Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War

Review of Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, by Harry S. Stout (New York: Viking, 2006)

Upon the Altar of the Nation is a provocative and disturbing moral history of the Civil War. It is not a merely a religious or intellectual history, but a history that explicitly makes judgments about "the distances between the oughts and the actualities" (xii).

Harry S. Stout, professor of American Religious History at Yale University, goes beyond the realm of traditional academic historical writing. In short chapters filled with battles and sermons he argues that the conduct of the Civil War was immoral. It lacked the discrimination and proportionality that characterize "just war." As civilians suffered and battlefield casualties mounted, clergy on both sides failed to provide a moral critique of the war and instead became champions of patriotism. Christian leaders ratified a new "civil religion," a new sense of the nation's "messianic destiny," which Stout sees as the war's defining legacy (xxi).

Abraham Lincoln, the voice of America's civil religion, led the Union into war against the seceded states to preserve the America he revered, not to end slavery. But Stout explicitly avoids addressing the causes of the war or the morality of slavery. He focuses on military conduct.

From the outset religious leaders in the North and South helped shape the conduct of the war by imbuing their respective causes with spiritual significance. Northern churches fused bitter denunciations of slavery with a sense of the mission of the United States, while Southern clergymen defended slavery and enthusiastically supported the new Confederate nation, which pledged itself to God in its constitution.

In this environment the conflict escalated through 1861. By September 1862 the Battle of Antietam provided the bloodiest day in American history, rewriting "the rules for acceptable losses in war" with its 24,000 casualties, yet religious leaders only became more committed to their crusades and more strident in their denunciations of the enemy (153). Each side romanticized the sacrifice of its martyrs and demanded revenge.

In Stout's hands the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 becomes the tool of a "total war," a war brought home to civilians through the destruction—and liberation—of property. Stout argues that Lincoln, despite his anti-slavery leanings, issued the proclamation primarily because "emancipation legitimated—and promoted—an escalation of the war on the battlefields and Southern home fronts like no other action could do" (185). In the years that followed battles claimed casualties out of all proportion to their military goals, and Union troops displaced non-combatants and pillaged and burned their property in Vicksburg, Atlanta, Columbia, and large swaths of the South. Stout faults Northern clergy who justified the bloodshed by choosing to "misread" the Emancipation Proclamation as a moral document.

As the country suffered, Lincoln paved the way for reunification by reshaping his civil religion. In his second inaugural speech, the month before his death, he preached the vision of a healed redeemer nation that would arise out of the shared blood sacrifice of war.

Ultimately, Stout endorses this vision despite his determination that the war was immoral. He cannot accept that 620,000 Americans died in vain, and he feels compelled to share the sense of (Northern) contemporaries that America was "the world's last best hope" (458). For Stout, this hope does not lie specifically in emancipation or the incipient stirrings of racial equality but in the more abstract idea of freedom for which both sides fought. Reunification around this idea demanded a civil religion. "And how does any real religion come into being without the shedding of blood?" (459).

Stout demands we confront his moral conclusions. His lessons are clearly aimed at a country currently at war. He vividly depicts the bloody consequences of a war driven by a certainty that infuses nationalism with spiritual meaning. He demonstrates the need for critical voices during a time of war, particularly those committed to exploring "ambiguity." He documents the death toll of a war that ceded moral decision making to generals it perceived as "warrior priests," used the specter of a terrorist threat to target civilian property, and covered its "moral flanks" by using rhetoric to obscure reality.

But the force of Stout's moral message is compromised. His narrative of the war is surprisingly similar to the "violent but glamorized and romantic" versions of the Civil War that he criticizes (459). He narrates battles from a general's eye view. Stout describes "impregnable" rebel forces entrenched in what became known as Bloody Lane at Antietam and the "wave after wave" of Federal soldiers who tried to dislodge them (152). There are gory eyewitness accounts, but Stout does not probe the pervasive and mundane suffering lived by soldiers and civilians. This is no All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque's grueling anti-war portrayal of trench warfare during World War I.

Stout does not provide any new evidence of the harshness of the Civil War. Civilians did not face systematic killing and rape as they have in wars since, so Stout must focus on the displacement and loss of property that must have caused great fear and suffering among Southern whites. He quotes unsympathetic former plantation mistresses and more sympathetic residents of Southern cities. Stout only briefly mentions the rape of African American women and the execution of African American Union troops.

In fact, the four million people emancipated by the war are marginal to the book's moral calculus. Because Stout deflects the moral weight of slavery and freedom, he leaves himself in a difficult position. While it is clear that suffering ought to have been minimized, in a broader sense he cannot bring us closer to an understanding of how a war that became a conflict over slavery ought to have been waged. It is difficult to find plausible alternatives for the generals, politicians, and clergy of the past, even with the benefit of hindsight. And so after documenting racism and bloodshed, Stout only re-consecrates America's national millennialism despite its obscenely high costs.