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


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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