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Moral Man, Immoral War?: A Historiographical Study of Morality and Ethics in the American Civil War – Part IV

Moral Man, Immoral War?: A Historiographical Study of Morality and Ethics in the American Civil War – Part IV

In the fourth installment of this multi-part post, contributing editor Joshua Ward Jeffery continues an examination and discussion of the historiography of morality and ethics in the American Civil War. You can find Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here.

McPherson judged Lincoln’s morality quite differently. In The Battle Cry of Freedom, McPherson viewed Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation as much more than a simple measure to escalate the conflict to total war.  To be sure, McPherson did see the proclamation as a war measure, but more importantly, he saw it as one of several tools that Lincoln applied at the same time in order to do what was right.[50] As McPherson interpreted it, Lincoln employed a multi-pronged strategy to eliminate slavery: by pushing for gradual, compensated emancipation in border states, by advocating the colonization of freed African-Americans, by issuing the proclamation in order to free slaves in Confederate States as Union armies took additional territory, and through other legal and Constitutional means.[51] McPherson also saw Lincoln’s movement towards the proclamation as one of “intentional ambiguity,” where he intentionally kept parties from all sides off balance and unsure of his true intentions until the moment that he was ready to reveal his hand.[52]  To McPherson, such deception was not only a strong political move, but also a very moral one, as to him, the true evil was not an escalation to total war or the means of that total war once it came about, but slavery.

    Like McPherson, Burris Carnahan had no qualms with Lincoln’s pursuit of total war. Carnahan, Professorial Lecturer in Law at the George Washington University School of Law, argued in two succinct volumes a thesis the opposite of Stout: Lincoln’s prosecution of the war was indeed moral because it accorded with the Law of Nations, and therefore, according to the Just War Tradition, was engaged in justly. Burris’ first book on the subject, Act of Justice, explored Lincoln’s issuance and enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation as an act of war.  Carnahan set out to fill what he saw as a gap in the historiography, stating that “Although there have been many thoughtful efforts to explore the constitutional context of the Emancipation Proclamation, the rest of the proclamation’s legal context remains largely uncharted territory.”[53]  Carnahan proceeded to explore that context, relating the Emancipation Proclamation not so much as a legal measure under the U.S. Constitution, but as a war measure permitted by international law.  Carnahan showed that most American legal scholars believed that during the normal course of events, the federal government had no jurisdiction over slavery.[54] However, Carnahan discovered that Charles Sumner, the ardent abolitionist, pleaded with Lincoln to seize slaves as a war measure at the very beginning of the war, appealing to John Quincy Adam’s work before a joint tribunal for war claims between Great Britain and the United States in the aftermath of the War of 1812. Adam’s work and his later speeches demonstrated that the seizure and freeing of slaves as a military measure was allowed under the Law of Nations, and that the British not only freed American slaves during the war, but that the federal government had previously freed Southern slaves as a war measure during conflicts with Native American tribes.[55]  Carnahan then traced the use of emancipation of slaves as a war measure in Venezuela and Columbia in 1814, as well as emancipation of British slaves who reached Spanish Florida in the 1680s.[56] This history Lincoln knew well, as it was described to him by men such as Senator Sumner, Secretary of War Stanton, and Lincoln friend Orville Hickman Browning.[57]

    After Carnahan established that the Law of Nations allowed emancipation as a war measure, he moved on to prove that as a domestic measure, the Emancipation Proclamation might not have survived legal challenges after the end of the war.  Appealing to case law from the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, Carnahan demonstrated that the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Taney (the same justice who authored the Dred Scott decision) rejected federal arguments for unlimited power in seizing private property during times of war, and in fact made federal officers personally liable for property they seized under the doctrine of military necessity.[58]

    After demonstrating issues in domestic law with federal emancipation, Carnahan explored the development of Lincoln’s thought and treatment of the Confederacy from a band of conspiring insurrectionist rebels to a fully armed and recognized belligerent force under the Laws of War.[59]  As is well known, Lincoln, by his lack of understanding of International Law at the beginning of his Presidency, declared a blockade against the South, which amounted to an acknowledgement of their belligerent status under the Laws of War.[60] However, Carnahan took analysis of the inadvertent application of the Law of Nations to the Confederacy to a new level by exploring how Union commanders, through their taking of Prisoners of War, use of the Flag of Truce, and other usages of war, also accidentally recognized the Confederacy as a legitimate belligerent.[61]

    Starting in 1863, the federal government began to officially recognize the Confederacy as a legal belligerent to which the Laws of War applied.[62] Once this was done, it was an easy step from recognition to the application of principles such as military necessity to the fight against the Confederacy. In this vein, Lincoln authorized the adoption of the Lieber Code, a distillation and “codification of the law of war” for U.S. Forces that remains in force to this day.[63]  The adoption of the Lieber Code was, in effect, a enshrining of total war in U.S. military policy.  Similarly, Lincoln would then employ the Emancipation Proclamation as a tool of military necessity consistent with the Lieber Code and International Law.  The proclamation became a “weapon of war,” that had both immediate and future consequences. According to Carnahan, “after General Order 100 (the Lieber Code), whenever the U.S. Army marched into enemy territory in a future war any persons there held as slaves would be free. Now freedom would follow the flag.”[64]

    Taken altogether, Carnahan’s history of the development of the proclamation shows Lincoln the lawyer as developing his understandings of International Law and Military Necessity in order to overcome Constitutional problems with emancipation.[65]  Such a development made Lincoln out to be not only a skilled attorney and politician, but a man of strong moral character who sought to overturn slavery legally and finally at the beginning of the war.  I found Carnahan’s analysis of Lincoln, his development of the proclamation as a weapon of war, and the constitutional and international legal intricacies of freeing Southern black slaves to be quite convincing.  While most reviewers praised Carnahan’s book, not all scholars were pleased. In a review appearing in The Review of Politics, Herman Belz wrote:

Although provocative and illuminating Act of Justice under theorized as a consideration of the relationship between the U.S. Constitution and the law of war. A premise of the study is a distinction between constitutional context and legal context Carnahan makes no effort however, to define the constitutional context or to explain how it has been adequately explored in relation to the Emancipation Proclamation.[66]

I found Belz’s critique puzzling, because while Carnahan does make the historiographical claim that the Constitutional context of the Emancipation Proclamation had been explored well, his reason for writing this monograph was not to explore that context further, but to explore the context of the proclamation under International Law.  While flushing out the historiography would be helpful in such a text, the lack of such work does not make the book “under theorized.” Belz closes his review with the statement that “Finally, it is a stretch to say that the Emancipation Proclamation presented itself as an ‘act of justice’ in virtue of the right of emancipation of an oppressed people under the law of war.”[67]  Belz cites formulations of international law under Vattel regarding the liberation of citizens in a portion of the conquered Swiss Confederacy and fails to see the relationship between the Swiss case and Southern slaves. Such a statement is bizarre because Carnahan did not cite Vattel in this case, and ignored the fact that Carnahan’s main argument is that the slaves were freed under the concept of military necessity as allowed under the Laws of War.

    Carnahan’s second volume examined the Laws of War as it applied to the rest of the conflict. Significantly, one of Carnahan’s major arguments in his second volume was that the even though the war was in fact a Civil War and not an international conflict, the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, invested Lincoln as Commander in Chief with the same authority to act in an insurrection as he had in a full-on war with another nation-state.[68] Therefore, while Lincoln was acting in accordance with the Laws of War, his legal authority to apply those laws to the conflict, according to the Court, was none other than the U.S. Constitution.[69]  Carnahan, in his own way then, answered the critiques of Belz regarding Carnahan’s book on the Emancipation Proclamation and the Laws of War. I found Carnahan’s discussion of the relationship between the Constitution and the Law of Nations, or the “usages of war,”[70] to quote the court, to be quite satisfying and an important addition to the scholarship on the subject.

    But while Carnahan’s discussion on the relationship between the Constitution and the Laws of War were satisfying, much of Carnahan’s later analysis of the conflict, viewed through the lens of the Lieber Code, was much less so.  Carnahan argued that the Lieber Code “remains the best summary of the laws and customs of war as they existed in the middle of the nineteenth century.”[71]  Such a statement is problematic from a number of points. First, it can be argued that the customs and laws of war are separate, and that in some instances, diverge.  In other words, what was legal in the nineteenth century may not fully comport with what was considered to be just under the customs of war as enumerated by Just War Theory.  Furthermore, because as mentioned above, Lincoln’s legal authority for putting down the Confederate insurrection was first and foremost granted by the Constitution, which enshrined federal law as the law of the land, the adoption of the Lieber Code as a piece of federal military law necessitates that the Code was in fact “the law of war” for the United States. In other words, Carnahan’s logic, for an attorney, is quite circular.

[50] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 562-3.

[51] Ibid, 562-3; For Lincoln’s use of colonization as one of several pieces meant to either ensure the end of slavery or to prepare the way for abolition, see Ibid, 509-510.

[52] Ibid, 510.

[53] Carnahan, Act of Justice, 2.

[54] Ibid, 5.

[55] Ibid, 6-14.

[56] Ibid, 16.

[57] Ibid, 5.

[58] Ibid, 25-40.

[59] Ibid, 41- 60

[60] Ibid, 43.

[61] Ibid, 58-60.

[62] Ibid, 61.

[63] Ibid, 127-9.

[64] Ibid, 130.

[65] Ibid, 140-2.

[66] Herman Belz, review of Ct of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War, by Burris Carnahan, The Review of Politics 70, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 507.

[67] Ibid, 508.

[68] Carnahan, Lincoln on Trial, 24-25.

[69] Ibid, 23-28.

[70] Ibid, 24.

[71] Ibid, 31.

This essay will be continued in a future post.

Peace Without Victory: Sectarian Christians and the First World War, Part II

Peace Without Victory: Sectarian Christians and the First World War, Part II

You may find Part I of this blog post here.

After questioning whether or not the label “evangelical” is a useful description in trying to understand the majority of American Christians, Gamble suggests that using the categories of Paul Kleppner would be more fruitful. Gamble thus proposes to examine the churches through a “pietist-confessionalist continuum” instead of through a lens of progressive versus conservative.[17] Gamble sees the Pietists as having an interest in perpetuating “a cultural and morally Christian America,” while the Confessionalists had less of a cultural stake in the maintenance of an American “Christian identity.”[18] Gamble suggests that if historians embrace this “pietist-confessionalist continuum,” that they might find something new. Gamble argues that if this work is done, that:

such a study might uncover a group of apolitical preachers who cared for their flock on Sunday, 8 April 1917—the Sunday after Congress declared war—much as they had done every Sunday before. . .  Perhaps they prayed with particular urgency for those in authority in a time of national crisis and met the extraordinary demands of a congregation whose sons had enlisted or would soon be drafted. But they never thought of displaying the stars and stripes on or in their churches and certainly not draped across their altars. They never included . . . “The Battle Hymn of the republic” in their order of worship. Instead, they preached on the mission of the church and not the mission of America, took care not to confuse spiritual and physical warfare, and never thought of interpreting God’s promises to Israel and to the church as if they were meant for the united states. If such a group could be found for the First World War and all the way back to the Revolutionary War and forward to the War on Terror, and that group turned out to be large, then the entire narrative of American religious history, especially of religion and war, would have to be retold. [19]

I agree with Gamble that finding such a group would require a rewriting of American religious history. However, it is highly unlikely that such a group will be found among Confessionalists.

Gamble was not the only one who came to see that his dichotomy between Progressive and Conservative Christians and support for the war effort was a false one. Andrew Preston challenged Gamble’s thesis in The War for Righteousness in a chapter that recently appeared in Beyond 1917: The United States and the Global Legacies of the Great War.[20] Preston, who apparently had not yet read Gamble’s revision of his own thesis which had appeared the year before, argued, among other things, against Gamble’s original dichotomy, demonstrating that, in fact, conservative Christians were just as much, if not more, in favor of the war effort as Progressives. In fact, Preston argues that conservative, fundamentalist Christians provided “shrill and unquestioning support for America’s cause.”[21] Preston, in a larger argument about whether the Great War caused a decline in American religion, declares that “Conservative Protestants were never apolitical, and they never separated themselves from American society to retreat into their own subculture.”[22] While Preston is correct here, that conservatives did not separate themselves from the larger culture, his argument demonstrates, along with the argument of Gamble, that historians of American religion have largely misunderstood the relationship between American religious groups, and have neglected theory which would provide greater clarity to what was occurring during World War I.

The social relations of American religious groups to the world should be measured according to Sect-Church typology. According to H. Richard Niebuhr, Max Weber, and Ernest Troeltsch, a religious group that separates itself from the larger culture and retreats into its own sub-culture is a sect. Sects are, by definition, not liberal or conservative. They instead stand apart from and are opposed to the larger political and social institutions of the dominant culture. Denominations, on the other hand, have made peace with the larger culture, and share its values. Churches, the third Weberian ideal type, are dominant religious groups that claim universality and that often see citizenship as synonymous with church membership. Churches make significant accommodations to culture. Historically, the church-type has included the Anglican Church in England, and the Catholic Church in France and Italy.[23]

Sectarian groups, which were the chief religious opponents to American participation in the war in 1917, were theological and political radicals. For example, in the Churches of Christ, a sectarian group that broke from the mainline, denominational Disciples of Christ in 1906, most members were either socialists or anarchists. Not coincidentally, the sect was also the largest pacifist group in America at the start of the war. [24]

Sectarian groups were typically anti-war. Denominational and Church typed religious groups, however, were typically pro-war. This is easily seen by dividing religious groups into their sect/denomination/church categories, and seeing who was and who was not pro-war. Sectarian groups in 1917 included Restorationists, Pentecostals, Holiness groups, and the International Bible Students Association. All four of these sects were anti-war, and members from all were arrested and prosecuted for resisting the conflict.[25] Denominational groups included Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists. None of the major denominations or churches in the United States had a significant number of conscientious objectors or war resisters.

Having dealt with the original Gamble thesis, along with Preston’s corrective, let us quickly look at Gamble’s new dichotomy, that of pietist versus confessional. Gamble’s suggestion is based upon the work of Paul Kleppner and Frederick Luebke, but while arguing that historians should examine this dichotomy more carefully, he provides no examples of this idea in action.  Since Gamble fails to apply the theory to the First World War, he leaves this work to other historians to do for him. Since I have no argument of Gamble’s to analyze, I will propose my own. A look at draft cards easily disrupts Gamble’s suggestion. According to the latest work of Jay Beaman, a sociologist of religion, Beaman has found close to 11,000 draft cards of conscientious objectors to World War I. Of this number, sectarian groups make up 84.5% of CO draft cards. Comparatively, German Pietists and Confessionalists make up just 0.6% of CO draft cards. Just due to their small numbers, it is easy to dismiss a Pietest versus Confessionalist dichotomy as being the controlling paradigm for understanding which religious Americans were for or against American intervention in the Great War.[26]

Many Restorationists of the Stone-Campbell Movement refused to participate in the war.

The correct paradigm for understanding how religious groups responded to the war is that of sect versus denomination. American religious groups on the whole, whether conservative or liberal, denomination or church, supported the war effort once Congress declared war. It was only America’s sectarian groups, including Restorationists, Pentecostals, Holiness groups, and IBSA, along with the Historic Peace Sects, such as the Mennonites, Quakers, and Church of the Brethren, who opposed American entry to World War I. Before concluding, I would like to turn to one more claim made by Richard Gamble. I quoted Gamble at length previously, where he declared that a study of the Pietist-Confessional continuum “might uncover a group of apolitical preachers,” who did not give into nationalism, did not wave the flag, and did not play the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Gamble argued, “If such a group could be found for the First World War and all the way back to the Revolutionary War and forward to the War on Terror, and that group turned out to be large, then the entire narrative of American religious history, especially of religion and war, would have to be retold.”[27] I would like to submit that such a group has been overlooked by American historians of religion due to their improper over-focus on denominations and churches. However, this group is not found among the Confessionalists, but among the Restorationist sectarians. Restorationist sectarian groups have a long heritage in the United States. The Sandemanians, a Restorationist group founded in Scotland in 1730, had congregations on the eastern seaboard of North America as early as 1750.  These Restorationists were brutally attacked during the American Revolution for being pacifists.[28] The Sandemanians, who died out in the United States in the late 19th Century, made a major impact on the thought and theology of Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Stone-Campbell Movement, which spawned the Churches of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and the Christadelphians. Campbell’s Movement in the United States can be dated to 1812, and his movement absorbed many Sandemanian congregations.[29] Both the Churches of Christ and the Christadelphians maintained a fervent pacifistic theology throughout the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and into World War II. While Church of Christ pacifism has waned since World War II, the pacifism of the group still exists in some quarters.[30] Christadelphians have also maintained their pacifism. Furthermore, the events of World War I rekindled pacifism among the Disciples of Christ, and they are at the forefront of the Christian peace movement in the United States today.[31] Yet, while pacifist Restorationists have indeed existed throughout American history, they have largely been ignored by historians. Sociologist R. Lawrence Moore, in his influential book, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, has argued that the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ, while being “denominations that have recently been granted mainline status,” have “nonetheless remained on the edges of general narratives of American religious history.”[32] Finally, in regards to size, the Churches of Christ were the largest peace church in America during World War I, and the Restorationist sects and denominations, taken together, continue to be one of the largest Protestant religious groups in the United States. Based on this data, I would suggest that I agree with Richard Gamble’s analysis at least in one way: that the entire narrative of American religious history, especially of religion and war, might need to be retold.


[17] Ibid, 20-21.

[18] Ibid, 29.

[19] Ibid, 29-30.

[20] Andrew Preston, “To Make the World Saved: American Religion and the Great War,” in Beyond 1917: The United States and the Global Legacies of the Great War, ed. Thomas W. Zeiler, David K. Ekbladh, and Benjamin C. Montoya (Oxford University Press: New York, 1917), 142-58.

[21] Ibid, 147.

[22] Ibid, 145.

[23] For church and sect, see Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, trans. Olive Wyon (New York: McMillan Company, 1927), 1:331. For the denomination, see H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: Henry Holt Company, 1929), 3-25.

[24] For the claim that most Church of Christ members were anarchists, and that the group was the largest peace church in the United States, see Joshua W. Jeffery, “Spies, Slackers, and Saboteurs: Federal Suppression of Religious Pacifism in the Churches of Christ During World War I” (master’s thesis, Vanderbilt University, 2015). For Church of Christ socialists, see Michael W. Casey “From Religious Outsiders to Insiders: The Rise and Fall of Pacifism in the Churches of Christ”, Journal of Church and State 44, no. 3 (2002).

[25] For Restorationists, see Jeffery, “”Spies, Slackers, and Saboteurs.” For Pentecostals and Holiness adherents, see Jay Beaman, Pentecostal Pacifism: The Origin, Development, and Rejection of Pacific Belief Among the Pentecostals (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009). FOR ISBA arrests, see M. James Penton, “The Bible Students I Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States during the First World War,” in American Churches in the First World War, ed. Gordon L. Heath (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016).

[26] Jay Beaman, “Un‐muting the Genealogy of Peace, WWI” (paper Presented at the “Remembering Muted Voices Symposium: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today, Kansas City, KS, October 21, 2017), 34.

[27] Richard Gamble, “Together for the Gospel of Americanism, Evangelicals and the First World War,” in American Churches in the First World War, ed. Gordon L. Heath (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), 29-30.

[28] For an account of the Sandemanians during the Revolution, see Jean F. Hankins, “A Different Kind of Loyalist: The Sandemanians of New England During the Revolutionary War,” New England Quarterly 31, no. 3 (1987): 223-49. For a history of the Sandemanians in America during the whole of the 19th Century, see John Howard Smith, The Perfect Rule of the Christian Religion: A History of Sandemanianism in the Eighteenth Century (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008). Also see Joshua W. Jeffery, The Glasite Political Theology Project,

[29] For a discussion of the influence of Sandemanian and Haldanite Restorationists on Alexander Campbell and the theology of the Stone-Campbell Movement, see James L. Gorman, Among the Early Evangelicals: The Transatlantic Origins of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Abeline, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2016).

[30] For evidence of this claim, see my master’s thesis, Jeffery, “Spies, Slackers, and Saboteurs.”

[31] For Disciples, see my article Joshua Ward Jeffery, “‘a Barbarous Method of Adjusting Differences’: Federal Persecution of Conscientious Objectors in the Disciples During the Great War, 1917-1918,” Stone-Campbell Journal 20, no. 1 (April 2017): 17-33.

[32] R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), xiv.