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

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

Harry S. Stout

Language: English

Pages: 576

ISBN: 0670034703

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

A timely reconsideration of "just war," this landmark history closely examines the moral underpinnings of the War Between the States

When the nation tore itself apart during the Civil War, the North and the South marched under the banner of God. Yet the true moral aspects of this war have received little notice from historians of the period. In this gripping volume, Yale religious historian Harry S. Stout demonstrates how both groups’ claims that they had God on their side fueled the ferocity of the conflict and its enduring legacy today.

Proceeding chronologically from the election of Lincoln to the start of Reconstruction, Stout explores how the fundamental moral conduct of the war shifted from a limited conflict fought over constitutional issues to a total war in which slaughter both on and off the battlefield was justified as the only means to unconditional victory. As North and South alike enshrined their causes as sacred, a kind of national religion emerged based on martyrdom and rebirth through violence.

Drawing on a fascinating array of Civil War letters, sermons, editorials, diaries, and battle photographs, Stout reveals how men and women were ensnared in the time’s patriotic propaganda and ideological grip and how these wartime policies continue to echo in the debates today. Sure to provoke a major reevaluation of this bloody and tormented period and appeal to readers of James McPherson, Garry Wills, and David Herbert Donald, Upon the Altar of the Nation is a provocative and surprising examination of motive and conduct, both on and off the battlefield.

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to pray for Abraham Lincoln and stated his preference for Clement Vallandigham in the Ohio gubernatorial election, he was hauled before the conference assembly, “tried” outside of a formal church trial, and dismissed. Even as Christian Democrats accused fellow churchmen of being politically partisan, clerical Republicans did more than live up to the accusation—indeed they carried it as a point of pride. The Republican religious press, like the denominations that sponsored it, continued to be

DeBeaux, T. L. Fast-Day Sermon. Wytheville, AL, 1861. Delbanco, Andrew, ed. The Portable Abraham Lincoln. New York, 1992. Doggett, D. S. A Discourse Delivered in the Broad Street Methodist Church, Richmond, Virginia, Thursday, September 18, 1862. Richmond, 1862. ————. The War and Its Close. A Discourse Delivered in Centenary Church, Richmond, Virginia, Friday, April 8th, 1864. Richmond, 1864. Douglass, Frederick. The Day of ]ubilee Comes. In The Civil War Archive: The History of the Civil War

until slavery was ended. Many Northern soldiers were also disillusioned, but not over the slavery issue. On November 9, as reports of the disaster at Ball’s Bluff circulated, Private Franklin Bullard wrote an embittered letter to his uncle, complaining of incompetent commanders. But of the cause itself, he still remained hopeful:I don’t want to come home before these Southern Rebels are whiped out of their hides although I am pretty well satisfied with the luck I had at Balls Bluff in having

thousand men—for fear of a Confederate counterattack. One member of McClellan’s reserve force was Sergeant Major Charles Ward of the Thirty-second Massachusetts Volunteers. In a letter to his brother, written under live fire while the battle was raging, he described the frustration of hearing shattering gunfire, with needy comrades gone before, and simply jotting letters and “waiting for our time.”5 Ward was not alone in his frustration. When informed of McClellan’s timidity, Lincoln reportedly

until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing... that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics, or lose the game!”1 By Lincoln’s calculation, the killing must continue on ever grander scales. But for that to succeed the people must be persuaded to shed the blood without reservations. This, in turn, required a moral certitude that the killing was just. Only emancipation—Lincolns “last card”—would provide such certitude.2

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