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Remembering the Civil War

Upon the Altar of the Nation, by Harry S. Stout. Viking, 2006.

Mennonites, Amish and the American Civil War, by James O. Lehman and Stephen M. Nolt. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Books on the Civil War proliferate. I got the first of these from a remainder house and found the second listed on a brochure promoting tourism in Amish country. About all the two books have in common is the war. Their purposes and development are quite different. But taken together they provide grist for reflection.

Stout has set out to develop a thesis. At the beginning he identifies himself as a just warrior. He evidently operates within the prevailing Calvinism of our American culture: violence and war are necessary even though regrettable. He does not quarrel with the Civil War as such but with the conduct of the war when it went beyond what he considers the rules of war.

Lehman and Nolt have a different agenda. They wish to inquire what happened to descendants of the Anabaptists who were persecuted for their beliefs and who declined to defend themselves. These immigrants had never felt completely at home in the American system. What would they do when the unity of the system broke down and the separate sections fell upon each other? The book is based largely on diaries, letters, and newspaper accounts. Not many church statements were available from this era.

This much should be said on Stout’s behalf: He goes beyond the level of the typical reenactment with uniforms and guns where no one gets hurt unless he slips in the mud. The book delivers what it promises. It documents how each side in this bloody conflict was absolutely convinced that God was on its side. If either side’s soldiers won a battle, it was a blessing of God. If either side lost, this was a lesson for it.

Stout reports that most of the generals on either side had been classmates at West Point. They began with an intention to observe the rules of war. As time went on and the issues became more desperate, they bent the rules by persecuting civilians, foraging, and destroying property in most wanton fashion. Also, some of the battles involved what could only be described as butchery when a general threw his men into an impossible assault.

I was aware of Sherman’s campaign from Atlanta to the sea which devastated the countryside. Stout reports an angle I had not understood: Sherman separated from his supply line and turned the troops loose to forage from the land. Destruction was a strategic necessity.
Some 620,000 soldiers died in the war. More died from disease than from bullets. A summary on page 447 provides these details:

    Killed in action and died from wounds:

    Union: 110,070
    Confederate: 94,000
    Died of disease
    Union: 249,458
    Confederate: 164,000
    Union dead: 359,528
    Confederate dead: 258,000
    Total: 617,528

Despite all the foolishness and ruthlessness he describes, Stout continues to defend the just war. The book is dedicated "To the memory of my father, Harry Stober Stout (1923-2009) a warrior sailor in a just war. And to my grandchildren. . . . It is to the coming generation and the moral conclusions they reach that this book is ultimately dedicated." The "just war" Stout has in mind is, of course, World War II, considered by some the "good war." Numbers of us believe there is no such thing.

Stout asks whether the 620,000 Civil War dead died in vain. He cannot believe that this would be so and indulges in what I consider questionable theologizing. "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 contained a profound religious meaning for their life as nations" (459). Whether or not this is his own perspective, he does not appear to object to it.

What he does object to are the immoralities committed by leaders. "Americans don’t want to concede the unforgivable wrongs committed by the likes of Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Lee, Forrest, Early and Davis. . . . The web of lies, suppression and evasion that developed in the Civil War not only shock but also bear witness to the power of war to corrupt, especially at the top. . . ."

In the end, Stout states his case. "Judging the Civil War is not a brief for pacifism. Rather it is an endorsement of the just war. There are no ideal wars. . . . In a less than ideal ideal world, however, in which we sometimes labor under a moral imperative to war, we cannot do less than demand a just war and a peaceful outcome" (461). I find Stout’s analysis of the Civil War useful—but not his shallow perspective on war.

As the American occupation of Iraq was winding down, it was reported that more than 4,000 American soldiers were killed and some 32,000 injured along with an estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed. It would appear that a majority of Bush’s Methodist Church and Obama’s United Church of Christ generally supported this war although some years ago the UCC declared itself a "peace church."

Lehman and Nolt have a message but it is more subtle than Stout’s. They want to tell a story. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Mennonites and Amish were not accustomed to making public statements, although a notable exception was "The Sonnenberg Petition," which appears in their book as Appendix A on pages 235-236.

One useful learning from the book is to account for the perspective on the relation between a peace church and the dominant culture which I experienced when I was growing up. We were wary of getting too close to the political system, and numbers of Mennonites did not vote. The book shows how this point of view was developed and became for a time the dominant position for our church. In later generations, it has been modified pragmatically and theologically, for example, in John Howard Yoder’s The Christian Witness to the State (Faith and Life Press, 1964; Herald Press, 2002).

Lehman and Nolt observe that "large majorities of Mennonites and Amish found resources in their faith to resist complete identification with Union or Confederate causes" (7). But this response was not uniform and was only developed over time. It is particularly helpful to learn that the dynamics involved in seeking to be faithful to the Anabaptist tradition varied in different geographical contexts. The experiences in three of these are described: eastern Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Midwest. The political relationships for these peace churches were different in each of these three contexts.

In eastern Pennsylvania, Mennonites were politically active and received support from certain politicians. Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens are mentioned. With such friends in high places, Mennonites were able to negotiate special status for conscientious objectors.

These negotiations were also affected by their place in the Pennsylvania Dutch culture. "In many ways Mennonites and Amish found a comfortable ethnic niche, since Pennsylvania German culture could set them apart from the American mainstream without entirely isolating them" (23).

Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley faced a different culture. "Virginia was influenced by values rooted in both English and cavalier society and rough-and-tumble backwoods life, both of which differed from specifically Anabaptist and broader Pennsylvania German orderly ideals" (25). They were to face the problems without political friends. Mennonites generally objected to slavery and secession, although these objections were not completely uniform.

Amish and Mennonites from Ohio to Iowa faced a context different from each of these and their responses developed from this context. They were less protected than eastern Pennsylvania and less vulnerable than Mennonites in Virginia.

Of course in all of these areas responses to the military option varied. Some young men signed up right away. Pictured on page five is Gideon M. Nice (1844-1916), who "was reared in a Mennonite home but donned a Union uniform. Nice saw combat at the Battle of Gettysburg."
After the draft began, alternate options included a commutation fee, generally $300, or hiring a substitute. Either of these seems like less than a clear-cut testimony against war. A third option followed by some was to flee to Canada. Quakers were of two minds. Some were ready to fight against slavery while others tried to get complete exemption for persons whose convictions would not permit them to kill.

The authors observe that the problem of hiring a substitute "was ethically ambiguous for some peace people, who wondered if it represented too proximate a position with the military" since it "contributed directly to war-making ability." Some also were reminded of the war’s violence when their substitute was killed. The authors cite the experience of John S. Stoltzfus (my great-grandfather) who "still kept as a tragic reminder the uniform his draft substitute had worn before dying in battle" (88).

Since the war came only marginally and temporarily to Pennsylvania except for those in the areas near Gettysburg, the issues were less urgent and direct than those facing Virginia. "Now three possibilities lay before them: accept forced service against conscience, face court-martial (and perhaps death) as deserters, or go into hiding" (57). Both the first and the third were practiced, but the account indicates that "apparently threatened court-martial never happened" (58).

The well-known story of Christian Good is included. According to the report, he was drafted and went into battle but refused to fire his gun. "Incredulous, the officer asked if Good was not able to ‘see all those Yankees over there’ to which Good is said to have replied ‘No, they’re people; we don’t shoot people’" (58). However, some were able to get exemptions. Appendix B provides a list of "Men exempt as of October 1, 1863."

Hiding and attempting to get away to Union territory were common responses. John Heatwole is reported to have "walked backwards up a mountain in the snow so as to baffle scouts on his trail" (69).

Although Mennonites and Amish in the Midwest lacked the political clout of those in eastern Pennsylvania, they were to provide more articulate peace writing. One notable feature was "The Sonnenberg Petition," included in the back of the book as "Appendix A." The Sonnenberg Mennonites of Wayne County, Ohio, were recent immigrants from Switzerland. They called a special meeting and produced a statement which "the church presented to the Wayne County Military Committee, who in turn forwarded it to Gov. David Tod" (235).

The final paragraph in the statement is as follows: "We shall endeavor to do our duty toward God and our Government, and hope that we will not be compelled to do any thing which to avoid we would, and are resolved to, suffer the penalty of the law rather than to violate our faith, but that we will be allowed to satisfy the demands of Government by Commutation instead of doing Military Service" (236).

Two other responses were to have ongoing significance for Mennonite ethical thought. First was that of John F. Funk, a Mennonite lumber dealer in Chicago who taught in a Presbyterian Sunday school. The authors report that Funk had been "an enthusiastic patriot at the time of Fort Sumter’s fall. . . . He hesitated to go as a soldier, though in 1862 his reasoning was ambiguous. . . ."

Then "Funk’s feelings about war began to shift in October 1862." He went to Elkhart, Indiana, where "he heard the powerful preacher and bishop, John M. Brenneman, who expressed concern for how peace principles were playing out among Mennonites" (175).

By 1863 Funk had begun to write a statement entitled "Warfare: Its Evils, Our Duty" and in July that year he had 1000 copies printed. This tract of 16 pages "did not rely on explicitly religious rationale, but instead used graphic word images to portray the senselessness and inhumanity of killing. . . . Yet the message also developed an unmistakable theological center around Jesus, who provided the message and model for peaceable living" (178).

Brenneman also would write a peace statement, "Christianity and War." It was three times as long as Funk’s tract, and he published it anonymously, perhaps in fear of negative attention. He took an opposite approach from Funk’s, beginning with "the essence of Christianity" and he "wrote at length about the nature of repentance and selfless contrition that led believers to ‘deny ourselves, to take up our cross.’" 

In contrast to Mennonites of eastern Pennsylvania, Brenneman called for separation from the political system. "‘Is it not enough for us to be Christians?’ he asked. ‘Or must we also be called, or call ourselves, after a worldly name—a Democrat or a Republican? Surely we ought to guard against this evil’" (179).

In another year, Funk would begin to publish a magazine, Herald of Truth which for more than 40 years would provide a gathering place for Mennonite thinking on ethical issues. Thus Funk’s work "would cast peoplehood in more clearly theological and ideological terms" (231). As time went on, "A two-kingdom people in a world of multiple identities, Mennonites faced the challenges of faithfulness and relevance, and formulated divergent responses to that tension" (233).

The authors observe that "the war had demonstrated the lack of consensus, coordination, and systematic communication among Mennonite and Amish Americans. . . . If the war had not formally divided Mennonites and Amish (as it hadn’t Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, perhaps it was because there was too little real unity to begin with" (231).

In wars following the Civil War, peace churches have found it necessary to contrast the conflict with their values and seek to forge a response. Support for the young men in World War I was later deemed inadequate. They were inducted into army camps and persecuted for their position. My father-in-law, Eugene Yoder, found the experience so painful that it was reported he wished to have no sons. As it happened, he had only two daughters.

Before World War II church leaders negotiated Civilian Public Service, which was set up to provide work of national significance at no pay for the conscientious objectors. Some considered it as a compromise, but the experience provided opportunities for young men to sharpen leadership skills and numbers of them later served with distinction as leaders in the Mennonite Church. 

The Korean War and the Vietnam War followed, but today the American military is able to function without a draft. This puts people of peace in an odd—and potentially dangerous—position. As long as they order their lives quietly no one is likely to bother them.
The book closes by quoting Vincent Harding, an African-American historian who wondered whether American descendants of the Anabaptists may have "‘forgotten what it is to rejoice in suffering for Christ’s sake, forgotten our comradeship with the outcasts, forgotten how it was to be fools for Christ’s sake?’"

The authors conclude that "The heirs of those who fought and those who refused to fight in the 1860s, along with all who probe the moral dimensions of human conflict, still live with such questions" (233).

Indeed, we do.

—Daniel Hertzler, Scottdale, Pennsylvania, is an editor, writer, Sunday school teacher, and instructor for the correspondence course, Pastoral Studies Distance Education.