Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the American Civil War
by Harry S. Stout.
Viking Penguin (New York)
576 pp., $29.95 cloth, 2006

Harry Stout, the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History at Yale University, has written another penetrating treatment of the spirit of Puritanism in America. His best known work, The New England Soul (nominated for both the Organization of American Historians’ Merle Curti award and the Pulitzer Prize), traced the continuity between the communal liberty experienced within the covenant and the republican liberty promised by the Revolution; his most recent work, Upon the Altar of the Nation, follows the covenantal narrative through the discontinuities between parochial and national identity, federal republic and unitary state, that exploded into Civil War. The Puritan covenant—which Stout astutely treats as a religious and political identity embedded in a providential history—compelled its heirs to clothe the new union with their fathers’ “mantle of destiny,” but the Revolution had wrought neither a unified nation nor a unitary state capable of bearing that mantle.

Thus, Stout explains, “For the citizenry to embrace the idea of a nation-state that must have a messianic destiny and command one’s highest loyalty would require a massive sacrifice—a blood sacrifice”; an American nation-state could only be authorized by a sanguinary civil religion. This claim, in itself, is unoriginal. What makes Stout’s account of this civil religion exceptional are its attention to the covenantal features that guided the development of its Union and Confederate precursors, and its integration with a “moral history” of the Civil War. Stout juxtaposes narrative and normative history to great effect, and he integrates them almost tightly enough to have crafted a distinct mode of historical writing.

Stout’s narrative explains the creation of Union and Confederate civil religious identities. Lincoln preached a secular “political religion,” grounded on “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason” and commanding reverence for the law, but his supporters increasingly found the meaning of Union in the compact religious and political identity of the covenant. Christian Republicans sought to re-sacralize the Union that the Declaration of Independence asserted was of “mere human composition . . . a machine [that] could be got up by the consent of the governed.” This Jeffersonian (and Lincolnian) political theory, failing to consider “the higher rule of God . . . never gave us a real nationality, but only a copartnership.” Likewise, Southerners hoped that adopting the covenant would make them “become a truly Christian confederacy” in a way “popular sovereignty” could not. Both Union and Confederacy insisted on a covenantal merging of body ecclesiastic and body politic, nation and state; and both Union and Confederacy saw sacralized states as evidence of their divine chosenness.

The covenant’s claim of chosenness, Stout explains, was both justified and continually refreshed by the logic of providence. The Union boasted a history that extended back to the Puritan errand, but the Confederacy almost immediately began to craft an authorizing narrative of its own. Victory at Fort Sumter validated Southerners’ Confederacy “as a newly constituted, divinely ratified, and victorious covenant nation,” and permitted the new nation to claim ownership of America’s revolutionary legacy. Providential interpretation of events of the war reinforced these competing convictions. The providential mind understood victories as evidence of divine favor toward a righteous people, defeats as evidence of divine displeasure with a people insufficiently committed to their calling. This logic, observes the moral historian, “effectively removed all restraints from the war’s brutality.” Yet the providential logic of the covenant was far removed from the Augustinian doctrine of providence that was “intended to personalize theology to inculcate a sense that God was present in the saints’ lives overseeing their eternal destiny”; Stout concludes that it “did the opposite, generating a de facto fatalism. Even worse, on a commonsense level, fatalism became ingrained so that nothing was unacceptable;it just was. No destruction could be too great because God, not man, was orchestrating affairs. All one could do was mouth the proper rituals, beat the drum of patriotism, and keep on fighting, confident in the right and ultimate vindication.”

The covenantal civil religions Stout describes were not ethical religions. They offered no resources for making moral judgments regarding the conduct of war; they even dissolved the principles and customs of jus in bello that had served to limit the brutality of war. Indeed, Stout brilliantly contrasts the ascent of Union and Confederacy toward unified national civil religious identities with the descent of fraternal warfare into barbarism. Considerations of proportionality in the use of force were obscured by the partisans’ unshakable convictions of the righteousness of their respective causes, and, conversely, by their certainty of the other’s injustice. In addition, the line between combatants and non-combatants was blurred, and ultimately dissolved, as civilians (motivated by civil religious obligations) employed vigilante or guerrilla tactics and the military adopted increasingly permissive rules of military engagement. By the war’s final stage any line that separated the civilized conduct of war from barbarism was erased. Stout documents this, in part, with horrifying photographs that foreshadow the twentieth century concentration camp: one captures scores of Southern women and children packed into a railcar to be shipped out of the fallen city of Atlanta to a refugee camp; another is of an imprisoned Union soldier neither alive nor dead, his eyes soulless and his skin drawn so taut over a body consumed from within that it threatens to crush his bones.

Contemporary critics of civil religion focused not on the barbarism it unleashed but on the folly of apologizing for a state power that should be exalted on its own terms. A Southern editor mocked the failing Confederate covenant: “[Northerners] do not seem now to rely on fasts and humiliation. They have recently indulged in thanksgiving for victory, but their panacea for defeat seems to be fresh levies of men, more ironclad and additional fifteen-inch guns.” Likewise General Sherman mocked pleas that he show mercy on the captured residents of Atlanta, pledging his allegiance to brute force: “If we must be enemies, let us be men, and fight it out . . . , and not deal in such hypocritical appeals to God and humanity.” Most of the Union relished such ruthlessness, though one Northern clergyman raged, “the army is the people’s God,” and the General “the demigod of the nation. . . . We are then as a people a nation of idolaters. We are at once, the most religious, and the most idolatrous people on the globe.”

In this way Stout documents how civil religion collapsed into idolatry, but he does not draw a theoretical distinction between civil religion, in which a nation claims divine authority for the state that represents it, and ethical religion, in which divine authority transcends and sits in judgment over the state and those who act through it. Nor does he draw a methodological distinction between civil and ethical religion, instead hoping to serve the latter while operating within the narrative framework of the former. Thus, although Stout rejects providential Union and Confederate civil religions in favor of the mystical Lincolnian civil religion, his narrative lies squarely within the providential logic and trajectory of the Puritan covenantal narrative. He accepts that America’s revolutionary heritage and destiny was freedom, and explains how, “In the Civil War, soldiers on both sides self-consciously fought for freedom, even as they differed morally on the definitions and applications of that ‘freedom.’ Ideas. Ideas to die for. Ideas to kill for. This was the innermost meaning of the Civil War, no less than of the American Revolution.”

Because Stout remains within this providential narrative of the American nation, his moral history is inadequately constructed. Indeed, his attachment to the narrative construction of national identity is so strong that he is unwilling to adjudicate between Union and Confederate arguments for war. Implicitly viewing both sides from within their own closed civil religious narratives, Stout concludes that no prospective judgment of jus ad bellum was possible because “secession is a moral issue with no moral criterion for a sure answer.” Perhaps Stout’s claim is that the civil religions of both sides were so corrupt and the conflict so tragic that adjudicating between them is worthless. But this is not the case. He is unwilling to conclude retrospectively that over 620,000 people died in vain, “because, for the most part, they did not say it.” In other words, Stout’s moral history permits him to condemn the civil religions that justified barbarism by idolizing state power, while endorsing these same civil religions for making men willing to endure barbarism in service of state power.

To criticize Stout for failing to attain his lofty goal of crafting a moral history of the Civil War is not to assert that the historian can rise to the position of objectivity and authority belonging to the divine judge of men. Instead, it is to argue that an authentically moral history requires the historian to write not of what his nation believes God has done through them but of what their state has done to those at the margins of the nation or outside of it. The moral historian must speak not for a people but for the individual who merits the irreducible dignity of a divinely created being; and the moral historian must answer not to the power of the state but to the King who warns, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Jason Ross is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of government at Georgetown University.