February 11, 2006
The North, the South, and God

By Ross Douthat

The Civil War was Christendom’s last religious war. Not the last war in which both combatants invoked the blessings of the Christian God but the last in which so many people on both sides believed themselves to be dying not only for blood and soil or treaty obligations, but for a point of Christian principle. If the North had the better of the argument over whether Christianity demanded slavery’s end, Southerners had perhaps more fervor in their conviction that it didn’t. And both sides saw their work as a correction of America’s insufficiently religious founding — the North implicitly, in its faith-infused campaign to wipe out the original sin of slaveholding; the South explicitly, to the point of appealing to “the favor and guidance of Almighty God” in its refashioned Constitution, correcting the error of the “deists and atheists” who wrote the original.

The North won the war, but both sides saw their hopes at least partially fulfilled. Slavery was ended, but the religious rebirth that the South had sought was accomplished as well, albeit perhaps not in the fashion Southerners had prayed for. America was refounded, in a sense, and the second founding was more theological than the first, explicitly defining America as a God-chosen people, a new Israel that like its predecessors embodied humanity’s hope and history’s redemption. In the political theology of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and in the civic religion he helped inspire, America is both the longed-for messiah and the humanity he came to judge and save: We were chastised by a just God for our sins, the better to rise to save the world.

The rhetoric worked, the theology took hold, and as a result Americans tend to see the Civil War through a Lincolnian glass, brightly — with malice toward none and charity for all, and with equal affection for righteous Yanks and noble Rebs, both sides dying that we might all be free. There is grandeur in this view, but dishonesty as well — and not only because it long allowed the South to wallow in nostalgia and the North in triumphalism while the work of emancipation was left half-done. It also allowed the national memory to elide the specific excesses of the Civil War. The judgment of the Lord may have come upon the United States in the 1860s, as Lincoln had it, but there were many individual judgments as well, which set homes ablaze, sent soldiers to certain death, tolerated rape and murder, and abandoned prisoners of war to hellish concentration camps. The time for recriminations is long past, but the time for an accounting isn’t.

Such an accounting is what the Yale historian Harry S. Stout attempts in his Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, which takes up the question of wartime justice — not the ultimate justice of the North’s cause or the South’s, but the more immediate day-to-day concerns of orders given, raids carried out, and atrocities committed. It takes up, as well, the question of how leaders on both sides dealt with issues of jus in bello and whether, in the heat of the bloodiest war in American history, there were any people willing to take a dispassionate view of the conflict, to speak out against their own side’s abuses, and to question the assumption that God was entirely on one side or the other.

The answer, to Stout’s seeming surprise though probably not the reader’s, is almost universally no. The religious language of the war, in particular, was nearly always the language of the jeremiad, in which God guarantees victory to the righteous and ruin to their enemies, and battlefield success is linked to piety and failure to apostasy. The preachers of the Civil War era, North and South, were light-years removed from the presumption toward pacifism that dominates contemporary religious discourse, and nearly every pulpit — as Stout demonstrates in often-exhaustive detail — rang with appeals to heaven for victory and with assurances that God smiled on the preservation of the Union or its dissolution, the abolition of slavery or its extension to the Pacific.

Stout calls this the “cultural captivity of the churches,” and it’s one of the major themes of the book, returned to repeatedly as the war — and his account of it, which recapitulates at unnecessary length the work of previous historians — drags on and the North’s jeremiads grow more confident, the South’s more desperate and apocalyptic. A second theme is the brutal reality that these jeremiads ignored, both the specific war crimes — rapine and murder, the inhumane conditions in both Confederate and Union prisons, the criminal stupidity of the commanders who sent men to die at Marye’s Heights and Gettysburg and Cold Harbor — and the general policies that made them possible. In particular, Stout trains his fire on Lincoln’s decision to abandon the old West Point code of military conduct in favor of a more latitudinarian policy, one that countenanced seizing civilian property and destroying civilian homes. This willingness to expand the war beyond the battlefield, he argues, and the Confederate willingness to respond in kind, marked the beginning of the modern concept of total war. The Lincolnian policy stopped short of allowing assaults on civilians themselves, but its logic led in a darker direction, and in the wreckage of Georgia lay the seeds of the twentieth century’s wartime horrors.

This is a debatable argument but a compelling one. Compelling, too, is Stout’s detailed explication of how the jeremiad gave way to Lincolnian political theology, how the civil religion of contemporary America was born in the charnel house of Shiloh and Antietam. But his writing is clumsy and repetitious, and his themes are often left half-developed while he rushes on to the next battle, the next jeremiad, and the next moment when, more in sorrow than in anger, he can point out that yet again Yankees and Confederates failed to live up to their own standards, failed to admit any moral nuance, failed to see the conflict as anything but black and white.

It’s not that this analysis is wrong, precisely, but it feels incomplete and at times obtuse. Stout judges the Civil War’s actors, but he doesn’t work hard enough to understand them — and in particular, by deliberately tabling the question of jus ad bello, he fails to grapple with the underlying realities that made once-unthinkable slaughter and savagery seem not only necessary but just. The bloodiness of the conflict, the bellicosity of the preachers, the suffering that the Northern armies eventually wreaked on the crumbling South — none of these is explicable without a consideration of how high the stakes seemed to be on both sides, how firmly each believed that not only their own nation’s survival but civilization itself depended on the outcome.

Upon the Altar of the Nation is written in a tone of above-the-fray moralism, and the condescension grows wearisome. Yes, terrible things were done and reckless things were said, but they were said and done by people very much in the fray, people who felt that they were engaged in a world-historical struggle — and who were right to think so. The North fought to preserve the modern world’s first experiment in democratic self-government and to rid that experiment of a great evil; the South fought to preserve its own political order and its beloved way of life, however tainted both may seem to us now. The crimes were inexcusable, but they were perhaps an inevitable result of the sense that more was at stake in the struggle than in almost any war before or since.

So, for instance, when Stout praises an ineffectual figure like George McClellan for objecting to Lincoln’s decision to take the war to the Confederate infrastructure — to farms and towns and homes — he skirts the fact that McClellan was eager to criticize Lincolnian tactics precisely because he didn’t think of the war in the same terms as Lincoln, didn’t consider victory as necessary or defeat as terrible. Or again, when Stout remarks sorrowfully that “no moralists moved” to speak out against the terrible bloodletting of Grant’s Virginia campaign, he leaves unresolved the problem that such bloodletting won the war for the Union and did more to remove the evil of slavery than all the “highest principles of Christian civilization” that McClellan championed and Lincoln and Grant compromised.

In this, Stout sidesteps the central paradox of the conflict and of many conflicts since — namely, that the more moral a war seems to be at the outset, the greater the moral compromise it may eventually require. A war entered for limited, national-interest aims can be fought in a limited fashion and brought to an end once certain objectives have been attained. But when you heighten the moral purpose of a war, you raise the stakes as well, to the point where any conclusion short of victory feels a failure and any means appears to justify a triumphant end.

Upon the Altar of the Nation repeatedly founders on this contradiction. Stout wants to praise Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, while blistering the North for its refusal to abandon the “central cultural principle of white supremacy and the politics of apartheid.” Yet this fine-sounding moralism is in tension with his eagerness to criticize Lincoln for allowing the old West Point code to be suspended, to blame Grant for never blinking at the cost in blood of his “if it takes all summer” strategy, to condemn Sherman for the suffering sown by his March to the Sea. What Stout never seems to consider is that it was precisely because the war changed in the Northern imagination from a limited struggle to a moral crusade — for emancipation, at least, if not equality — that it eventually seemed necessary not only to defeat the South but to conquer it, to end not only a government but a way of life. The more noble the war’s purposes, the greater the necessity to carry on to victory, no matter the cost — and the greater the necessity, too, that the South should not only lose but howl. The excesses of Sherman’s March to the Sea were implicit in the logic of the Emancipation Proclamation and the noble phrases of the Second Inaugural.

This paradox extends beyond the battlefields of the Civil War to any conflict that seeks a kind of cosmic justice or takes on the flavor of a crusade. The ends don’t justify the means, but if your ends seem important enough — the end of slavery in the nineteenth century, the defeat of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan in the twentieth — well, which leader is prepared to sacrifice jus ad bello for the sake of jus in bello and lose a greater justice for a smaller one? If you’re fighting to “end all wars” or to “end evil” — to borrow one of the more sweeping definitions of our present conflict — then doesn’t every weapon need to be considered, every measure allowed?

These are the questions that American policymakers have been wrestling with for more than a century, from tr and Wilson to lbj and George W. Bush. The debates over Hiroshima and Dresden are the extreme cases, of course, but the paradox is visible as well in the daily compromises and contradictions of our occupation of Iraq, where our sweeping, idealistic goals have dirtied our hands more than, say, the more cold-blooded First Gulf War ever did. On a case-by-case basis, the abuses on display in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were of course avoidable — but in the aggregate, tactics that violate “the highest principles of Christian civilization” are an almost-inevitable part of any occupation, any counterinsurgency, any serious attempt to reshape a dysfunctional society.

Our occupations of Japan and Germany 50 years earlier were cleaner, but we had done to those countries what Sherman did to Georgia, only more so — destroying not only armies but entire societies, which once flattened were easier to rebuild. It’s this reality that led Max Boot to remark recently that we might have been better off in Iraq had the initial invasion been more brutal. Instead, he noted, “the U.S. was so sparing in its use of force that many Baathists never understood they were beaten. The butcher’s bill we dodged early on is now being paid with compound interest.”

This point of view feels unacceptable and even odious, since accepting its implications would mean abandoning the idea of jus in bello entirely and enthroning in its place a kind of bloody-minded consequentialism. Yet the seeming alternatives — an unblinking realpolitik, a sweeping pacifism, or the kind of purer-than-thou idealism that Stout offers, with its lack of realism about the costs and necessities of war — are hardly more palatable.

A decade after Appomattox, faced with a situation similar to ours in Iraq — a society half-reshaped and restive, a low-level insurgency, a mounting financial cost — the North elected to abandon Reconstruction, return power to the defeated slaveholders, and forsake the people it had fought a war to free. For a long time they were praised for it by pro-Southern historiographers who saw Reconstruction the way the Left sees the Iraqi occupation, as an overzealous attempt to impose a way of life by force on an unwilling culture. Later it was pointed out that Reconstruction was hardly worse than the apartheid that came after and that perhaps the North should have stayed longer and done more to root out the pathologies of the conquered South.

The choice is no easier in hindsight than it was in 1876. Nor are other wartime dilemmas: People are still arguing over Hiroshima 50 years later; they will still be arguing over Iraq a century hence. Just-war theory is a noble attempt to ease the tensions between Christian ethics and the nature of warfare, but neither Christians nor armchair statesmen should pretend that these tensions don’t exist. The choice between justice and necessity, or a greater justice and a smaller one, is perhaps the most difficult that any nation faces, and where we differ on which end to choose we would do well to heed Lincoln’s admonition and judge not lest we be judged.

Ross Douthat is an associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion).

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