- A More Civil War: How the Union Waged a Just War by D. H. Dilbeck
In Western society, prominent thinkers have frequently raised questions about the morality of warfare. How can self-proclaimed Christian societies send armies to maim and butcher other men? Is killing and destruction acceptable in a war fought for a sacred cause? Is it really possible to wage war justly? In the case of the American Civil War, which killed nearly 750,000 soldiers and caused incredible destruction throughout the South, it would be natural for one to dismiss any such notions of a "just" war. However, D. H. Dilbeck, assistant professor of history at Oklahoma Baptist University, believes the Civil War much more complicated than that.
In A More Civil War: How the Union Waged a Just War, Dilbeck attempts to better explain the war's strange paradox: it "occasioned both great destruction and remarkable restraint" (3). His main goal is to prove how Union officials "refined wide-ranging legal, religious, cultural, and political ideas into coherent rules to govern their army's behavior" (9). These so-called just-war concepts, when applied to particular policies, amounted to a military effort that Dilbeck labels "hard yet humane." Essentially, the Union conducted a vigorous war that did not shield enemy civilians from devastation, because they believed it was the quickest path to victory. Federals also devoted a substantial amount of attention to defining the boundaries of "just" conduct in the Civil War—by adhering to restraints imposed by the laws of war.
The book's first two chapters focus on the Mississippi River Valley during the initial eighteen months of the war. Dilbeck believes that in dealing with the challenges [End Page 97] of guerrilla warfare, Union generals Henry W. Halleck, Benjamin F. Butler, and William T. Sherman set the precedent for waging war in a hard yet humane manner. Chapter 3 explains how Francis Lieber, the Prussian-born political philosopher, refined this early vision of "just" war into a coherent set of rules that governed the entire Union army. General Order No. 100, commonly referred to as the Lieber Code, was designed to instruct Federal soldiers on how to practice hard warfare with humane restraints, while also vindicating "vigorously waged wars as truly moral wars" (10). Dilbeck argues that although there were certainly examples of Union soldiers violating the restraints set forth by the Lieber Code, there was generally a close similarity between the code's content and soldiers' actions throughout the war. He emphasizes this point in the final two chapters, where Dilbeck uses examples of Federal formal retaliation against Confederate soldiers, as well as the much-discussed Shenandoah Valley campaign and Sherman's March to the Sea, to prove that Union soldiers generally adhered to a policy of "just" war.
Overall, Dilbeck's argument is well-organized, thoroughly researched, clearly written, and convincing. It also expands on the historiography of the "hard warfare" of the Civil War. Although his concept of restrained warfare is similar in many ways to the arguments of historians Mark Grimsley and Mark E. Neely Jr. (The Hard Hand of War and The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction), Dilbeck goes to greater lengths to explain the origins and rationale of the Federal just-war policies and exactly how Union soldiers were expected to apply them. The only major weakness of Dilbeck's argument is that he does not touch on the eastern or western theaters prior to 1864—which raises the question of whether most Union soldiers truly adhered to the "hard yet humane" principles set forth by Francis Lieber's code.
Ultimately, Dilbeck does not attempt to provide some sort of final verdict on the morality of the actions of Civil War Americans, nor should he. He does, however, help us begin to understand the moral thinking of the time that helped shape how the Union waged war against the Confederacy. Despite these important lessons, perhaps the most enduring...