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Edward J. Blum

Grapes of Wrath

A moral history of the Civil War.

When it came to race relations, Ruth Smith believed that she grew up in a progressive community. Her grandfather, so the family stories went, had hated slavery so much that he rushed to fight in the Civil War, and her church in Howard, Kansas taught that all people were created and loved by God. After college, Ruth trekked south to Alabama to teach at a school for African American women. There, her entire world was transformed. In the process of everyday living (with the occasional defense against Ku Klux Klan members), Ruth committed her life to social justice. She felt betrayed, though, by fellow white Christians because they so rarely stood against white supremacy.

Perhaps her most painful discovery took place on a visit to her home in Kansas. Ruth found her grandfather's notebook, in which he had recorded his feelings about the Civil War and his ethical transformation during it. "I had never been prejudiced for or against slavery," he wrote. "I had imbibed the idea that a professing Christian should not go to war to kill people, and I had decided to teach school and let the sinners fight." But his friends and minister altered his opinion. "To change my mind they quoted scripture and argued… . 'Christ said you must be subject to the laws… . We live in a government which is threatened destruction by an army… . Our government says we must protect our country.' " Ruth could hardly believe her eyes: Her grandfather's moral ruminations had little to do with slavery and much to do with a shift from Christian pacifism to belligerent patriotism.1

The cognitive dissonance Ruth experienced when she took up the notebook may be felt collectively by readers of Harry Stout's Upon the Altar of the Nation. This major reevaluation of the Civil War enlightens and entertains, shocks and saddens, tantalizes and troubles. Stout approaches the war in terms of morality and "just war theory," and he finds both sides lacking. Both the Union and the Confederacy may have read "the same Bible" and prayed "to the same God," as Abraham Lincoln said in his second Inaugural Address, but neither engaged seriously with the difficult moral questions of proportionality or discrimination. How much blood was reuniting the nation or obtaining independence worth? Should civilian farmers whose crops made their way to soldiers be held responsible for the conflict's longevity and hence targeted as combatants? Was it appropriate to teach children to glorify combat and generals? How ethical were field orders that shelled cities or federal directives that justified guerrilla tactics? These questions, often avoided during the war, drive Stout's study and make his work fresh, invigorating, and powerful.

Religious, political, intellectual, and artistic leaders offered chilling responses when they approached these ethical problems. When considering martial escalation, they repeated the same refrain: more death and more destruction. To justify the carnage, Americans North and South cast the conflict as sacred and elevated it to a cosmic plane. Gore became godly; war became worship; presidents became prophets; soldiers became saints; the nation's clergy became national cheerleaders; and blood became baptismal water. In this transformation, Stout locates the flowering of an American civil religion. A new patriotism created the United States as a mystical nation that deserved honor, praise, and worship and justified death and murder.

Stout traces the war from start to finish, beginning in the late 1850s and ending in the late 1860s. He finds neither side prepared morally for the start of the conflict. Since no one anticipated a long engagement, no one initiated a discussion about the ethics of the combat. At first, saving the "Union" offered sufficient justification in the North and defending the "homeland" in the South. By late 1862, however, Lincoln believed that the North needed a new ethical imperative to heighten the level of combat, and he crafted one. The Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in rebellious territories but did little to touch slavery still in existence in Union states, served as the moral level to sanctify total war. Now, northern troops would die not merely as saviors of the Union, but as cosmic warriors against the nation's greatest sin: slavery. Emancipation's limitations and northern white society's intense racism could be ignored, and northerners could believe they had obtained what novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren later termed a "Treasury of Virtue."2

Yet even emancipation could not legitimate a war against civilians. Both Lincoln and his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, struggled to encourage total war, while at the same time maintaining the appearance of ethical martial conduct. The Confederacy did an especially poor job on this front with such maneuvers as the Partisan Ranger Act of 1862, which legitimated guerrilla tactics. Highlighted in northern war reporting, southern terrorist organizations provided Lincoln further justification for military escalation. Then, with William Tecumseh Sherman, Lincoln found his man. Sherman brought total war with the spirit of an avenging angel. He blurred lines between southern civilians and southern combatants, and assailed both. In the process, he enlivened Confederate animosity for the North and helped further instill among southern whites a nascent "Religion of the Lost Cause," a southern civil religion that apotheosized the likes of Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. This sectional faith accepted defeat yet upheld the belief that God was on the side of the South.

With the end of the war, however, something mystical seems to have happened. Death gave birth as northern and southern whites alike learned that they were all Americans—or, more accurately, that all white folk were Americans. Stout concludes that the right side won, not because of the Union's justness, but in spite of its injustices.

Upon the Altar of the Nation is an impressive work. Stout immersed himself imaginatively in the world of mid-19th-century America, and he brings his reader into that realm: listening attentively in the offices of President Lincoln and President Davis and eavesdropping in the tents of generals; reading love letters from soldiers in the trenches and peering over the shoulders of the women who read those lines; sitting in the pews of northern churches and standing in the revivals of Confederate soldiers. And Stout has managed to contain his sweeping narrative of the war in a single volume, a feat that his distinguished predecessors Allan Nevins and Shelby Foote were unable to accomplish.

Stout's work is indebted to the just war ethics of Michael Walzer, the civil religion theory of Robert Bellah and John F. Wilson, and the nationalism concepts of Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle. Lurking behind the theoretical scene is Émile Durkheim, a founding father of sociology. In his magisterial Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1906), Durkheim claimed that religions and societies establish themselves in similar, if not identical, ways. A body of individuals affix emotional and psychological energy to a symbol or symbols—what Durkheim called totems—that come to represent the community. The totem eventually transcends the community and becomes the society's grand moral arbiter, distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad, clean from unclean, and hence regulating how the society should function. According to Stout, the Civil War provided the crucial historical moment when the United States unified itself around a set of sacred symbols, particularly the American flag, and created a nation. In essence, then, the war was America's true birth.

Stout also builds upon more than a decade of historical re-evaluation of religion and the Civil War that has altered significantly the terrain of Civil War scholarship. Gardiner Shattuck, Reid Mitchell, and Steven E. Woodworth have demonstrated the various ways religious beliefs influenced Confederate and Union soldiers, while Bryon Andreasen has drawn attention to "Christian Democrats" in the North. Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese have underscored the importance of Christian ideologies among Confederate élites, while Daniel Stowell and Paul Harvey have found vital links between religion and notions of freedom for whites and blacks. Yet Stout's work moves beyond this scholarship in crucial ways. Taking account of life on the battlefields, the ideas of politicians and ministers, the imaginations of writers and artists, and the feelings of thousands of men and women, Stout offers a comprehensive examination of the morality and justness of the war. What Bell Wiley did decades ago to uncover the everyday experience of common soldiers, Stout has done now to trace the ethical contours and inner spiritual meanings of the war.

There is so much within this ambitious work, so many elements that will fascinate and frustrate, that it feels almost immoral to argue with it. The chapters on children's literature and northern artwork are superb; the assessments of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural are riveting; and Stout's intrepid, albeit largely fruitless search for voices that wondered about the ethics of the war is sobering. But there is room to wonder about some of his paths and final destinations.

Most of the time, for instance, Stout relies on preachers or publishers from Richmond, Virginia—the capital of the Confederacy—to stand for southern whites in general. Certainly feelings in other southern areas differed, though. Further, Stout includes no discussion of the venture of northern white women into the South to teach among African Americans and to provide medical care for the troops. These "soldiers of light and love," as they were termed later, invaded the South with an ethical approach far different from that of Sherman and his minions of patriotic gore. For one of them, Marie Waterbury, her time among African Americans was a spiritual watershed. As she versed it:

No more talks about our Lord
No more searching for his word
No more longings for his grace
She hath seen him face to face.3

The ethical meanings of the war also seemed distinct for African Americans. Stout does an excellent job showing how the most immoral behavior was leveled at men and women of color and how a host of African Americans responded to the conflict. On at least one occasion, Confederate soldiers used black men as human shields, and in other instances Confederates massacred surrendering black soldiers. Yet there were moral elements within the Civil War that Stout neglects, in part because his breadth of research did not extend to the interviews with former slaves conducted in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration.

Despite the methodological pitfalls inherent in such memory-based narratives, within them one can discern hidden moral meanings during these momentous years. Black men and women remembered and told tales of reunited families, of women finally empowered to protect their bodies from rape, of aged men provided the right to carry canes and of young men the right to carry school primers. One African American man certainly viewed the chance to read and write as a holy element of the war: "These few lines will show that I am a new beginner. I will try, and do better… . Thank God I have a book now. The Lord has sent us books and teachers. We must not hesitate a moment, but go on and learn all we can."4 Seen from the perspective of African Americans, the morality of the war takes on a very distinct hue. American civil religion for black men and women, as David Howard-Pitney has shown, is perhaps one of the most creative and unappreciated elements of American religion, and the Civil War was a vital aspect in its formation.5

These critiques aside, Upon the Altar of the Nation is an extraordinary book. Historians, priests, ministers, politicians, ethicists, Civil War buffs, and anyone interested in morality and war should read it. Stout's central conclusions should be heeded: citizens and religious leaders must ask moral questions before engaging in war; they must demand moral accountability during war; and they must push for true justice at the end of war. Let us not leave it to our grandchildren or to scholars of future generations to debate the morality of the wars we start and know not how to finish.

Edward J. Blum is assistant professor of history at Kean University. He is the author of Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865–1898 (LSU Press) and coeditor of Vale of Tears: New Essays on Religion and Reconstruction (Mercer Univ. Press).

1. Ruth Smith, White Man's Burden: A Personal Testament (Vanguard Press, 1946), p. 217.

2. Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial (Random House, 1961).

3. M. Waterbury, Seven Years Among the Freedmen (T. B. Arnold, 1891).

4. Quoted in Edward J. Blum, Reforging the White Republic (LSU Press, 2005), p. 76.

5. David Howard-Pitney, The Afro-American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America (Temple Univ. Press, 1990).

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