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

Harry S. Stout, Viking, 2006, 544 pages, $29.95.

Historians usually try to keep their moral judgments few and understated, and this book reminds us why that is a good idea. Although Harry Stout (Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History at Yale University) begins with a fairly compelling argument for the need to ask questions about the morality of past events, the more than 400 pages that follow show the pitfalls involved in making moral judgments without an absolute moral standard by which to judge. Stout makes no pretense of an attempt to apply any such standard. Instead he appeals to international law and custom as his rules, but uses those sources selectively and construes them to suit his own purposes. The reader is left wondering why anyone would have been morally bound by Stout’s homemade ethics or what informs his strictures other than his own likes and dislikes.

And the professor finds plenty to dislike in the Civil War. He hurls anathemas in all directions like a late-medieval pope. Only the slaves completely escape his judgment, although Lincoln (for his second inaugural), Grant (for his generous peace terms) and Lee (for his refusal to pursue guerrilla warfare) each briefly receive a tolerant nod from Stout. Otherwise his condemnation of practically everyone and everything—including these three towering figures—is relentless. Statesmen (including Lincoln) are to be blamed for not surrendering their causes, generals for sacrificing more men than their victories were worth, ministers for not condemning their own countries, common people for thinking their cause was right and everyone for the supreme sin of patriotism, which Stout insists on conflating with “civil religion” to the extent of referring to generals as “warrior priests.”

Though the author is highly articulate, he is obviously out of his depth in military history. This leads to mistaken moral assessments because he does not understand what was actually happening and why. He claims that the Seven Days’ campaign accomplished nothing of significance and thus constituted an immoral waste of life by the contending generals. He has John Pope, commander of the Union Army of Virginia, issuing general orders to the Army of the Potomac and these orders governing the actions of soldiers in far-off Corinth, Miss. We also read that on the second day at Gettysburg, Lee detailed a single regiment to capture Little Round Top while sending the rest of his available troops to fight elsewhere, apparently out of pure love for martial slaughter. Yet much as Stout condemns the shedding of blood on the battlefield, he is even more outraged at the appropriation or destruction of civilian property. In his view—but not according to the laws of war then prevailing—such action showed a failure to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants.

In short, the book presents a factually questionable account of the Civil War replete with summary and detailed denunciations of nearly all its participants for cynicism, hypocrisy, bloodthirstiness, pride, selfishness and, of course, the unforgivable sin of patriotism.


Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.