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Monday, March 10, 2014

Was the Civil War Just?

This question is put to the test by Harry S. Stout in Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Penguin, 2006). The book was a game-changer for me; I do not know how a person can read it and not be affected.

Stout's intention is to provide the material that allows the reader to analyze the Civil War according to just war theory. He therefore retells the story of the Civil War in a way that brings to special prominence those events, decisions, policies, and (very importantly) administration and homefront rhetoric and rationale that are most relevant to that analysis. Stout spends fairly few pages propounding his own analysis, however, though the words he uses in the chronicle at times (like "bloodthirsty") give pretty strong hints about what he thinks. Nevertheless, the book is written in a way that allows the reader a good deal of latitude to draw their own conclusions from the story told.

This story is a gripping one, and I suspect that there are few people, including people quite knowledgable about the Civil War, who would not be surprised by it. I read of events I had never heard of before and encountered a large volume of homefront commentary, especially from clergy, that was entirely unfamiliar. Even events and decisions that were familiar to me took on a different light in Stout's portrayal.

One paragraph from this six-hundred-plus-page book sums up much of what struck me in it:
In a perverse jumble of conflicting agendas, the nation was convulsed by a war between a white, slaveholding Confederacy and a Northern Republican administration promoting emancipation to justify total war. For the administration, total war was the regrettable end and emancipation the means, while Democrats promoted conciliation with slavery and white supremacy as the end and peace the means. In a profound sense, white America was getting what it deserved [343].
Another theme that Stout persuasively lays out is his thesis that American civil religion was founded in the blood sacrifice of the Civil War. Although I am not convinced that there was no track laid to this destination through the blood sacrifice of the Revolution, I do believe that he basically proves his case. Paying attention to this tale Stout tells, one cannot escape a dawning realization of how un-Christian the national civil religion actually is, which makes it all the more pernicious since for many Americans there is no grasp that civil religion and Christianity are two different things, much less opposed to each other.

I do have a couple criticisms of Stout's book. One is that while he does a masterful job of providing the evidence by which one would judge whether there was jus in bello (justice in how the war was conducted), he shrugs off handling jus ad bellum (just cause), arguing that "secession is a moral issue with no moral criterion for a sure answer" (532). That seems to be a way of saying that we are not going to look at it because it is really tricky to figure out. But as Stout abundantly demonstrates, belief in the justice of the cause is the very thing that propelled both sides to commit all kinds of injustices. The matter cannot be blown off.

Secondly, Stout entirely ignores—does not even mention—the moral overtones of diverse approaches to Reconstruction 1863-65. This is a shame, because Reconstruction began while the war was still being fought, and crucial decisions pertaining to it were made by commanders in and around their campaigns. It also pertains to some of the very issues that Stout considers. One example of this consists of the moral and legal claims of enemy civilian property-holders versus the claim of a government to finance and supply its war effort versus the long-term social and material needs of freed slaves. Another example is whether it is moral (not to mention feasible) to annihilate a culture deliberately as a war aim when that culture is intimately bound to a socioeconomic immorality at the root of the origin of the war. I am not saying that these are easy questions; I am just saying that they are profoundly relevant.

These criticisms aside, however, this work is a triumph, especially if success is measured by how well it unsettles the reader. Last year on this blog I talked about the different ways and times that my posture has changed toward the Civil War. Reading Stout provoked the latest change on the list. Another paragraph by Stout neatly sums up why:
. . . in the process of writing this book it has become irrefutably clear to me that some moral judgments need to be made, judgments that most Americans have been reluctant to make. We have preferred a violent but glamorized and romantic Civil War. Military histories have focused on strategies and tactics and the sheer drama of battles in action. Political histories have focused—especially in the present—on slavery and emancipation, accounting the evil so complete and pervasive as to justify even murder. In this sense, Lincoln's war strategy was and remains genius. That does not make it right [535].
It is an awesome achievement that through the Civil War and its immediate aftermath slavery was abolished and African-Americans became acknowledged as Americans. But I can no longer consider the war to be just on either side nor ignore or sentimentalize the incinerated landscapes and streams of blood.

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