regiments in the second half of the war produced retaliatory actions that undermined any claim the South made to be fighting a just defensive war. The Confederacy refused to exchange captured black prisoners of war under the agreement negotiated in 1862, thus bringing a halt to exchanges; this led to the deaths of thousands of POWs, both Union and Confederate, in fetid and overcrowded prison camps. Even more heinous was the cold-blooded murder by Confederate soldiers of captured black soldiers on a half-dozen battlefields after they had surrendered. The most notorious such case occurred at Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River on April 12, 1864, when Confederate troopers commanded by General Nathan Bedford Forrest shot down at least a hundred black captives.

More lethal, perhaps, but less publicized was the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia, on July 30, 1864, when a Confederate counterattack captured several hundred black prisoners, many of whom were shot as they were led disarmed to the rear. General Robert E. Lee, writes Stout, “observed the carnage from only five hundred yards away and obviously knew of the murders taking place. In yet another searing enactment of the inhumane racial civil war within the Civil War, he made no comment, then or later.”

Curiously, in Stout’s account, Forrest receives no stronger censure than Lee because Forrest “neither ordered nor condoned the massacre,” but like Lee he did nothing to stop it. Recent scholarship on Fort Pillow, however, challenges the notion that Forrest did not condone it.8 But even if he—like Lee—merely failed to restrain his men, “it was a lesson in moral avoidance that Northern generals would also learn perfectly.”

What does Stout mean by this last sentence? He is drawing a parallel between Confederate commanders who did not prevent the murder of black prisoners and Union commanders who did not prevent their soldiers from burning and pillaging civilian property. Whether there was in fact a moral equivalency between these actions is a question largely unexamined in Stout’s book. He implies, however, that one was as bad as the other. On the last page of his book, he suggests that the top officials and commanders on both sides were equally culpable of terrible deeds in this unjust war: “Americans don’t want to concede the unforgivable wrongs committed by the likes of Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Lee, Forrest, Early, and Davis.”

2.

What, then, is one to make of Stout’s dedication of his book to the memory of his father, “a warrior sailor in a just war”—World War II? The chief ground on which Stout condemns the Civil War as unjust is its increasing failure to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants (including disarmed prisoners). But all nations in World War II did this on a scale ten thousandfold greater than either side in the Civil War. Sherman’s “bummers” wantonly destroyed much civilian property on their marches through Georgia and South Carolina, but Allied bombers in World War II destroyed not only property but hundreds of thousands of civilian lives as well.

Through carelessness or misrepresentation, Stout grossly inflates the number of civilian casualties directly caused by military action in the Civil War. Lincoln and his generals, he claims, “deliberately targeted civilian farms, cities, and—in at least fifty thousand instances—civilian lives.” His cited source for this information is my own estimate in Battle Cry of Freedom. But I made clear that this estimate referred to indirect consequences of the war in the South: the inevitable results of breakdowns in transportation, the loss of crops and livestock from army operations by both sides, the overcrowding of refugees fleeing from war zones, and the like. All these caused shortages, fatigue, and malnutrition that in turn lowered resistance to disease. The highest civilian mortality rate actually occurred among slaves who fled their owners for freedom and crowded into “contraband camps” behind Union lines where they became prey to diseases and sometimes to murderous raids by Confederate guerrillas.

Except for guerrilla raids, none of the civilian casualties were “deliberately targeted.” And in fact, civilian casualties in the American Civil War were far lower than in large-scale European wars from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. These included the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic wars, and of course World Wars I and II (including the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919) in which civilian deaths, direct and indirect, were twice to several times greater than soldier deaths. In the Civil War, even if my estimate of 50,000 civilian deaths is accurate, this is less than one twelfth of the 620,000 soldiers who died.9

A specific example of misrepresentation occurs in Stout’s discussion of Sherman’s siege of Atlanta in August 1864. Atlanta was a heavily fortified city defended by an army of 40,000 men and containing important war industries and railroad facilities. Sherman’s shelling of the city was quite legitimate according to the laws of war, though Stout implies otherwise. Many houses as well as warehouses and factories were damaged or destroyed by the shelling. But civilian casualties in Atlanta were remarkably low. Stout, however, cites an alleged letter from Sherman to Confederate commander John Bell Hood in which Sherman, according to Stout, “estimated that five hundred ‘rebel’ civilians were killed and twenty-five hundred wounded. Given the source, one can assume these figures are significantly understated.” Stout’s cited source, however, mentions neither a letter from Sherman nor five hundred civilian dead and twenty-five hundred wounded. But another page of the same source notes a total of twenty documented civilian deaths from the shelling.10 So far as I know, no historian of the Atlanta campaign and no Sherman biographer has ever heard of this supposed letter. One of them wrote to me: “Stout has a good imagination.”

This example is the most serious of several dozen errors in the military narrative that the author uses to support his interpretations. Stout was not well served by the sixteen colleagues and friends listed in the Acknowledgments as having read the manuscript before publication. One task of such readers is to help the author catch and correct the inevitable errors that creep into every manuscript. Too many of them escaped the net and found their way into the book. Most are unimportant and do not affect the author’s main arguments and themes. But they do tend, as they accumulate, to cause irritation and perhaps even skepticism in the mind of a knowledgable reader.

3.

As a historian of American religion, Stout is particularly concerned with the function of churches and their pastors as moral arbiters in what he portrays as an increasingly immoral war. They mostly flunk their assignments. In both North and South they preached that God was on their own side and that the Godless enemy’s cause was evil. The clergy became “virtually cheerleaders all,” which prevented them from expressing “moral criticism directed at one’s own cause” or addressing “the question of what constitutes a just war, and what limitations ought to be observed in the unpleasant event of war.” They “fell victim to the sheer power of patriotism” and “privilege[d] patriotism over spirituality.” Believing in “the absolute moral right on each side…America’s clerical arbiters supported the conduct of the war without any real qualifications.” Along with secular commentators the clergy, especially in the North, provided “moral justification and endorsement” of the descent into total war, which “goes a long way to explain how military destruction and civilian suffering reached the levels they did.”

Most secular as well as religious leaders, according to Stout, subscribed to moral absolutism, expressed by the belief that “God is on our side.” One who did not, for which he earns the author’s praise, was Abraham Lincoln. He was “one of the few principals in the war capable of transcending the prevailing rhetoric of absolute right and wrong” and who could “perceive right and wrong on both sides.” In his remarkable second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, Lincoln noted that each side in the war “invokes [God’s] aid against the other.” Both could not be right; in fact neither was right, for “the Almighty has His own purposes,” which Lincoln suggested was the punishment of both for the sin of slavery, of which North and South were equally guilty. On this issue Stout considers Lincoln sound both in theology and morality. But what about the author’s repeated censures of Lincoln’s “taste for blood,” his “responsibility for unimaginable suffering and death”? These were the result of pragmatic military strategy, Stout claims, not of moral absolutism.

Some readers might find it difficult to reconcile these two views of Lincoln. And Stout’s ambivalence toward the man he describes on one occasion as “a Christlike messiah for the reconstituted American nation” extends to the matter of civil religion. This is a typically American belief in a “religion” of patriotism in which icons like the flag and other symbols of nationalism are objects of reverence. “Many Americans,” writes Stout, “equate dying for their country with dying for their faith.” The “sheer blood sacrifice” of 620,000 soldiers “on the national altar” was a “baptism of blood” that “would incarnate the national faith.” In the South this sacrifice was most notably associated with the death of Stonewall Jackson, “by which a Confederate civil religion was incarnated through a violent atonement.” The “Christian heroism” of generals like Jackson and Lee

effectively fus[ed] patriotism with the same Christian legitimation that prevailed in the North. By August 1863 the war had created and consecrated two American civil religions, mortally opposed, but both Christian and both “American.”

The Southern civil religion persisted even after defeat in the form of espousal of the “Lost Cause” and reverence for the Confederate battle flag and the men who carried it through four years of blood sacrifice in a doomed but noble mission. The dominant American civil religion, however, was in Stout’s view bequeathed by the nationalism of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which expressed a “mystical reverence for the Union as itself something sacred and worthy of sacrificial worship.” The “sacralization of this particular battlefield,” Stout maintains, “would mark it forever after as the preeminent sacred ground of the Civil War—and American wars thereafter.” And at the moment of victory, Lincoln’s martyrdom by assassination (on Good Friday) transformed him “from the prophet of America’s civil religion to its messiah.”

For Stout, therefore, “the incarnation of a national American civil religion may have been the final great legacy of the Civil War.” But this legacy, he writes, might be more curse than blessing. It reinforced America’s sense of its “messianic ‘mission’ to be a ‘redeemer nation’” that “identifies Providence with ‘the idealistic conception of American destiny.’” By “linking emancipation and the ‘crusade’ [a word Lincoln never used] against slavery to total war and a ‘crusade’ against the Confederacy, Lincoln’s administration watered the seeds of an American-led Christian imperialism that was not without costs in later American history.”

If Stout is correct, Lincoln’s legacy is not a happy one. In any event, whether or not his flawed but thought-provoking book has the right answers, it asks many of the right questions. With commemorations of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth (2009) and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War (2011–2015) coming up, we will be grappling with these questions for years to come.

  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.

  8. 8

    Andrew Ward, River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War (Viking, 2005); John Cimprich, Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory (Louisiana State University Press, 2005).

  9. 9

    James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 619.

  10. 10

    James Michael Russell, Atlanta, 1847– 1890: City Building in the Old South and the New (Louisiana State University Press, 1988), pp. 114–115, 113.

  • Email
  • Print