Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War
by Harry S. Stout
In the Civil War, Union and Confederate soldiers alike marched to battle believing God was on their side. Stout, professor of American religious history at Yale (The New England Soul), artfully and eloquently examines the evolving rhetoric of warfare, both Northern and Confederate, within the rubric of “the just war” theory of conflict. Stout dissects such public documents as editorials, sermons and speeches, and private documents like diaries and letters, to trace the trajectory of both sides’ rationales for war. But he also makes clear that most high-minded utterances obscured, rather than clarified, the economic issues that lay at the heart of the conflict. Stout argues that even today the moral justifications for the carnage ring louder than do the sordid dollar-and-cents realities that underlay sectional differences. As Stout shows, the Civil War remains with us today as an exercise of civil religion: altars of the two conflicting faiths stand side-by-side at Gettysburg and other venues, sacralized slices of patriotism painted in shades of gray or blue. Stout’s contention that even the North engaged in immoral acts in prosecuting the war will rattle many, but the questions he raises are important in an era when humanitarian justifications for war are increasingly common. 24 b&w illus., 5 maps, not seen by PW.