30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on July 28, 2006
Since the history of the Civil War fills libraries, it's difficult to know where to begin to study the vast subject. Stout's superb work is an excellent place to start. The book's subtitle, "A Moral History of the Civil War", is an accurate description of what the book is about. Rather than just a history of battles, Stout supplies the context that stands behind the combat and the politics. The reader gets an appreciation for civilian life as the war continues from year to year. You come away with a sense of how and why the opposing sides justified their actions. Unlike many historians and other authors, Stout does not feel compelled to make every judgment for the reader. He lets his meticulous sources and endnotes speak for themselves, while he covers the war's biggest themes. This is a book to take your time on and linger over - it's not a history to skim, but the effort is worth it. Helpful maps and illustrations. Highest recommendation. If you always wanted to do some Civil War reading, I suggest pairing it with E. L. Doctorow's "The March" (which is excellent in audiobook format).
32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2006
Stout has answered many of the questions I previously held about the Civil War. I always wondered what the people during that period were thinking and what response (if any) they had to the enormous loss of life. It also raised many new questions and I hope Stout's book is the spark that will ignite more research into this area.
I noticed one of the other reviewers wrote that it was confusing; he says there is nothing edifying and the fundamental problem is the absence of a definition of what a 'moral' history is. To this I say, herein lies the most edifying aspect of the book, the fact that Stout does define what a moral history is, and in so doing, he turns a period of our history that might otherwise be nothing more than a blight, into something that might teach us valuable lessons and insights on what we might avoid.
The validity of Stout's historical methodology lies in the fact that he is a pioneer, and it is understandable that his is misunderstood. Some readers might try to put this book into categories they are familiar with, and when they find it does not fit neatly into their preconceived notions of what a history of the Civil War should look like, they might get frustrated. However, if you approach the book understanding that it is a new methodology and try seeing it through the lense of 'morality' and 'justice,' it has enormous implications.
My prediction is that Stout is a strong candidate for the Pulitzer with this ground-breaking book. I also predict that 'Upon the Altar of the Nation' will cause historians to ask a great deal of questions heretofor neglected. A whole new branch of history is on the horizon.
26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on August 12, 2006
This book is clearly written, informative, and brutally honest in that it asks questions about the morality of the Civil War that were not asked during this great conflict, and have many times not been addressed in subsequent histories of the war. This book does a great service to all humans made in God's image who struggle to understand what precisely this war was about, how this war still affects us all intellectually and emotionally today, and how we will tell this important story to our children. There were many sacrifices made in God's name and for the good of these United States in the Civil War, but there were many gross sins, intentional and unintentional, that blurred the vision of many church leaders, politicians, soldiers, and citizens in this watershed war that defines us all today! I agree with another reviewer that Professor Stout's honest and superbly written moral history of the American Civil War is the best place to start when considering this important war that has been told from many different perspectives. I highly recommend this book to all interested in history, ethics, and those seeking to better understand exactly it means to be an American. As a Christian, who also is an American citizen, this book truly helped me to look beyond my regional identity to identify myself with Christ's Kingdom made up of every tribe, tongue, nation and people. As the Bible teaches so clearly in every historical "hero" there is also a villain lurking in our flesh, and in every historical "villain" there is oftentimes an unexpected hero to be found within. As Professor Stout writes candidly in the introduction: "'Upon the Altar of the Nation' tells difficult stories of unjust conduct on both sides of the struggle. Understandably, most Americans prefer not to face the evidence of an immoral war, especially when the war in question is the American Civil War. But I believe that if we are to understand the meaning of America today, then face it we must....Only when the reader hears the anguished cries of the suffering - -My God, why have you forsaken us?- -will the full moral dimensions of 'America's costliest war' be revealed for him or her to judge and, in judging, to learn timely lessons for today."
Thank you Professor Stout, you deserve great praise for all of your excellent historical work, and particuarly the Pulitzer Prize for this one!
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2008
This is painful but essential reading for Americans, especially Civil War buffs, because of a basic but mistaken view of that conflict. If it was about heroic ordinary Rebs and Yanks or the greatness of Lee, Grant and Lincoln, then romance and sentiment prevail, adding to America's myth of exceptionalism. But the CW also can, and should, be about violence and the horrors of war; it certainly saw plenty of both. Stout fully covers many moral problems of wartime conduct, which greatly exercised veterans and survivors: massacres of defeated troops; targeting civilians and domestic economies; starvation and mistreatment of POWs; re-enslavement of freedpeople; and the constant invocation of God's will in support of each side. He also addresses a cruel if unintended factor. Strategy and tactics had not evolved along with technological advances, dooming many soldiers to brutal maiming or death. Enough narrative context keeps this from being a narrow specialized work, and Stout stresses the core economic motives of both sides. His emphasis on just-war theory could include more modern concepts of human rights, thus making the CW more comparable to World War II, which is usually viewed less sentimentally. Some small factual and interpretive errors occur: the account of Forts Henry and Donelson is muddled and partly unreliable; Champion's Hill was a key battle in the Vicksburg campaign, not Champion Hills; etc. Minor in themselves, together they aid those who will resist Stout's interpretation. This is a pity, because "Upon the Altar" greatly advances understanding of the war.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2012
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This is a profound and important perspective on the moral issues raised by the Civil War. You may not agree with all of author Stout's conclusions, but this is fresh, thought provoking view of a war about which so much has been written. Books on battles, generals, military tactics and strategies abound -- and for the most part they are very good works of non-fiction -- but Stout's book takes us to a higher level of discourse. Stout expresses his intent in his introduction: "In telling the story of the Civil War, I pay particular attention to those aspects of the war that raise moral issues ... I seek first to establish a narrative that frees the reader to make his or her judgments, while admittedly drawing conclusions of my own." Professor Stout is skilled at raising the crucial issues using clear examples and avoiding academic jargon that, in lesser hands, would make a book on this topic unreadable. My suggestion: read a few chapters of Stout's book, reflect on what what he has written, then put the book aside for a while and come back to it after you have read other works about the war's battles, generals, etc. You will have a fresh perspective from which to view this war that is such a watershed in U. S. history.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 8, 2012
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Harry Stout's Upon the Altar of the Nation narrated the events of the Civil War through a moral lens composed of just war principles. The narrative detailed accounts of the ideological, theological, cultural, and physical battles that approached, endured, and followed the war. These battles were all in service to the establishment of an identity as a nation, even as Federalists and Confederates disagreed as to its composition. Peering through Stout's moral lens, readers witness the battles, their goals, and their outcomes in a fresh way.
The final image viewed through this moral lens is the American civil religion that arose from the war and unified Americans afterward. Stout argues that Americans incarnated this civil religion, which was "religious and ideological, cultural and theological," through the blood sacrifice of soldiers and civilians. These blood sacrifices occurred in a war where each side blocked moral reflection from the outset due to certitude regarding the moral justification and role of God in their efforts. After more than 600,000 deaths, patriotic ideals that stressed service to one's nation enabled a defeated South and triumphant North to rise together and continue as one.
At the end of Stout's work, I sat stunned at the artful way Stout had successfully woven his argument throughout the historical narrative. It was almost unbelievable that Lincoln, the savior of American civil religion, died on Good Friday. Stout saved his most powerful association between nation and religion for last and it served to reinforce his argument in a way that was memorable and avoidant of a trite conclusion. Stout's narrative is one I shall not soon forget.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2010
This is an important and interesting book. Stout looks at the most destructive war (in terms of American casualties) our country has ever fought from a moral perspective. Stout focuses on the military campaigns of the Civil War. We read of how contemporaries viewed these battles, getting a clear sense that just war concerns rarely entered the picture on either side. Neither the political and military leaders nor religious leaders brought moral concerns drawn from the just war theory such as a sense of proportionality and noncombatant immunity to bear on their responses to the war.
Stout traces the inexorable evolution among the Union leaders from what he calls the "West Point Code" (a philosophy of limited war taught at the U.S. Military Academy) to the scorched earth campaigns of Generals Sherman and Sheridan that brought the South utterly to its knees. In the midst of its commitment to total war and victory at all costs, the Union simply disregarded without much debate any old fashioned just war ideas. The Confederacy also was perfectly willing to leave the West Point Code behind.
Stout conveys the largely uncritical embrace of total war as a religious imperative by partisans on both sides of this war. Particularly eye-opening is Stout's account of President Lincoln's embrace of the devastating practices of total war with the intent (to paraphrase a later American general, Curtis LeMay) to kill and kill until the enemy finally gives up. We learn how Lincoln's absolute commitment to the inviolability of the Union became the end that justified whatever means were deemed effective in achieving it. Stout could have told us more about how Lincoln's Union-worship combined with his generic religiosity to give powerful impetus for the emergence of American Civil Religion--and how this Civil Religion has exerted such powerful influence on the embrace of subsequent military actions as in some sense "God's will."
It is at this point of the religious dynamics that supported total war (and jettisoned any effective use of just war constraints) that Stout's book makes its greatest contribution (while also leaving this reader the most frustrated). The book's title, "Upon the altar of the nation" points to how Christian imagery of blood sacrifice and redemptive violence underwrote a religious affirmation of what became a most unjust war (based on its violation of the jus in bello [just conduct] principles of the just war theory). That is, the Civil War serves as a founding event in America's long-term (and devastating) embrace of the "myth of redemptive violence"--the belief that violence successfully responds to problems of injustice and wrong-doing and accomplishes good ends.
However, Stout doesn't do nearly enough in reflecting on the legacy of the Civil War. He has us set up for reflections on the consequences of that war, as the book is full of hints about the problematic consequences of the amoral execution of the War. But then he leaves us hanging. He does, briefly, mention the later history of Generals Grant, Sherman, and (especially) Sheridan applying the lessons they learned in total war to the annihilation of Native Americans. But virtually nothing else.
The book would have been much stronger with about 100 pages of analysis on the legacy of the Civil War in the subsequent acceptance and practice of total war free from moral restraint in American history. I do notice that Stout dedicates this book to his father, "a warrior sailor in a just war"--i.e., World War II. Well, maybe. But in light of Stout's own analysis of the Civil War, one has to wonder whether a similar analysis of World War II might raise serious questions about that justness of that war, too (see Nicholson Baker, HUMAN SMOKE, for the beginning of such a critical analysis of World War II as unjust, though see also Michael Bess, CHOICES UNDER FIRE, for a careful moral analysis of that war that by and large agrees with Stout's sentiment).
Stout's final paragraph caught me up short: "Judging the Civil War is not a brief for pacifism. Rather, it is an endorsement of the idea of a just war. There are no ideal wars. Peace is the only ideal, and every war is at some level a perversion of it. In a less than ideal world, however, in which we sometimes labor under a moral imperative to war, we cannot afford to do less than demand a just war and a merciful outcome" (page 461). Here, Stout takes back pretty much the entire thrust of the rest of the book.
It is hard to imagine a war that could make a better case for having been "a moral imperative" than the Civil War. Yet, Stout effectively shows us that even with this moral imperative and under the leadership of surely the most morally sophisticated and courageous president the US has ever had, we still end up with a fundamentally unjust war.
Stout hints at, throughout, with his critical tone, that the Civil War could have followed jus in bello principles. This seems questionable. Once a war is undertaken, it seems inevitable that it will take on a win at all costs momentum (at least is what has happened with actual wars). I wonder if, ultimately, we aren't faced with only two genuine options--"blank check" (win at all costs, total war, do what the state asks for without serious question) or pacifism (simply saying no, whether because one believes in principle that war is always unacceptable or because one recognizes that in actual history since we cannot hope to have a "just war" we must say no).
If the "just war theory" has any teeth at all (cf. John Howard Yoder, WHEN WAR IS UNJUST), it must lead to saying no to unjust wars. If this most justifiable of wars was unjust, what's the alternative to pacifism? "Judging the Civil War" should indeed be a "brief for pacifism." Humanity has created this terrible tool (total war) that has over and over shown itself to be fundamentally immoral, incapable of genuine justice. We have no moral alternative but to reject it, once and for all.
I am grateful for Stout's book, though I remain disconcerted by his closing words. However, even if he seems unwilling to stay with the implications of his best insights, he has given us a rich and troubling account of a crucial time in the history of our country. Hopefully, many will learn from this account and a few, at least, will be willing to take Stout's analysis a few necessary steps further and indeed use it as brief for pacifism--humanity's only hope.
17 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2006
Stout's Moral history goes further than any author before him in looking into the motives and morality of the Civil War. He asks the hard questions that need to be answered in order to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. Questions about Just-war Theory: cosiderations of proportionality; measures taken to protect noncombatants; ultimately, Stout goes out onto that shaky limb of trying to answer the question of whether or not "America's costiliest war" was an immoral war. My sense is, particularly within certain communities, his conclusions will ring too true and will not be welcomed. However, for those of us concerned about the implications of waging war for the right reasons and not simply to add more blood to the altar of our 'religion of patriotism,' this is a long overdue book. One thing is for certain, reading this book will forever change the way you view the Civil War. From Fort Sumter to the surrender at Appomattox, Stout never loses sight on the importance of his quest to create the Moral History we did not know we needed.
He argues that the people in the North and South neglected to ask difficult questions during the war. It would have been perceived as unpatriotic--sound familiar? Flags were everywhere and people were swept up in the feeling of patriotism on both sides, for if God is on your side, how can you go wrong? In all fairness to the text, I will end this review by saying that you must read it and decide for yourself, if for no other reason than the newness of Stout's perspective and his wonderful prose.
10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 2006
While tempted to add some moralizing of his own, Harry Stout leaves final judgement up to the reader. When I first browsed this book, what struck me was the sheer volume of "moral history" that the Civil War generated for future generations to sort out. I had never seen all of the issues compiled in one volume before.
Although religion is naturally a recurring theme throughout, it pales in comparison to the issue of race. And the author does a great job describing how neither side could easily claim the moral high ground on racial matters. From the Emancipation Proclamation, to the recruiting of black units, to the assignments of those units in the field, to the ultimate morality or leaving black troops out of prisoner exchanges, and the final exclusion of black units in the grand review at the conclusion of the war. Lincoln's genius is in large measure portrayed as the ultimate moral arbiter who could balance racial issues with affairs of war and politics.
The role of religion and the religious press is explored in detail in the book. One thing I never realized before is that the traditional Thanksgiving Holiday was created out of the Civil War religious observances (and was later coopted by New Englanders)
The closest any book has come to exposing the ambiguous nature of moral claims by both sides.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 2013
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The writer has tried to produce a truly unbiased account of how our nation's bloodiest and most significant war was fought. He points out that, while the Northern victory freed the slaves, the North as well as the South was guilty of much brutality toward noncombatants and prisoners. In particular, the Civil War represented the abandonment of a long established principle that civilians and their property were not to be deliberately harmed in warfare. This may very well have helped to set a precedent which led to the horrors of twentieth century "total war", and is still very much with us.