Read Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War by Harry S. Stout Online


Civil War. Harry S. Stout measures the gap between those claims and the war's actual conduct. Ranging from the home front to the trenches and drawing on a wealth of contemporary documents, Stout explores the lethal mix of propaganda and ideology that came to justify slaughter on and off the battlefield....

Title : Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War
Author :
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ISBN : 9780143038764
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 576 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War Reviews

  • John E
    2019-05-19 21:35

    One of the most upsetting books I have ever read. The author is so self-righteous about imposing his morality on the participants in the Civil War. He fails to recognize that the war was fought in the South so that the damage was in the South. He totally discards the culpability of non-military support to the war and any violence directed toward them. In the end he equates the "moral" lapses of the war makers, especially in the North, to Hitler and likens Sherman's march to the sea to the Holocaust. Come on, give me a break. His continual likening of the war to the "need for blood" (again on the part of the North) was way off base. His only hero for being "moral" is McClellan -- give me a break -- he may have been "moral" but he wouldn't fight!Then he goes so far as to dedicate the book to his father, "a warrior sailor in a just war" (World War II). This was, of course, the moral war of the bombing of Dresden and the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And his facts were too often wrong, too.If you are looking for a good one-volume history of the Civil War read McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" and for morals look in the mirror.

  • Justin Pahl
    2019-04-27 16:18

    As a moral history of the Civil War, Stout’s book provides a fascinating alternative perspective. Less interested in the tactics of the war, he’s curious about the motivations and the cultural currents that allowed such an enormous escalation of violence, from the carnival-esque early battles to the slaughterhouses of 1864. Purely as a work of research, it’s an enormous achievement. One comes away with a very real sense of the civilian climates in both the North and South. It’s not hard to imagine what it felt like to read the daily reports of carnage, to sit in the pews and listen to preachers make the case for Union or rebellion.Stout also expertly traces the changing rationales – the North’s initial reluctance to wholesale embrace emancipation until, with support wavering, Lincoln wagered the entire war on the “higher cause” of emancipation; the South’s turn from ideological fervor to an almost mystical belief in the power of both Lee and God to save their “righteous nation.”He’s most at home, as a scholar, in tracing these shifts in religious thought, and especially the ways that old forms and systems – Puritanism in the north, the jeremiad in the south – were used to bolster civilian support for the war efforts. He also expertly shows the blurring of lines between religious and civic, and makes a compelling case that the Civil War’s true effect was the creation of a new civil religion – that of American nationalism, forged in blood. Stout falters, however, in much of his own analysis. Early in the book, he seems to argue, quite forcibly at points, that the slaughter could have been avoided had the North only heeded the calls of Democrats for peace (and the preservation of slavery). The suffering of the millions of slaves often seems an afterthought; the only innocents, through much of Stout’s book seem to be the white, southern civilians beset by the marauding Union soldiers. It seems irrelevant to Stout that these same civilians supported the government – in ways both material and immaterial – that waged open insurrection against the United States under the guise of preserving the enslavement of 4 million black people. It’s a particularly galling blind spot, and his occasional, half-hearted efforts to temper its conclusions seem forced upon him by an editor, thrown in at the last minute. Stout will spend a page railing against Northern intemperance and thirst for blood and then throw in a single line about, “Of course, those who suffered most were no doubt the slaves.” I’d be willing to wager a hefty sum that the chapter about Democratic motivations being driven by white supremacy was added late in the construction of the book, so out of keeping is its tone with the larger book. Time and again, Stout draws a false moral equivalency between northerners who were, in their attitudes and economic practices, racist, and southerners, who were not only racist but also supported a government and a society that kept 4 million people in human bondage and began, and then wholeheartedly supported, a war waged to keep 4 million people in bondage. Stout spends 460 pages treating both sides as standing on equal moral footing – which for a book calling itself “a moral history” of the Civil War is itself an egregious moral failing. One can and should ask questions about how culpable civilians were in the war effort; how harsh Sherman’s tactics were on his march to the sea; how support was drummed up for the war in both north and south; why the north’s rationale shifted from Union to emancipation; and why the fighting eventually became so bloody. But the more foundations for north and south were different. Yes, the north was flawed, deeply, but the south was an inherently immoral society. Stout’s prevailing attitude seems to be, “If only the two sides could have gotten along and talked it out!” … well, then 4 million African-Americans would have remained indefinitely enslaved. This fact seems a mere footnote to Stout. This is a fascinating but infuriating book. It’s worth reading for anyone interested in the undercurrents that supported the war effort, and for anyone interested in the role religion played in the Civil War – and the role the Civil War played in shaping both Southern faith and American civil religion. But it’s impossible to read without calling into question Stout’s role as detached moral observer, since his own moral compass seems to have one enormous blind spot.

  • Bob
    2019-05-01 16:27

    It seems like war is a defining in every American generation. My father was part of the Greatest Generation fighting in the European Theater during WW2. For me, it was hoping that Richard Nixon would wind down the Vietnam war before my number came up in the lottery. For my son, it has been the post 9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.Perhaps no war has been more defining in the American Experience than the Civil War--in the loss of lives, the end of slavery, the death of Lincoln, Reconstruction, the character of the South, and our continuing experience around issues of race. Harry S Stout would argue that the war functioned in a defining way in terms of our moral reasoning as a nation about war and indeed in the establishing of our national consciousness.Stout examines the moral justifications of the war North and South, including much of the preaching in pulpits on each side, both of which argued that God was on their side. He traces the declarations of fast days and days of Thanksgiving (including our national holiday) and shows the rise of a civil religion around these declarations. He explores the just war principles of proportion and discrimination and how these were gradually abandoned, most notably in the total mobilization of the South for war and the total annihilation Sherman brought in his march to the sea. (One thing I wish Stout would have explored here in greater depth was the morality of Davis's steadfast refusal following the losses of 1863 to recognize the futility of fighting on. He does note Davis's stubbornness and even inclination to guerilla warfare. It seems to me that abandonment of proportion and discrimination inevitably follows the attempts to escalate resistance in futile situations.)Lincoln stands apart in Stout's treatment. As most clearly evident in his second inaugural address, Lincoln sees God as not on either side but somehow ordaining this tragic effusion of blood as both atonement for slavery and as necessary to redeem the union. Indeed, seeing casualties as sacrifices for the nation was part of the rhetoric of this war (and doubtless many since) that reflects another aspect of civil religion and national consciousness. Indeed, Lincoln's death itself was seen in Christological terms as a sacrifice for the nation.What is most troubling is to see pastors and theologians on both sides appropriating the language of the kingdom for their side and in service of an American national consciousness that establishes precedents up to the present day. It raises profound questions about what it will take for the American church to escape its cultural captivity to the American state.

  • Michael Roueche
    2019-04-25 20:28

    Very interesting, enjoyable and worthwhile read. It seems to set out to examine whether the Civil War was a "just war." I'm not sure it left me with a clear conclusion on that issue, however, it did leave me with a much better feeling for the descent of both sides into the tragedy of precedent-setting "total war." Stout does a great job of portraying citizens, clergy, press, politicians and generals descending into increased acceptance of spilled blood; while many eventually developed a near blood lust.Lincoln is presented as one of the few (maybe the only one) who maintains throughout "malice toward none," although Stout holds the president ultimately responsible for eventual total war. But it is Grant, and especially Sherman and Sheridan that Stout judges harshly, as related to taking the war to the citizens. He blames Sherman's march to the sea for creating more animosity and determination among those (especially the women) it impacted directly. He even links the resentment of Sherman's actions to the creation of the "Lost Cause." And he reminds us that the "total war" justification was used by Grant/Sherman/Sheridan to slaughter men, women and children in their later, definitely unjust war against Native Americans.Throughout, Stout presents the war as creating a secular national religion for both South and North that focuses on nation worship, with its blood sacrifices, its destiny and role as the great hope of the world, and finally with its martyred messiah in Abraham Lincoln.I enjoyed reading quotes from sermons of ministers in North and South and gaining a better understanding of the role religion and its spokesmen played in the war culture. The most interesting and unexpected contention in the book was that the South was actually less religious than the North at the onset of the war, but that the war, revivals and conversions of Southern soldiers led to a dramatically increased religious society and culture when those same soldiers came home. Intriguing stuff.I'm glad I read it.

  • James
    2019-05-04 18:33

    A very interesting book written by someone who does not know a great deal about the Civil War. This book might only interest people with an interest in America's religious history and theology. It will almost certainly upset anyone who knows a great deal or has read much of the scholarship about the Civil War. Stout has a very interesting perspective on the War and comes at his history of the Civil War from an angle that most historians have neglected. However Stout is somewhat limited by the fact that he clearly is somewhat unfamiliar with the period that he is working about. At times, his claims seem to outpace his evidence. (Seriously, read his block quotes. There are moments when his quotations clearly don't say what he says that they say. It happens far more than you would expect from such a notable historian) His Afterword is very disappointing. He makes a sweeping moral judgment about the War itself, but leaves us with a very brief justification of his verdict which surely deserved to be fully fleshed out. This was a very interesting work that did not live up to its potential.

  • Tiffany
    2019-04-28 23:17

    An honest look at the conduct of individuals/communities involved in the Civil War. Stout raises some interesting parallels between the Civil War and the Iraqi "War." In particular, the failure of our generation to question the conduct of society and individuals "at war." A rich discourse supported by solid and arresting research.

  • Kaci
    2019-05-17 19:21

    A unique history of the entire war, focusing on the way in which it was fought and perceived by those at home. There are some problematic areas where Stout fails to fully analyze key issues such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the lack of proportionality in the presses. The book also reads more like a religious history instead of a moral one at times. Nevertheless, a thought-provoking work.

  • J.D. Miller
    2019-05-06 22:15

    I just never understood this book. The cover says "a moral history of the Civil War" and I was all excited. Instead, the book careened into religious reactions to the war and pulpit recordings of ten thousand and one priest and reverends. This book, if anything, reinforces my will of finishing a book no matter how bad.

  • M
    2019-04-29 22:22


  • Roger Briggs
    2019-05-09 17:19

    Excellent! Past is Prologue...where are we now...we are not far enough...

  • James
    2019-05-18 22:29

    Good alternative reference to the war. Well written and readable.

  • John
    2019-05-02 00:23

    There ought to be more books of this nature written--moral critiques of wars. Stout does an excellent job of sorting through the history of the march toward war, the conduct of the war, and finally an evaluation of the two sides as peace prevailed. It is clear from the beginning that the North believed the cause of 'Union' was a just one--that secession must be defeated. Nowhere was this evaluated--it was assumed. What an amazing assumption! It is also clear that the radical ideology of abolitionism had a strong influence on the self-righteous cause of Northern aggression.In the south, the cause was seen as just because slavery was instituted and ordained by God--another dubious moral claim. It is one thing to believe that the Bible does not condemn slavery--which it does not. But it is another to claim the righteousness and God-ordained nature of African slavery. It is clear in this book that both sides were self-righteous in their God-justified cause of war. This arrogance led to the belief, at first, that the war would be swiftly won. When it wasn't and as casualties piled up the cause was escalated by even more radical religiosity that only led to further escalation, bloodshed, and atrocities. By the middle of the war neither side was willing, or even considered concessions. The thing was too far gone and the war had become a complete moral debacle.Lincoln seems to have understood the situation with the most clarity, when in his 2nd inaugural address he says God "gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came..." Both sides were in the wrong, and both sides reaped destruction. I greatly appreciated the work Stout did in assembling the evidence of the guilt on both sides of the war. In addition, the more central theme of the book is the advent of the American Civil Religion that came out of the war. Both sides, but particularly the Protestant North practiced a worship of the state, its armies, generals, and soldiers. This idolatry is perhaps the most enduring legacy of the war. I found this to be the most shocking and disheartening aspect of the book. It is easy to see this today--particularly in the church's stance regarding our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq--and with the drumbeat to war against Iran and North Korea.

  • Mark
    2019-05-21 17:12

    Harry S. Stout's "Moral History of the Civil War" is a story well-told. Alternating between battlefield accounts, secular and religious press coverage, and the sermonizing of countless ministers and chaplains from both North and South, Stout convincingly demonstrates how the Civil War was the "fulcrum" of American history. All the bloodbaths gave birth to an American Civil Religion which still carries weight to this day.Stout falls short of calling the Civil War an unjust war. But he shows us repeatedly how both North and South clamored that "God was on their side." He shows us how, as the war progressed, Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan et al increasingly moved away from the West Point Code of honor to justify their actions against innocent civilians because, in war, there are no innocent bystanders. Civilians in the South (and in Chambersburg, PA from the perspective of the South) got exactly what they deserved as their homes were destroyed and they were starved into submission! Finally, Stout relates how in this so-called war for "Emancipation", slaves and former slaves were cruelly abused and mistreated by their supposed Liberators, most of whom were still racist at heart.Being as Thanksgiving Day is fast approaching, the references interspersed throughout the book with regard to how fast days, days of national prayer and thanksgiving, etc. were enlisted by the emerging civil religions of both North and South was a subject of particular interest to me. In his conclusion, Stout reminds us that although Lincoln quickly passed on from the world stage, his generals survived. They carried their new moral logic forward in their merciless extermination of the American Indians.... This book is a little longer and more detailed than some might appreciate (I'm told historians are notorious for this), and in the end surprisingly supportive of the notion that "America is the world's last best hope." And for these reasons I deduct a star. Nevertheless, if you read this history you'll be engrossed from start to finish. "Upon the Altar of the Nation" is a read that won't disappoint.

  • Janet
    2019-05-14 22:25

    Teaching the Civil War has always been a dilemma for me as it is difficult to argue that war is never the right choice when this particular war ended slavery. In "Upon the Altar of the Nation," Stout gives me a new perspective by arguing that the horrific bloodshed was a result of an emerging civic religion that both justified the destruction and demanded it as a baptism of blood, a demand the generals of both sides seemed willing to meet (except McClellan). Rarely, as Stout points out, did anyone argue that the carnage must end, that it was all too much, that the destruction was disproportionate to the offensive of secession. He argues that the emancipation proclamation was Lincoln’s move to total war, making a negotiated peace impossible and thereby satisfying the demands to destroy the enemy of what the north was now defining as a holy nation being sanctified by blood. Very interesting ideas that should have been stated in half as many pages. I have been reading it too slowly, perhaps, and frequently finding myself wondering if I hadn’t misplaced my marker as the sentences seemed repetitious. But by 1863 the war must have seemed for most Americans a bloody repetition. Should I teach again, I am going to completely rewrite my lecture on the civil war, this time emphasizing the creation of our civic religion. This does not resolve my dilemma, but it allows me to highlight the insanity of war.

  • Scott
    2019-05-12 17:20

    Excellent. Finally a book on the Civil War that looks at history of it from start to finish not just as names and dates, nor a romanticized view of knights in shining armor dying for hearth and home. Harry S. Stout takes a hard look at both the promenint names, the rank and file, and finally those on the homefront of both sides. He manages to untwist the years of 'lost cause' mentality of the south and the 'crusaders' of the north to paint a portrait of what really happened in this country a hundred and forty years ago. If you are new to the subject and want to be immeresed in the TRUTH of it, this is the only book to read. If you hold strong ideals and opinions, though, on the period in our history, approach wiht caution. It will likely shake pre-concived notions to the core. All in all, this is an invalubale piece of work if you want to understand why America is what is today.

  • David
    2019-05-04 20:17

    Wow! I have been focused on books related to WWII and have become fairly knowledgeable about that topic. I knew a lot of basic information about the American Civil War but after reading this book I realized how much I didn't know about that period of time. In a novel approach, the author tackled several major issues related to the Civil War including the war itself and the individual battles, the impact on civilians in the North and the South including slaves, and the religious politics that developed throughout the war. This book makes me want to read more about the war that almost ripped our country apart. I would recommend this book to everyone.

  • Jo Stafford
    2019-04-28 20:14

    I didn't get as much out of this book as I thought I would, and I'm not sure why that is the case. I was intrigued by the premise of a moral history of the Civil War but in reading it, at times I had doubts about where Stout was heading. For quite a while, I thought he was going to conclude that the Civil War was an unjust war (a position I do not hold), but he laid that notion to rest in the afterword. Yet some of the reasoning behind his conclusion that the Civil War was a just war seemed superficial. He raised some important themes in the afterword but never fully developed or strengthened them.

  • Matthew
    2019-05-19 17:34

    generally, a quick read and quite interesting. there's something, however, "off" about it and I'm not sure I can put my finger on it. It's not so much a "history" as a Jeremiad, much like the ones Stout himself chronicles in the book. His observations on how the Civil War created the image of the US as a "Christian nation" are fascinating but he then makes a leap (which I don't understand) that the war created "civil religion." Isn't that just Christianity?

  • Dan Chance
    2019-05-04 21:35

    This was the first Civil War history I have ever read and I was surprised by 1) the unquenchable thirst for blood evidenced by the actions of both sides 2) the enthusiasm for the war expressed by "men of God/peace" and 3) the total devotion to the cause of each side when other men from the same area sometimes were diametrically opposed.

  • Margaret Sankey
    2019-05-15 16:18

    Gorgeously phrased, as I expected from a Yale theologian, with troops advancing at Cold Harbor "in lockstep madness," West Point as the "first seminary of American Civil Religion," although I seemed to have already been disabused of the beloved myths about the Civil War he kept promising to demolish.

  • Aren Lerner
    2019-04-21 00:28

    Not what I expected, and while it may be true that the negative aspects of the war need to be pointed out, the author judges it based on one, modern view of morality, without examining what the people of the period themselves viewed as moral.

  • Mike Huey
    2019-05-12 00:24

    Read a few chapters and took it back to the library. Not my cup of tea.

  • Bob
    2019-05-17 18:12

    Both the South and the North claimed God's blessing for their side. Great analysis of the misuse of religion.

  • David
    2019-04-25 22:31

    Probably the best Civil War book I've ever read although the conclusion that the sacrifice of blood was ultimately redemptive left something to be desired.