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Harry S. Stout

Baptism in Blood

The Civil War and the creation of an American civil religion

It is a truism of American history that the Civil War stands as the American phenomenon, an event of transcendent significance. If the current list of books, movies, and roundtables is any indication, that won't change anytime soon. At some profound level the Civil War is American history.

Tracking a phenomenon is one thing, explaining it is another. "Phenomenon" by definition also implies a cultural process that goes beyond extraordinary "events" or "facts" (though these are foundational to it) to ongoing and ever-shifting perceptions, apprehensions, and collective memory. In this sense, the phenomenon of the Civil War may or may not correspond to the actual "realities" of the war itself; it is something constructed from events and is selective in its memory. Inevitably, phenomena are presentist and self-nurturing. To capture them, the historian needs to move beyond the facts of the past to the legacies they leave and to the ways they have been remembered in subsequent history.

But first the facts. We begin, as most snapshots of the Civil War do, with the numbers. Phenomena do not come out of nothing; they are not national fantasies with no basis in fact. Numbers count, and the Civil War brings some impressive statistics that were sufficiently horrendous to have involved virtually every living American, North and South.

While Civil War enlistments and casualties cannot be known exactly, there are several reliable approximations. In compiling his indispensable chronology of the Civil War, E. B. Long estimates that total enlistments in the Federal forces numbered 2,778,304, including about 189,000 African Americans, in a population of 18,810,123. Confederate forces numbered 1,400,000 in a white population of 6,500,000. In addition, there were slightly less than 4 million slaves. Of these soldiers, 623,026 died and 471,427 were wounded for a total casualty count of 1,094,453. In breaking the numbers down by each "nation," Federal army deaths totaled 360,222, of which 110,100 were killed in battle and 224,580 of disease in camp. Confederate deaths totaled 94,000 killed in battle and 164,000 from disease for a total of 258,000 dead.

The vast majority of these battlefield deaths (perhaps 90 percent) were caused by small-arms fire, and a sizeable proportion of the victims were still in their teens and early twenties. The youngest we know of was thirteen. In Civil War battles approximately 15 percent of the wounded subsequently died of their wounds, while many of the survivors lost limbs and later suffered profound bouts of post-traumatic stress syndrome. These combined casualty totals, in a total population of only 30 million, almost equal losses from all other American wars together. If translated into an equal proportion of the current U.S. population, the casualty rate would total 10 million American soldiers and countless civilians. Without exaggeration one can say that in terms of death the Civil War was America's most appalling act of human destruction.

Another index of the Civil War badly in need of further study is civilian casualties. American historians and demographers have not worked very hard to track the short-term and long-term casualty rates of war among innocent (mostly Confederate) civilians. Historian James McPherson estimates that a minimum of 50,000 civilians died of war-related causes, while the numbers dying more gradually from disease, malnutrition, and suicide have not yet been estimated. Assuming that 30 percent of military fatalities were married, we are left with a figure of 108,000 women widowed by the war itself.1

For the moral critic this absence of sustained investigation is especially troubling because treatment of non-combatants is one determinant of the justness or unjustness of war. Just war theorists from Augustine and Aquinas to Michael Walzer and James Turner agree that one cardinal principal of just war is the protection of innocents.2 This means that they may not be deliberately targeted, and that soldiers in the field take greater risks for themselves if it means lesser risks for civilians. The prospects of "collateral damage," though sometimes inadvertent, are darkly troubling. That is why the protection of innocents must have the highest priority. Otherwise the just defender is reduced to the same evil status as the unjust aggressor, that is, the status of murderer. We shall return to this problem later.

Beyond the killing and destruction, the Civil War was also about transformative achievements and consequences that forever altered the landscape of American politics and society. At its heart, the Civil War was all about nationalism, and whose nationalism would prevail. Would there be two nations, each a republic, or one union? Neither side was wrong in this aspect of the conflict, but only one side would prevail.

The victor's identity, however, would determine far more than political boundaries. With Northern victory, three consequences for the nation and the world were especially momentous: the destruction of slavery, the elimination of secession as a sectional option, and the central place of the war in nineteenth-century world history. Of the three, universal emancipation looms largest. The liberation of four million enslaved Americans of color is surely the most courageous and praiseworthy—if initially unintended—consequence of the war. Lincoln was cautious on abolition and eventually turned emancipationist largely as a "war measure" to promote a Northern victory. What began as Abraham Lincoln's limited Emancipation Proclamation grew by war's end to a Constitutional amendment forever outlawing the institution from American soil. Whatever Lincoln's motives in issuing his proclamation—and they were mixed—the long-term effect was liberation for millions of innocents who had suffered for centuries in a holocaust of their own.

The second great consequence of the Civil War was the assertion of rule by law and the end of secessionist ideology. Democracies have profound difficulty with the issue of secession. While "liberal" democratic theorists address almost every conceivable dimension of freedom, individual rights, and the protection of minority groups, the question of secession hardly ever comes up. In fact, as ethicist Allen Buchanan points out, it is one of the greater ironies of liberal thought that in all the trumpeting of individual rights, the individual's most basic right of all—to join or not to join or to secede—is rarely addressed.3 The consequences are too threatening. Did Norway have a right to secede from Sweden? Does Quebec have a right to secede from Canada? Ultimately, secession is a moral question without a formula to discover a definitive moral answer. Did the South have a right to secede? Yes and no. Only a civil war would settle the issue once and for all. Whatever else the defeated Confederacy may have retained after defeat and reunion, they never again mounted a serious cry for secession. Nor has anyone else.

Outside of its effects on American society, the Civil War had international ramifications that we parochial American historians have been slow to pick up on but which cannot be gainsaid. In international terms, the Civil War represented a compelling example to the world that a liberal, democratic nationalism could endure as effectively as divine right monarchies or despotic tyrannies. And this, at a time when liberalism and democracy were not the presumed choice of Western society that they are today. The American Revolution proved a free people could revolt. But it could not prove they could hold together. Only time and severe internal challenge could demonstrate the immutability of a democratic revolution. That required a second revolution—a civil war.4

As momentous as the achievements and consequences of the Civil War were in their time and place, it is important to recognize that they did not render necessary or inevitable the subsequent status of the war as the American phenomenon; other events or movements might have enjoyed that status. In his book Crucible of War, historian Fred Anderson makes a compelling case for the Seven Years' War as Euro-America's first "world war," and, far more than the American Revolution, a transformative event "that decisively shaped American history, as well as the histories of Europe and the Atlantic world in general. . .."5 Among other things, the Seven Years' War explains why this essay is written in English and not en francais. World War II could also occupy the hallowed status of the defining American phenomenon as its 16 million servicemen and over 300,000 killed decisively inaugurated the "American Century." But neither these, nor many other contenders, have displaced the Civil War in the American consciousness. To understand why, we must place statistics and geo-political realities alongside subsequent memory and our collective consciousness as a nation-state.

Something in the past of the Civil War speaks profoundly to this present. But what? Lying at the center of the remembered past of the Civil War, I would suggest, is a tragedy and an epiphany. The tragedy is the legacy of ongoing racism and the politics of white supremacy, and the epiphany is the victorious triumph of a new American religion—an American civil religion.

First the tragedy. If the Civil War had the salutary effect of abolishing chattel slavery once and for all, it failed to counter racism at all. While the realities of civil war produced universal emancipation, its preserved memory erased many of the moral gains intended by some abolitionists. Chief of these was racial equality. Both during the war and later in white American memory, the Civil War was never about racial equality. President Lincoln's favored solution to emancipated slaves was colonization in Central America or Liberia. In remarks to a gathering of "colored men" on August 14, 1862, Lincoln pushed his scheme based on the "fact" that "but for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other." The white men who suffered, Lincoln continued, would not want to live with black people because they were not equal: "even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race."6 The Civil War freed the slave legally, only to enslave him again economically, politically, and residentially. As David Potter wrote thirty-five years ago, "the issue as it stood at the time [of the Civil War], unfortunately, was less a question whether the Negro should have status as an equal than a dispute over what form his inferior status should take."7 By failing to embrace the cause of equality, the Civil War produced a nationalism and a union that would require a revolution in civil rights to resolve its central dilemma—a resolution that is still far from being realized.

In his remarkable book Race and Reunion, David W. Blight describes what white and black Americans chose to remember about the Civil War and, equally important, what they "forgot." Remembered was the bravery and camaraderie of white soldiers and home fronts on both sides of the conflict. "Freedom," "honor," "duty," and the "brotherhood" of warriors rang loudly at Memorial Day parades and veterans' reunions. But it was an attenuated freedom in which the forces of white supremacy and white sectional reunion overwhelmed the emancipationist vision of equality in the national culture and its collective memory. To give just one example, African American veterans were not welcome to the parades—they would have ruined the reunions. For Blight, this marks the central "tragedy" of the Civil War: "The sectional reunion after so horrible a civil war was a political triumph by the late nineteenth century, but it could not have been achieved without the resubjugation of many of those people whom the war had freed from centuries of bondage. This is the tragedy lingering on the margins and infesting the heart of American history. . ."8 Surely the forced deportation of indigenous Acadians in the Seven Years' War and the Japanese internment camps in World War II lent tragic dimensions to those events, but neither came to define the American tragedy as racism has done. Current debates over reparations only underscore memories that won't go away.

Now the epiphany. As a direct consequence of the Civil War, religion had to be remembered differently from its traditional associations with Christian and Jewish denominations and historic faiths. A new and triumphant American religion appeared, not in the sectarian guise of new denominations like Mormons or Adventists, but in a more universalized civil religion whose sacred claims embraced all Americans identically. By "civil religion," I have in mind a sacralization of the nation state, which can simply be described as "nation worship"—a form of patriotism that trumps morality and spirituality in times of crisis and violent upheaval. The prophet—later messiah—of this civil religion was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln first glimpsed the profound religious dimensions of the Civil War and went on to embrace it as his "political religion."9 Subsequent generations continue to pay homage to the national faith. In the doctrines of this emergent civil religion, Lincoln himself is remembered as the "Great Emancipator" whose "martyrdom" on Good Friday sealed his identity as America's messiah. The Declaration of Independence and its creed that "all men are created equal" becomes the American Scripture. The most sacred battlefield resides at Gettysburg, not because it was the most pivotal (Antietam deserves that distinction), but because in American memory that is where Lincoln preached America's greatest sermon.10 And America's national destiny assumes millennial urgency as "the last best hope of earth."

Now, strictly speaking, I'm not revealing anything new. It is customary for historians and sociologists of American civil religion to begin their narrative with the creation of the American republic and its amalgamated "civil millennialism" blending republican ideology with Christian millennialism.11 But such origins, though correct, obscure the baptism in blood that a full-blown civil religion would require of its citizens. They fail to explain exactly how the American civil religion was incarnated.

Above all, they fail to look into the inner spaces of war. Only as casualties rose to unimaginable levels did it dawn on people that something mystically religious was taking place, a sort of massive sacrifice on the national altar. In the Revolutionary and antebellum periods of American history, traditional faiths and denominations superceded civil religion or its linguistic equivalent, "patriotism." Evangelicalism was the reigning faith of the day, with powerful support from Catholic and Jewish immigration groups, all practicing their faith with some suspicion of one another and some moral antagonism towards government and the halls of power. Traditional religious faiths knew no geographic boundaries or common ideologies. Their sphere was moral and spiritual; their means voluntary. They remained protected by the separation of church and state, a doctrine designed to protect the churches and not the state from intruding on the turf of the other. The 1850s would mark the high water mark of clerical power and voluntarism independent of the state.12

Whatever triumphs churches enjoyed with antebellum revivals and massive social reforms, they would lose in the Civil War. Historian George Fredrickson shows how the Civil War would undo the sovereignty of the Northern clergy with a prophetic sphere of its own. Northern churches willingly—even enthusiastically—became subjugated to government priorities, and clergy gave way to politicians.13 The same was true of the Confederacy. One looks in vain for any sustained moral criticism of war policies and conduct on either side. On both sides, all were awash in a sea of patriotism.

Whatever religious and moral quibbles existed before Sumter disappeared after the artillery assault in Charleston Harbor (though no lives were lost). In both nations, patriotism displaced religious and partisan loyalties. Southern unionists were effectively silenced as were Northern peace advocates. After a private meeting with President Lincoln, an ailing Stephen Douglas renounced party differences between Republicans and Democrats and threw his support behind Lincoln and the looming war. In words reprinted throughout the nation Douglas declared: "Every man must be for the United States or against it; there can be no neutrals in this war—only patriots and traitors."14 Lincoln's secretary, John Hay, later recalled:

The day before, we had appeared hopelessly divided. But before the smell of powder disappeared from Charleston Harbor, the flag floated from every newspaper office in the country. From the opposite poles of opinion men thronged to the call of their country. Long-estranged enemies stood shoulder to shoulder. … The coldest conservatives sprang forward to the front and the wildest radicals kept time with the new music. Douglas and Lincoln joined hands. Millard Fillmore put on the uniform of a militiaman, and Wendell Phillips stood for the first time in his life under the Star and Stripes, and "welcomed the tread of Massachusetts men marshaled for war."15

As flags flew everywhere, becoming the subject of sermons, the center of Northern and Southern religiosity shifted decisively away from the churches toward their nations.16 Individual sectarian life continued alongside an undoubted personal piety, but now it was a Union piety or a Confederate piety that transcended any common personal faith the two nations might share. The cultural captivity of churchmen and churches explains why the greatest sermon produced in the Civil War was delivered by a politician, not a minister, and in far fewer words than most ministers then preferred. Abraham Lincoln was not only America's greatest politician, he was its greatest preacher, and in the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, he offered a gospel for the republic that has proved enduring.17

As Union and Confederate armies massed and destroyed land and communities, the silence of churches, denominations, and clergy was shocking—a testimony to the enormous power of patriotism and civil religion to gag moral inquiry. From Sumter on, the flag covered a world of sins. The notions of "separate spheres" or "the spirituality of the church," which insisted that ministers not "preach politics," were reduced to empty rhetoric during the course of the war.

In fact, the clergy followed the politicians' lead at almost every juncture, leaving transcendent morality at the footstool of a sacralized patriotism. It's true that, even more than the politicians, and certainly more than the secular Northern press, the Northern clergy trumpeted the virtues of universal emancipation and the sin of slavery, and on this count deserve praise. Some even went so far as to protest racism in the North, as Moses Smith did in a Thanksgiving sermon to his Plainville, Connecticut, Congregational church:

[A]s to the black man, he is as really, and I have sometimes believed more terribly enslaved at the North than at the South. He knows that he is a slave there, and expects a slave's reward. But here he is tantalized with the name of freedom, but denied its privileges. … Do what he will and be what he will, he is hated everywhere at the North, banished from society, denied often so much as a seat in the cars. … We talk of liberty? Of all galling bondage, this bondage to social feelings, this servitude to caste, this being a "nigger" in society, and "a nigger" at the communion table is probably the most heartless and unrelenting slavery beneath the skies. It may not shackle the body, but it crushes the mind and kills the heart.18

But as heroic as these rare voices were, they weren't saying anything that the relatively small number of abolitionists weren't also saying inside and outside the church. And they met the same deaf ear. As for the conduct of the war and protection of innocents, silence prevailed.

Ironically, the most forceful assertion for the protection of innocents came not from a preacher or a politician, but from a general. As Lincoln contemplated an escalation to total war that would deliberately involve civilian suffering, his commanding general George McClellan protested in the strongest terms. In his famous "Harrison's Landing Letter" to President Lincoln, written on July 8, 1862, McClellan insisted that

[The war] should be conducted upon the highest principles known to Christian civilization. It should not be a war looking to the subjugation of the people of any State in any event. It should not be at all a war upon population, but against armed forces and political organization. Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of States, or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment. In prosecuting the war all private property and unarmed persons should be strictly protected, subject only to the necessity of military operations. … A system of policy thus constitutional and conservative, and pervaded by the influences of Christianity and freedom, would receive the support of almost all truly loyal men, would deeply impress the rebel masses and all foreign nations, and it might be humbly hoped that it would commend itself to the favor of the Almighty.

Lincoln was not persuaded. It certainly didn't help matters any that when McClellan invoked "private property," he had chiefly in mind the slaves. Nor did it help that he was a poor general with a naïve view of Southern compliance and a grossly exaggerated estimate of his enemy's strength. When faced with the choice between the "highest principles" of McClellan and total victory, Lincoln chose victory, and he replaced McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. All along, Lincoln's ultimate loyalty and sacred cause was the Union, not only for its own sake, but for the sake of the world. In a letter to the New York Tribune he made clear that anything—including the lot of slaves—would be sacrificed to preserve the Union:

I would save the Union. … If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. . .I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.19

Lincoln's letter provides important clues about his turn to a total war strategy in 1862. In that year, he would save the slaves (or some of them) and in his act supply what he would later term the "lever" he needed for escalation.20 The Emancipation Proclamation, announced in September 1862 and applied (only to states in rebellion) in 1863, did not come without its own quid pro quo. In return for emancipation Lincoln commanded a total war on the Confederacy.

By elevating the Civil War from a "necessary evil" to a moral crusade, Lincoln had the national rhetoric and rationale he needed to escalate the war to ensure unconditional surrender and a restructuring of the rebellious states without incurring an overwhelming moral backlash. Lincoln's emphasis had always been on destroying armies. But to achieve unconditional surrender he knew, sooner than his generals, that the "will" of the South had to be broken, and this meant, above all, the will of civilians, in particular, women. Lincoln gambled that if emancipation could be preached loudly enough, then just war questions of proportionality, protection of noncombatants, and wholesale slaughter of young men's lives would not have to be addressed. With few exceptions, he was right.

One prominent exception who deserves to be heard was Princeton Seminary's venerable Charles Hodge. The Union, Hodge argued, and not abolition, was the only moral grounds for war. Although personally opposed to slavery, Hodge insisted that the war was undertaken for restoration of the Union and "to substitute any other object, be it the acquisition of new territory; the consolidation of the government; the subjugation of one part of the country to another; the abolition of slavery; or anything else is palpably wrong and must be disastrous." As to the conduct of the war, Hodge continued: "We have heard men justify the burning of cities and laying waste the country by fire and sword. … [T]here is great reason to fear that many of the people, and some even in places of authority, have very little scruple as to the morality of the means to be adopted in the suppression of this rebellion."21

Hodge was not heeded any more than McClellan. McClellan's replacement as general of the Army of the Potomac, General Ambrose Burnside, understood the new terms of war and was more than prepared to escalate the destruction. Soon after his commission he led a disastrous Union assault on the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The battle began with a massive shelling that destroyed most of the homes. But sadly for Burnside, the shelling missed the Confederate army, waiting patiently for the Northern troops to ascend the hills on which they sat. With monumental recklessness Burnside mounted frontal assaults that left his army shredded. When the slaughter was over, 12,600 Union soldiers lay dead or dying from a day of pointless charges against well-entrenched Confederate defenses.

Only in the gruesome aftermath would soldiers recognize the carnage they had wreaked on one another. That night screams punctuated the dark as wounded men pleaded for assistance. The dead gained no respect. For under-supplied and bitterly cold Confederate forces, the temptation to ransack Federal dead for clothing, shoes, and food proved irresistible. Starlight brought with it the haunting landscape of pale naked Yankee corpses lying in frozen suspended animation before the stone wall. They looked, one soldier later recalled, "like hogs that had been cleaned."

At the start of the war an idealistic Robert E. Lee confided to his wife: "What a glorious world Almighty God has given us. How thankless and ungrateful we are, and how we labour to mar His gifts." One year later, as he surveyed the carnage at Fredericksburg, he muttered in words both ironically sincere and morally aghast, "It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of it."22

In fact, Lee's lament came too late. The scenes at Fredericksburg would escalate until at last there was no viable Confederate army to butcher. The two nations had already grown far too fond of war to give up on it any time short of a total military victory. The infantry of patriotism, reinforced with the artillery of mounting hatred, rendered both sides mindless killing machines bent on destruction. In what would become characteristic of Civil War reporting and clerical preaching, the cause of patriotism effectively stifled any moral inquiry into acceptable losses or just conduct.

But not for all. Small as they were in numbers, their voices roar out to our present. Hard questions asked about protection of innocents went unheeded, and would continue long after Appomattox brought an end to the fighting. C.C. Coffin, correspondent for the Boston Journal, wrote a concerned letter marked "private and confidential" to Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts from Hilton Head, South Carolina, on February 17, 1863. In it he wrote: "I am sorry to say that the Mass. 24th has been acting outrageously here, robbing, burning houses, killing cattle, etc.—ravishing negro women—beating their husbands who attempted protection."23

Coffin's concerns went unheeded. The prevailing sentiments on both sides demanded just the opposite: a continuation and complete insensitivity to questions of just conduct. The crusading spirit was not limited to the North. One Confederate chaplain, caught up in his own country's civil religion, wrote in The [Richmond] Central Presbyterian: "we should add to the prayer for peace, let this war continue, if we are not yet so humbled and disciplined by its trials, as to be prepared for those glorious moral and spiritual gifts, which Thou designest it should confer upon us as a people, and upon the Church of Christ in the Confederacy, and upon mankind."24

In Northern churches and denominational publications, patriotism and morbid fascination with destruction often eclipsed serious moral inquiry. In an unprecedented reach, children were not exempted from the bloodlust of war. Children were co-opted early on in the war effort and encouraged to wear uniforms and play war games. Parents would have photographs taken of their children with guns and swords. Patriotic songs and "panoramas" brought home the nobility of war to children on a dramatic scale.25 Awed children learned to revere the war and the warriors of Christ who prosecuted it. There was nothing to learn of right conduct or just cause, let alone acceptable scales of suffering or the protection of innocents. Only a romanticized glory endured. In a column entitled "The Children at Home," the New York Evangelist provided a "Chapter about Heroes" that began with a conversation between two brothers:

"Is it not grand to hear about all these brave men? I am so glad that I live in these war times!" said George. "So am I," said his brother William. "We did not think that the men who live now-a-days could be such heroes. It seems like reading the histories of old times." "Don't you wish, Will," said George, after a pause, "that we were men and could do such things?"26

Northern clergy and denominational publications were hardly alone in fueling the blood lust. Stonewall Jackson's aide-de-camp and chaplain, Robert Dabney, took the occasion of a funeral sermon for a fallen soldier to urge his young hearers to be Christ-like in fighting to the end:

Let me exhort the young men of this community to be "followers of him as he also was of Jesus Christ." And especially would I now commend by his example, the sacred and religious duty of defending the cause for which he died. . .Surely [his] very blood should cry out again from the ground, if we permitted the soil which drank the precious libation, to be polluted with the despot's foot! Before God, I take you to witness this day, that its blood seals upon you the obligation to fill their places in your country's host, and "play the men for your people and the cities of your God," to complete the vindication of their rights.27

James M. McPherson suggests that the religious intensity for war and unquestioning patriotism may well have succeeded in extending the war for the last—and bloodiest—year.28

Inevitably the superadrenalized fury unleashed by war led both sides to an almost total disregard for life. In the beginning, commanders could be forgiven the carnage by pointing out that antiquated tactics were engaging the new and infinitely more deadly technology of Minie ball and canister shot. But by 1864 there were no surprises—or excuses.

The low point came at Cold Harbor, Virginia, outside of Richmond, in June 1864. With a near criminal willingness to waste his superior numbers, General Grant ordered his Second, Sixth, and Eighteenth Corps in a frontal assault on well entrenched and desperate Confederate defenders. In lockstep madness, each advancing corps was enfiladed by cannon and musket fire on the flanks, while simultaneously receiving direct fire in front. In little over eight minutes, seven thousand Federal soldiers lay dead or wounded, compared to less than fifteen hundred Confederates. A "triumphant" Robert E. Lee thought he had seen everything at Fredericksburg. But this defied all rationality. "It was not war," Lee's general, Evander Law, later wrote, "but murder."

For the Civil War to achieve its messianic destiny and create an ongoing civil religion, the blood sacrifice had to be seen as total. While the term "baptism in blood" did not originate in the Civil War, it enjoyed a prominence in the war rhetoric of both nations that had no precedent. Speakers and readers came to understand the term literally as the lists of war dead continued to mount at telegraph offices and in newspaper summaries. The Civil War was indeed the crimson baptismal lever of our nationalism, and so it continues to enjoy a mythic transcendence not unlike the significance of Eucharist for Christian believers. For the unbeliever, both blood sacrifices seem irrational. But for the true believer, blood saved. Just as Christians believe that "without the shedding of blood there can be no remission for sins," so Americans in the North and South came to believe that their bloodletting had to contain a profound religious meaning for their collective life as nations.

The creation of an American civil religion may have been the really great legacy of the Civil War. How could a people of diversity, who had more than adequately demonstrated their capacity to live at war, possibly live together in peace without some functioning civil religion? And how does any real religion come into being without the shedding of blood?

By all accounts, the United States is currently the world's only superpower. Had Canada—especially a French-dominated Canada—emerged as the dominant geopolitical force in North America and the world, it is doubtful that the Civil War would have retained its compelling hold on the American psyche. But things did not happen that way. Whether we like it or not, we are the world's last best hope, but, for the same reason, the world's greatest threat.

American military dominance ensures that the Civil War and its constituent civil religion will remain the foundational American phenomenon. As such there cannot be too many books, re-creations, or meditations on its innermost meaning. Gettysburg will continue to draw crowds and dispense inspiration. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox will stand as the noble embodiment of the Lost Cause. And cries for African American reparations will continue to build on emancipation from inhuman racial enslavement.

As the world's dominant power, America needs the Civil War to provide the interpretive and mythic context that not only explains America to itself but also explains America to the rest of the world. And, precisely because of America's raw power, that world—our world—has to pay attention.

Harry S. Stout is Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale University. His forthcoming book, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, will be published by Viking/Penquin.

1. James M. McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), p. 619. Statistics on casualties and costs are taken from E. B. Long with Barbara Long, The Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac 1861-1865 (Doubleday, 1971), pp. 700-28. My estimate on war-related widows is drawn from Amy E. Holmes, "'Such Is the Price We Pay': American Widows and the Civil War Pension System," in Maris A. Vinovskis, Toward a Social History of the American Civil War: Exploratory Essays (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), p. 174.

2. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (Basic, 1977); James Turner Johnson, Just War Tradition and the Restraint of War: A Moral and Historical Inquiry (Princeton Univ. Press, 1981). In addition to the issue of just conduct in war (jus in bello), there is also the question of just cause (jus ad bellum). And here just cause theorists agree that the only just cause of war is self-defense, recognizing that in the case of a civil war this is extremely difficult to affix.

3. See Allen Buchanan, Secession: The Morality of Political Divorce from Fort Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec (Westview, 1991).

4. In a prescient essay written more than three decades ago, historian David Potter contended that, "for good or ill, there are two things which the Civil War did [in terms of world history]: first, it turned the tide which had been running against nationalism for forty years, or ever since Waterloo; and second, it forged a bond between nationalism and liberalism at a time when it appeared that the two might draw apart and move in opposite directions." David M. Potter, "The Civil War in the History of the Modern World: A Comparative View," in David M. Potter, The South and the Sectional Conflict (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1968), p. 291.

5. Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (Knopf, 2000), p. xv.

6. Andrew Delbanco, ed., The Portable Abraham Lincoln (Viking, 1992), pp. 234-39.

7. David Potter, The South and the Sectional Conflict (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1968), p. 25.

8. David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard Univ. Press, 2001), p. 3.

9. Edmund Wilson, "Abraham Lincoln: The Union as Religious Mysticism," The New Yorker, March 14, 1953, pp. 116-36.

10. In his preface to David Brion Davis, "The Emancipation Moment," in Gabor S. Boritt, ed., Lincoln the War President: The Gettysburg Lectures (Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 10-12, Boritt urges "all American historians … to make the pilgrimage to Gettysburg, at least in a symbolic sense, and come to some sort of terms with Abraham Lincoln. He is the most looming single figure of this nation's history."

11. See especially Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (Yale Univ. Press, 1977); and Nathan O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty (Yale Univ. Press, 1977).

12. See Richard J. Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (Yale Univ. Press, 1993).

13. See George M. Fredrickson, The Inner Civil War (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1993); and "The Coming of the Lord: The Northern Protestant Clergy and the Civil War Crisis," in Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson eds., Religion and the American Civil War (Oxford Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 110-30. See also Peter J. Parish, "The War for the Union as a Just War," in David K. Adams and Cornelis A. van Minnen, eds., Aspects of War in American History (Keele Univ. Press, 1997), pp. 81-103.

14. Quoted in Richard N. Current, Lincoln and the First Shot (Waveland, 1990), pp. 159-60.

15. Michael Burlingame, ed., At Lincoln's Side: John Hay's Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings (Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 2000), p. 120.

16. See, e.g., Henry Ward Beecher, "The National Flag," (May 1861) reprinted in Beecher, Patriotic Addresses (Fords, Howard, and Hulbert, 1887). For the South see Robert E. Bonner, "Flag Culture and the Consolidation of Confederate Nationalism," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 68 (May 2002), pp. 293-332.

17. On these "sermons," see especially Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg (Simon & Schuster, 1992); and Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (Simon & Schuster, 2002).

18. Moses Smith, Our Nation Not Forsaken (Thomas J. Stafford, 1863), pp. 10-13.

19. Roy P. Bassler, ed., Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings (DaCapo, 1990), p. 652.

20. New York Tribune, September 10, 1864.

21. Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, January 1863, pp. 154-56. I am indebted to Professor Mark Noll for calling this source to my attention.

22. Bruce Catton, Never Call Retreat (Doubleday, 1965), p. 24.

23. Quoted in James D. Richardson, ed., The Messages and Papers of Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy, 2 vols. (Chelsea House/Robert Hector, 1966), introduction by Allan Nevins, I, p. 29.

24. The Central Presbyterian, December 18, 1862.

25. See James Marten, The Children's Civil War (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1998).

26. The New York Evangelist, June 26, 1862, April 3, 1862. Presbyterian Historical Society.

27. Central Presbyterian, March 12, 1863.

28. James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), pp. 75-76.

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