Upon the Altar of the Nation

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

More of substance has been published on the Civil War than on any other war in which America has been involved since its independence from Britain in 1776. This is understandable for several reasons. First of all, more American civilians and soldiers died in the Civil War than in all other wars combined. Second, many famous national cemeteries and battlefields, such as Gettysburg, Arlington, Shiloh, Antietam, and Manassas date from the Civil War and continue to remind modern Americans of the extraordinary sacrifices made by hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Finally, the Civil War still influences how Americans think of themselves and understand the complex relationship between personal religious beliefs and loyalty to America.

Harry Stout, a professor of American history at Yale University, has published extensively on the role of religions in American life. In his introduction to this book, he states clearly that his intention is not to write yet another book on military strategy or political changes during the Civil War. Rather, he draws our attention to the often contradictory and incompatible arguments developed by religious leaders in both the Union and the Confederacy to justify this extremely violent and long war. He also shows the consistent efforts by Union and Confederate political, religious, and military leaders to avoid discussing whether the conduct of this war was compatible with the just war theory, which has been a basic tenet of Christian theology as far back as Saint Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries. Stout notes that eminent Christian theologians including Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas argued persuasively that war is morally acceptable only in response to a violent attack against the homeland and that even a just war requires proportionality.

The concept of proportionality requires military and political leaders to make their military responses proportionate to no more than what is absolutely necessary to repulse invading forces. Violence against civilians is to be avoided at all costs, and there are always moral limitations on the actions of armed forces. Traditional just war theories and the concept of proportionality were generally accepted by almost all Christian military and political leaders until the Civil War. Stout describes superbly the horrendous results of the abandonment of just war theories and the concept of proportionality not just during the Civil War but also in later wars. He argues persuasively that the amoral practice of “total war” dates from the Civil War.

Stout relied on original documents such as correspondence written by Union and Confederate soldiers andespeciallyon sermons and articles published in religious newspapers and magazines in both the North and the South. This provides readers a historically accurate image of the evolution of moral attitudes toward the Civil War from Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in November, 1860, until his death in April, 1865. Readers who have accepted idealized images of Union and Confederate leaders may well not like what they discover in this book because Stout shows quite well that greatly admired military and political leaders of the Civil War often adhered to the Machiavellian premise that the end justified the means and frequently expressed intolerance and absolute contempt for those who did not agree with their attitudes toward the Civil War.

Stout does an admirable job of reminding his readers that neither Union nor Confederate sympathizers seriously considered the moral implications of a civil war as southern states were preparing to secede and as Lincoln was making it abundantly clear that he would not allow southerners to divide the Union. Preachers, generals, and political leaders simply assumed that God favored their positions and would bring them rapid victory. In April, 1861, former president John Tyler assured his fellow Virginians that the Confederacy was nothing less than a “’holy effort,’ all in the spirit of the Revolution of 1776.’” In the May 19, 1861, edition of the Presbyterian newspaper Presbyter, an anonymous writer declared that the suppression of the southern secession was a “religious war,” and he encouraged fellow Presbyterian ministers to preach sermons encouraging members of their congregations to purchase...

(The entire section is 1765 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

American Historical Review 111, no. 5 (December, 2006): 1518-1519.

Booklist 102, no. 8 (December 15, 2005): 16.

The Christian Century 123, no. 11 (May 30, 2006): 28-33.

Civil War Times 45, no. 3 (May, 2006): 74-79.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 22 (November 15, 2005): 1225.

National Review 58, no. 2 (February 13, 2006): 46-47.

The New York Review of Books 53, no. 5 (March 23, 2006): 16-19.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 45 (November 14, 2005): 59.

The Virginia Quarterly Review 82, no. 3 (Summer, 2006): 265-266.