A moral analysis of America’s civil war: A response to Harry Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation [Civil War #9]

Ted Grimsrud—February 11, 2021

Although most people who think about warfare in the modern world accept with little question the assumption that Americans operate within the moral framework of the “just war theory,” relatively little writing has been done that elaborates on the application of that theory to America’s wars. In recent years, I’ve been reading quite a bit about our civil war in the US. Since I have many moral questions about that war, I have been attentive to moral concerns as they arise in my reading—or, as I should say, as they don’t arise. The most notable moral stance by the vast majority of writers has been that, of course, this was a “just war” and that reality ends any additional moral reflection.

However, there is at least one important exception. Harry S. Stout’s Upon The Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking Press, 2006) is an important and interesting book, well-written and deeply concerned with its subject matter. Stout, professor of American religious history at Yale, tries to take head on the challenge of looking at the most destructive war (in terms of American casualties) our country has ever fought—the American Civil War—from a moral perspective. He argues, and gives plenty of evidence to support his argument, that the moral dimension was missing during the war itself and, by and large, in analyses of the war ever since.

How did its contemporaries view the morality of the Civil War?

Stout focuses on the military campaigns of the Civil War, with only a brief introduction and afterword considering the run up to the War and its aftermath. We read how contemporaries viewed these battles, getting a clear sense that just war concerns rarely entered the picture on either side. Neither the political and military leaders nor religious leaders brought moral concerns drawn from the just war theory (e.g., a sense of proportionality and noncombatant immunity) to bear on their responses to the war. Instead, Stout reports mostly jingoistic cheerleading, especially from the churches, and pragmatic strategies to win the War at all costs from the political and military leaders.

It is not as if Americans, especially military leaders, were ignorant of the just war theory and other moral considerations in relation to war. Stout traces the inexorable evolution among the Union leaders from what he calls the “West Point Code” (a philosophy of limited war taught at the U.S. Military Academy) to the scorched earth campaigns of Union generals Sherman and Sheridan that brought the South utterly to its knees. In the midst of its commitment to total war and victory at all costs, the Union simply disregarded without much debate any old fashioned just war ideas. He also makes it clear that the Confederacy also was perfectly willing to leave the West Point Code behind.

Stout’s academic specialty is the history of Christianity in the United States, and he makes a special contribution in conveying the largely uncritical embrace of total war as a religious imperative by partisans on both sides of this war. He did track down a few examples of sermons and other writings that raised some moral questions, but these are mostly notable for their scarcity and lack of impact.

Particularly eye-opening is Stout’s account of President Lincoln’s embrace of the devastating practices of total war with the intent (to paraphrase a later American general, Curtis LeMay) to kill and kill until the enemy finally gives up. We learn how Lincoln’s absolute commitment to the inviolability of the Union became the end that justified whatever means were deemed effective in achieving it. Stout could have told us more about how Lincoln’s reverence for the Union combined with his generic religiosity to give powerful impetus for the emergence of American Civil Religion—and how this Civil Religion has exerted such powerful influence on the embrace of subsequent military actions as in some sense “God’s will.”

It is at this point of the religious dynamics that supported total war (and jettisoned any effective use of just war constraints) that Stout’s book makes its greatest contribution (while also leaving this reader the most frustrated). The book’s title, “Upon the altar of the nation” points to how Christian imagery of blood sacrifice and redemptive violence underwrote a religious affirmation of what became a most unjust war (based on its violation of the jus in bello [just conduct] principles of the just war theory). That is, the Civil War serves as a founding event in America’s long-term (and devastating) embrace of the “myth of redemptive violence”—the belief that violence successfully responds to problems of injustice and wrong-doing and accomplishes good ends.

Leaving us hanging

However, Stout doesn’t do nearly enough in reflecting on the legacy of the Civil War. He takes the hugely important step of analyzing the conduct of the war in light of moral concerns drawn from the just war tradition. However, it’s as if he takes us to the doorstep of a much needed exercise of applying moral criteria to American warism in a way that actually does ask critical questions—and then stops before entering into such a necessary conversation.

He has us set up for reflections on the consequences of that war, as the book is full of hints about the problematic dynamics of the amoral execution of the war’s terrible destruction. But then he leaves us hanging. He does, with frustrating brevity, mention the later history of Generals Grant, Sherman, and (especially) Sheridan applying the lessons they learned in total war to the annihilation of Native Americans. But virtually nothing else.

The book would have been much stronger with about 100 pages of analysis on the legacy of the Civil War in the subsequent acceptance and practice of total war free from moral restraint in American history. Stout clearly has thought about this, and it’s simply too bad he didn’t extend himself to spell the trajectory out. I do notice that Stout dedicates this book to his father, “a warrior sailor in a just war”—i.e., World War II.  Well, maybe.  But in light of Stout’s own analysis of the Civil War, one has to wonder whether a similar analysis of World War II might raise serious questions about that justness of that war, too (partly due to being stimulated by Stout, I wrote a book that provides just such an analysis: The Good War that Wasn’t—And Why it Matters: World War II”s Moral Legacy—see also Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, for the beginning of a critical analysis of World War II as unjust and Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire, for a careful moral analysis of that war that by and large agrees with Stout’s sentiment).

Stout’s equivocation

After I came to the end of this lengthy volume’s helpful and challenging moral analyses, Stout’s final paragraph caught me up short: “Judging the Civil War is not a brief for pacifism. Rather, it is an endorsement of the idea of a just war. There are no ideal wars. Peace is the only ideal, and every war is at some level a perversion of it. In a less than ideal world, however, in which we sometimes labor under a moral imperative to war, we cannot afford to do less than demand a just war and a merciful outcome” (page 461).  Here, it’s almost as if Stout takes back pretty much the entire thrust of the rest of the book.

It is hard to imagine a war that could make a better case for having been “a moral imperative” than the Civil War. Yet, Stout effectively shows us that even with this moral imperative and under the leadership of surely the most morally sophisticated and courageous president the US has ever had, we still end up with a fundamentally unjust war. And one has to wonder if it is romantic and unrealistic to think it could have been otherwise.

Stout hints at, throughout, with his critical tone, that the Civil War could have followed jus in bello principles. This seems questionable. Once a war is undertaken, it seems inevitable that it will take on a win at all costs momentum (at least that is what has happened with actual wars). I wonder if, ultimately, we aren’t faced with only two genuine options—”blank check” (win at all costs, total war, do what the state asks for without serious question) or pacifism (simply saying no, whether because one believes in principle that war is always unacceptable or because one recognizes that in actual history since we cannot hope to have a “just war” we must say no).

If the “just war theory” has any teeth at all (cf. John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust), it must lead to saying no to unjust wars.  If this most justifiable of wars was unjust, what’s the alternative to pacifism? “Judging the Civil War” should indeed be a “brief for pacifism.” Humanity has created this terrible tool (total war) that has over and over shown itself to be fundamentally immoral, incapable of genuine justice. We have no moral alternative but to reject it, once and for all.

It seems to me that if the just war analysis actually is going to play a role is shaping our moral response to particular wars, there has to be the possibility that we would weigh the evidence and conclude that a war is unjust. And if we determine that a war is unjust, we would then oppose it in whatever form is possible. That is, if we are asked to participate in an unjust war, we say no. If we conclude that a war from the past was unjust, we do not allow that war to help justify preparing for or participating in other wars. If we apply the just war theory to actual life, I think we must be open to the possibility that it will return one negative evaluation of particular wars after another. That is, if we are honest in our just war thinking we should be open to concluding that every war—past, present, future—is, when the evidence is weighed, unjust. If our honest applying of just war criteria leads us to the conclusion that wars are invariably unjust then, in actuality, judging these wars does become a brief for pacifism.

I am grateful for Stout’s book, though I remain deeply disconcerted by his closing words. However, even if he seems unwilling to stay with the implications of his best insights, he has given us a rich and troubling account of a crucial time in the history of our country and indeed the world. Hopefully, many will learn from this account and a few, at least, will be willing to take Stout’s analysis a few necessary steps further and indeed use it as brief for pacifism—humanity’s only hope.

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7 thoughts on “A moral analysis of America’s civil war: A response to Harry Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation [Civil War #9]

  1. In my opinion, the Civil War was not just for three reasons but I have no clue if my thinking follows the cannons of the just war theory. First, the manner in which the war was conducted was immoral, especially on the part of the North, secondly the Union was voluntary, and therefore Lincoln had no right to compel the union to stay together. His Hobbsian notions to the contrary that a state was like a county of the union rather than a sovereign entity. Finally Lincoln freed the slaves as a tactic of war and the goal of the war was not to abolish slavery, so one cannot claim the role of justice warrior for Lincoln. I would also add that I am skeptical of applying the just war, no matter how appealing to right wrongs. The just war always seemed to me to be a form of self defense of ones people under attack as opposed to a warrant for moral crusading outside the boundaries of survival and self defense.

  2. One often-ignored way the Civil War was unjust on the South’s side was General Lee’s continuation of the war after he knew it was lost. As I wrote in my book, The Missing Peace (2004): “By early November 1864, after Lincoln’s election to a second term destroyed prospects for a more flexible Federal administration, Lee knew for a near certainty that the defeat of his army was inevitable. Yet Lee continued to fight on for five more months, absorbing huge losses among his own men and extending the term of devastation that northern troops were wreaking on the South elsewhere. Lee’s expressed reason for surrendering on April 9, 1865–to avoid excessive ‘sacrifice of life’–would have been valid twenty-one months earlier. Lee’s persistence in sacrifice for what he knew was a lost cause satisfied the code of honor and won approval in history books and biographies. But the price of honor was inhumane.” –Jim Juhnke

  3. Once you’ve justified killing lots of people, any high-minded ideals such as JWT soon go out the window. It all then boils down to “we’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys, so anything we do to achieve victory is good.” You could analyze pretty much any war and see that happening.

    The only real use of JWT I’ve seen in my lifetime is ironically by President Trump, who generally appears to be among the least moral of our leaders. But there was no question of full scale war in the instance. I don’t remember the details but Iran committed some act which Trump thought needed a response. He planned and ordered a military response, but then cancelled it, cited the proportionality element of JWT. He said the deaths the response would have caused were not proportionate to what Iran did. This had been seen as a tit-for-tat, not as part of a real war, which made it easier.

  4. I appreciate this in-depth review, Ted. It further enlightens me on the Civil War, which I know too little about. I believe I recall reading something of yours previously where you discussed how slavery, apart from the Civil War, might have been able to be ended throughout the United States (including a potentially separate Confederacy, if it were allowed to break away). If you do have some commentary on this, can you point us to it? Or to something by another writer(s) to that effect?

    Related to this, my sense is that we, as a nation and a society of nations worldwide, need to do a LOT more work on how to deal with the root causes of wars. That is, working on “real time” problem situations. Combine this with determined use of all suitable tools to avert warfare and promote alternatives to the use violence in furthering even a just cause. (Nonviolent protest, movement toward the reachable goal of truly “deliberative democracy” within our current constitutional structure, e.g.)

    One need not even commit to “pacifism” to help make this priority switch a reality…. Find more and more ways to advance peace and justice such that wars have no “just cause” in the first place.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Howard. I really agree with you about the need to “deal with the root causes of war.” It shouldn’t require a pacifist commitment to see this. The thing is, though, that when one holds the option of war as a possibility, it may start as a “last resort” but over time evolves into something you must plan for ahead of time if you’re going to ready for the “last resort.” At that point, the war spirit seems to take over and the idea of a “last resort” becomes a mere formality.

      I don’t have any writing, mine or others, to point you to that develops the what if possibility of ending slavery without the Civil War. My argument is that the Civil War did not really work to end white supremacy and other destructive elements of the slave system—and it was enormously costly to boot. The lesson for me is not so much to figure what alternative would have worked better (though that would be an interesting thought experiment) as to recognize how bad the Civil War was and to quit using it as a justification for our preparing for war.

      1. Thanks, Ted. Your point is well taken.

        The “what other option” question re. both Revolutionary and Civil Wars I do think is important as a “thought experiment”. It COULD perhaps lead to a more realistic view about the “necessity” of these, along with other wars.

      2. I do agree, Howard. I think reflecting on how things could have been different helps show that none of these wars were inevitable and alternatives always existed.

        One of the big questions I have about the Civil War is what would have happened if the South had not initiated the war at Ft. Sumter. At least a couple of the Confederacy’s top leaders opposed the attack. They thought that the North was not unified and that it was quite possible that if the South could be patient, the North would let them go.

        Walter Wink has a fascinating essay on what he calls “the providence of evil”—how so many times it seems that evil gets lucky breaks, as it were. The beginning of the Civil War seems like a good example of this kind of “providence.”

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