by Harry S. Stout. New York: Viking, 2006. ISBN 0670034703. Hb., xxii + 552 pp. $29.95.
Wars take on their own mythologies and none more so than the American Civil War. It stands at a center of American consciousness and identity. More than 100,000 titles have been written on the conflict, in its various facets. Now Yale historian Harry S. Stout has given us a “moral history” of the Civil War, providing a unique–and disturbing–view of the years when this nation tore itself apart.
Stout’s “moral history” tells “difficult stories of unjust conduct on both sides of the struggle” (p.xxii). He details both the political and military history of the war in relation to the roles Christians played in initiating, blessing, and then memorializing the brutality that is war itself. Stout taps a wealth of personal diaries, papers, religious journals, and letters to show how “both sides needed to enlist God in their cause as both justifier and absolute guarantor of their deliverance” (p.xvii). His narrative indicates, “tragically, no less than everyone else, the clergy were virtually cheerleaders all” (p.xvii).
He does not argue that going to war was wrong for what was intended. He shows how Lincoln shifted the grounds from the initial call to preserve the union to the emancipation of those in slavery as the bloody killings progressed. Stout is not a pacifist. He realizes the huge issues at stake in the nation’s history during that era. He writes that “it is possible, and, I believe, reasonable, to conclude that the right side won in spite of itself” (p.xvi).
Stout’s “moral history” relates to classical just war theory. He argues that two principles of the classical theory were lost: 1) proportionality–which requires the goals of a war be proportional to the means employed. There should be limits to carnage. 2) The principle of discrimination–which asks who should be legitimate targets in war: it is unjust to attack noncombatants.
The author does not find many moral critics who critiqued their own cause. With the religious press and Christian pulpits fueling the fires of conflict, patriotism for the cause–in both North and South–“became sacralized to the point that it enjoyed coequal or even superior status to conventional denominational faiths” (p.xviii). Casualties on both sides were referred to as “martyrs” as the war progressed and religious language became “dedicated to political religion rather than to Christianity” (p.xxi).
The “memorializing” of the war in American consciousness–the “victory” of the North and the “lost cause” of the South–paved the way for an American “civil religion” which initially required the “blood sacrifice” of 620,000 persons. Stout writes: “The incarnation of a national American civil religion may have been the final great legacy of the Civil War. How could a people of such diversity, who had more than adequately demonstrated their capacity to live at war, possibly come together in peace without some functioning civil religion? And how does any real religion come into being without the shedding of blood?” (p.459).
Whereas most Americans prefer a “violent but glamorized and romantic Civil War,” the concept of a “total war” that justified civilian deaths and indiscriminate destruction as a matter of course–after battles like Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg–has now become part of the fabric of American life. For Stout, “by condoning the logic of total war in the name of abolition–and victory–Americans effectively guaranteed that other atrocities in other wars could likewise be excused in the name of ‘military necessity'” (p.460). The wars of extermination against Native Americans from 1868 to 1883 were carried out by Grant, Sherman, and Custer who employed “the same calculus their commander-in-chief, Lincoln, had approved in the Civil War. Just as Sheridan wreaked vengeance in the Shenandoah Valley, so he would wreak vengeance on American Indians–and with the same moral justification” (p.460).
Presbyterians figure in this book from Stonewall Jackson, to Charles Hodge, to the churches of Richmond, to Presbyterian journals in both North and South. Stout’s long narrative interweaves the overall shape of the war with the moral and religious “justifications” and proclamations that God is “on our side” and “victory will be ours.” After reading Stout’s book, one will not be able to look at this war–or others–in the same ways again.
Donald K. McKim is editor, academic and reference, with Westminster John Knox Press and an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He resides in Germantown, Tenn.