Historic photo of civil two war soldiers, one sitting on the ground with his arm in a sling

In Review

Conduct Unbecoming, and Much Worse

“The Sick Soldier,” a photograph, circa 1863, by Matthew Brady. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. CC0 1.0

By Iain MacLean

In the not-too-recent past, news of war, or rumors of war, might have reported only military and political analyses of each conflict. Today, we are likely to hear ideological or religious explanations for particular conflicts as well. Rarely will we hear a moral analysis. The moral dimension, often assumed, forms the central thesis of this, Harry Stout’s latest work.

In Upon the Altar of the Nation, Stout, the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History at Yale University, moves his attention from colonial religious history to the epochal event in modern American history, the American Civil War. This was a war unlike any fought before in America. More than 620,000 died and 470,000 were wounded. There were probably more than 50,000 (primarily Southern) civilian casualties and 100,000 women widowed. The numbers of combatants killed in battles such as Antietam or the struggles around Cold Harbor marked new heights of death and destruction. To paraphrase the text, technology had outstripped strategy and commanders seemed slow to adapt, sending serried ranks of men into battle against entrenched rifle and artillery fire, with predictable consequences. As the casualties mounted, tactics shifted, and civilians, farms, food production, transportation, and communication lines all came under attack—and the strategy of the modern total war was implemented. This strategy provided the example for many twentieth-century wars. For instance, in implementing a scorched-earth policy against the Afrikaners in Southern Africa in 1900, the British general Lord Kitchener (hero of Khartoum), acknowledged his debt to Union general William Tecumseh Sherman’s Atlanta campaigns.

Stout recognizes that he is moving in new territory, territory in fact that has its own legions of authorities and publications, well over 100,000 by a recent estimate. Stout acknowledges his debt to these authorities, noting his agreement and differences where appropriate. But he is attempting something different from the many military and political histories of this pivotal American event: he has produced both a history and an ethical treatise on the theory of just war. The history is laid out in a well-integrated account of the political and military stages of the war, while he constructs the ethical analysis through extensive quotations from both the popular and the religious presses, in the North and in the South. Specifically through the latter, the religious presses, Stout seeks to discern the Christian, or the institutional church’s, stance on just war and the just conduct of war. Disconcertingly, he discovers that neither the North nor the South—or, more specifically, the Christian churches in the North and the South—paid much attention to such ethical issues as they, in the grip of a profound “cultural captivity,” expressed patriotism for the Union, or, if Southern, expressed patriotism in terms of the rights of states to secede and to defend themselves against Northern atheism and deism.

Stout sets out the ethical principles of just war theory from Augustine and Aquinas through to the present (Michael Walzer, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and James Turner Johnson), focusing on the two principles of jus ad bellum and jus in bello. The former principle addresses the justification for going to war, while the latter addresses the conduct of the war itself. Stout’s thesis argues that while both North and South had justification for going to war, both ultimately failed dismally in preserving the justness of prosecuting the war—with greater blame attributed to the North and to President Lincoln. Stout demonstrates that both the proportion and discrimination principles of just war theory were ignored—both by the excessive levels of death and destruction and by the failure to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. Through the book’s chronological presentation, Stout traces how both these jus in bello principles were overwhelmed by events—by mounting battlefield casualties for limited tactical gains, or, in the case of discrimination, deliberately overruled by Lincoln as part of a strategy of total war to secure victory for the Union. What is surprising is not so much the political and military stratagems, most of which are by now well known, but the responses of Christians and Christian churches to these terrible events. It is also rather disconcerting to learn that Lincoln was the principal mover in abandoning the old West Point code of honor, which forbade attacks on noncombatants, and moved his generals to a strategy that ultimately targeted civilians.

The primary sources Stout so generously uses—letters, newspaper editorials, and, in particular, sermons—clearly show how each side identified its cause with truth, righteousness, and, indeed, with God. Soldiers falling in battle became martyrs upon their respective nations’ altars. Building on the work of recent religious historians, such as Gordon Shattuck, Reid Mitchell, and Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Stout ably relates the military and the political to the religious. Both the South and the North understood their nations as chosen by God to perform specific missions in the world. The development of later American “civil religion” received new life through the Civil War.

Stout acknowledges the role that slavery and the abolition of slavery played in the conflict, but decides not to pursue the issue, since secession, not slavery, was the primary cause of the wars. Yet the issue of slavery had led to divisions within churches prior to the Civil War. The experiences and understanding of African Americans of both slavery and freedom are indicated, but not developed or expanded, and perhaps this is in recognition of the extensive and detailed work done in this field by the Genoveses and by, for example, David Howard Pitney.

This work’s primary focus, then, is on how the morality of the Civil War was understood by both sides, and Stout assumes that such morality, apart from being covered as a topic in some newspaper editorials, is to be found in religion. Thus, after providing concise military and political outlines of each stage of the conflict, Stout proceeds to indicate what each side held in the moral realm. His analysis of the differing ways in which religion (primarily Protestant Christianity) was understood in the North and in the South indicates positions that find eerie resonance today in conflicts over America’s role in the world and the role of religion in national politics and international affairs. Both sides, though in differing ways, regarded themselves as God’s chosen, complete with appointed leaders and a mission to fulfill. As casualties mounted, the dead became elevated to the rank of martyrs for their nation’s calling. A major source for Stout’s analyses is the printed jeremiads, typically preached by noted ministers, often on national days of fasting and prayer. Lincoln proclaimed three such days to Jefferson Davis’s ten. The Southern jeremiad evokes particular interest, since the Southern preachers seem to have picked up the mantle of the old New England Puritans and to have regarded the South as inheriting the vocation rejected by an apostate North.

This thorough and provocative study of the moral dimensions of the most important American war deserves a wide readership, since the issues raised are still present today. It also provides a model for pursuing ethical theory—thickly described in historical context, with the military and political dimensions clearly outlined before, during, and after each event. The conclusion that Stout reaches—that Christians, and the churches, seemed not to have a careful and critical ethical response to the war—is both the book’s contribution to Civil War scholarship and its most disturbing finding.

Despite all that this work addresses, some questions remain. Stout quotes extensively from printed sermons and religious op-ed pieces (in many cases noting circulation figures) to make his case. But surely what is also needed, for a moral stance, is an account of the official decisions of ecclesiastical bodies—or is it, to our greater discomfort, that none of the denominations pronounced officially on the war? Many of the old “mainline” denominations divided over the war, as, in fact, they had divided over the issue of slavery. Did the stance of the Roman Catholic Church, which never divided, differ from that of the Protestants?

In his prologue, Stout mentions and outlines the controversy and deadly conflict aroused by slavery and its legality in new states such as Kansas. He simply notes this, as he does the increasingly violent confrontations between citizens over the issue of slavery, but he does not evaluate these civil conflicts in moral terms—or were these conflicts simply criminal violations? In other words, this work raises the question of the institutional source of moral knowledge and reflection. Who decides what is right and wrong? While Lincoln is shown as ultimately rejecting the old West Point code of honor, this is not described (perhaps because this was a “gentleman’s code” existing as such before the recognition of international norms by the Geneva Conventions?). Stout demonstrates that the war was not conducted justly, but that “the right side won in spite of itself”—a conclusion with which we probably agree, though it leaves us open to the further question, when does might make right? Another troubling question follows: who, or which institution, is competent to make these moral judgments? The nation (and the world) remains divided today over those loci of moral authority.

Stout’s history is a remarkable and provocative work, one that must be read in times such as these, for it serves as its own jeremiad to us, the readers in the present, ever near to being offered upon the altars of differing nationalisms, and to our failure to address the issues of ethics in war.


Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, by Harry S. Stout. Viking, 576 pages, $29.95.

Iain S. MacLean, who received a doctorate of theology from HDS in 1996, is Associate Professor of Western Religious Thought at James Madison University. He is associate editor, with Gabriel Palmer Fernandez, of the Encyclopedia of Religion and War (Routledge, 2004).

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