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

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  199 ratings  ·  28 reviews
A profound and timely examination of the moral underpinnings of the War Between the States The Civil War was not only a war of armies but also a war of ideas, in which Union and Confederacy alike identified itself as a moral nation with God on its side. In this watershed book, Harry S. Stout measures the gap between those claims and the war's actual conduct. Ranging from t ...more
Paperback, 552 pages
Published April 1st 2007 by Penguin Books (first published 2006)
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3.90  · 
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 ·  199 ratings  ·  28 reviews

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John E
Nov 04, 2009 rated it did not like it
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 Holoca
Justin Pahl
Oct 06, 2017 rated it liked it
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 imagi ...more
Nov 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
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, t
Michael Roueche
Feb 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
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 blo ...more
Aug 10, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: civil-war
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 fa ...more
Jul 03, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
J.D. Miller
Aug 06, 2007 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: nobody
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.
Oct 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Roger Briggs
Feb 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Excellent! Past is Prologue...where are we now...we are not far enough...
Bill Guerrant
Dec 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One cannot properly understand the American Civil War without a good understanding of the moral and theological context within which it was waged. With prodigious reference to primary sources, the author traces the conflict through a "moral" lens, particularly the "just war" doctrine, revealing how the way Americans framed the moral issues changed dramatically over the course of the war, forever altering how Americans understand not only the history of the war, but the moral boundaries of warfar ...more
Dave Benner
Nov 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is an amazing analysis of moral issues surrounding the War for Southern Independence and its political ramifications.
Feb 14, 2018 rated it liked it
Good alternative reference to the war. Well written and readable.
Jan 17, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 abolitio ...more
Jul 28, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 re
Jan 08, 2009 rated it really liked it
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 anyo ...more
Oct 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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 hun ...more
Jun 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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 dev ...more
Jo Stafford
Jul 29, 2015 rated it liked it
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 supe ...more
Jan 13, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Nov 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfic
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.
Sep 23, 2010 rated it liked it
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.
Margaret Sankey
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
Nov 14, 2016 rated it liked it
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
Mar 14, 2014 rated it did not like it
Read a few chapters and took it back to the library. Not my cup of tea.
Oct 25, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: historians; clergy types; would be politicians
Shelves: history
Both the South and the North claimed God's blessing for their side. Great analysis of the misuse of religion.
Aug 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
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.
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Timothy Sparks
rated it it was amazing
Aug 09, 2013
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Harry Stout is Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History, having been Professor here since 1986. He taught previously at the University of Connecticut. He has received numerous grants and fellowships, including Mellon, NEH, and Guggenheim fellowships. He is General Editor of The Works of Jonathan Edwards and General Editor of the Religion in America series at Oxford University Press ...more