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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 ...

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