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…

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