A More Civil War: How the Union Waged a Just War

A More Civil War: How the Union Waged a Just War

A More Civil War: How the Union Waged a Just War

A More Civil War: How the Union Waged a Just War


During the Civil War, Americans confronted profound moral problems about how to fight in the conflict. In this innovative book, D. H. Dilbeck reveals how the Union sought to wage a just war against the Confederacy. He shows that northerners fought according to a distinct "moral vision of war," an array of ideas about the nature of a truly just and humane military effort. Dilbeck tells how Union commanders crafted rules of conduct to ensure their soldiers defeated the Confederacy as swiftly as possible while also limiting the total destruction unleashed by the fighting. Dilbeck explores how Union soldiers abided by official just-war policies as they battled guerrillas, occupied cities, retaliated against enemy soldiers, and came into contact with Confederate civilians.

In contrast to recent scholarship focused solely on the Civil War's carnage, Dilbeck details how the Union sought both to deal sternly with Confederates and to adhere to certain constraints. The Union's earnest effort to wage a just war ultimately helped give the Civil War its distinct character, a blend of immense destruction and remarkable restraint.


On New Year’s Eve 1863, an anxious George W. Lennard sought blessed assurance of his eternal fate. Lennard began the American Civil War as a private in an Indiana regiment and was eventually commissioned lieutenant colonel of the Fifty-Seventh Indiana Volunteer Infantry. He survived some of the most gruesome fighting of the Western Theater, from Shiloh to Stones River to Missionary Ridge. As another year of war dawned, Lennard confessed in a letter home that he dreaded nothing more than the thought of what awaited him after death. He longed for “a clear and well defined hope that all would be well with me in the world to come.” “You will say” he wrote his wife, “why dont you be a Christian? I say how can a soldier be a Christian?” He continued: “Read all Christs teaching, and then tell me whether one engaged in maiming and butchering men—men made in the express image of God himself— can be saved under the Gospel. Clear my mind on this subject and you will do me a world of good.” Lennard was still searching for answers when he was killed in May 1864 as he marched toward Atlanta.

George Lennard doubted he could reconcile the gospel of the Prince of Peace with his duties as a soldier, which made him unusual in the Union army. But he was not alone in earnestly contemplating the morality of warfare. Can a soldier be a Christian? Can a self-proclaimed Christian society send more than two million men off to “maim and butcher” other men? Is killing and destruction acceptable in war if done in service of a sacred cause? Is it possible for a soldier to fight in a just war and himself remain just, or must he inevitably surrender his own righteousness before the brutal demands of war? Can a supposedly civilized people constrain the death and devastation unleashed by their armies? Is it really possible to wage war justly?

One year before George Lennard wrote his forlorn letter home, another man worked to resolve the moral quandaries that plagued Lennard’s mind. Francis Lieber did so not by turning to the New Testament but to international law. Lieber was a scholar, not a soldier, a Berlin-born professor at Columbia College in New York City who taught history and political economy.

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