Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the American Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006).
Christian gentlemen founded South Carolina, informants assured the London Times correspondent, William Howard Russell, upon his arrival in Charleston in April, 1861. “It was established not by witch-burning Puritans, by cruel persecuting fanatics, who . . . breathed in the nostrils of their newly-born colonies all the ferocity, bloodthirstiness, and rapid intolerance of the Inquisition,” they claimed, shortly after their bombardment of Fort Sumter. Confusing its own bigotry with Christianity, Puritanism birthed impurity and “inchastity.” Further, Yankee Puritans “know how to read and write, but they don’t know how to think, and they are the easy victims of the wretched imposters on all the ‘ologies and ‘isms.” To make matters unbearable, such hateful and ignorant persons had recently elected Abraham Lincoln as President.
If one buys Harry S. Stout’s argument as articulated in his book, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the American Civil War, he might also have to agree with Russell’s Carolinians about Yankee Puritans and Lincoln, no matter what horrendous injustices the Southerners themselves committed against those of African ancestry. According to Stout, Lincoln believed in, manipulated, and, ultimately, embodied Puritan notions of the “Redeemer Nation,” conflating the City of Man with the City of God. He, however, failed to understand fully the ultimate consequences of his actions. Though the rhetoric had existed since John Winthrop’s famous speech on the Arbela, identifying America with Jesus’ “City Upon a Hill,” Lincoln and the Civil War are responsible for specifically “incarnating” an American Civil Religion, according to Stout. Lincoln was, in the words of the great Austrian political theorist Eric Voegelin, attempting to immanentize the eschaton, creating Heaven on earth. By equating the fate of the country with the will of God, America unwittingly created its own morality, separate from the standards of western, Christian tradition. Ultimately, Stout fears, Lincoln “watered the seeds of an American-led Christian imperialism that was not without costs in later American history” (pg. 189).
Convincing the American people to wage such an uncivil war, though, proved difficult. “Rhetoric alone cannot create a religion,” Stout writes. “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” (pg. xxi). Seeing himself as a mystic and his best generals as “warrior priests,” Lincoln, as Stout argues, used the just and moral notion of the emancipation of black slaves to wage a brutal and immoral war against civilians. “As the war descended into a killing horror, the grounds of justification underwent a transformation from a just defensive war fought out of sheer necessity to preserve home and nation to a moral crusade for ‘freedom’ that would involve nothing less than a national ‘rebirth,’ a spiritual ‘revival.’” (pg. xxi). Stout offers the reader a detailed analysis of the fight for emancipation and the consequent devolution of moral standards into total war as the war transformed from soldiers fighting soldiers to soldiers harassing, marauding, raping, and, sometimes, outright murdering civilians. The decline began formally on July 22, 1862, when Lincoln issued an executive order allowing Union officers to confiscate civilian property. On the same day, he informed his cabinet of the Emancipation Proclamation. “The coupling of orders on the same day perfectly symbolized the conjunction of emancipation and total war in Lincoln’s mind,” Stout writes (pg. 143).
With three million men in arms and 620,000 men giving their lives in the Civil War, the nation found its blood sacrifice. During the immense conflict, patriotism became higher than faith, the nation higher than any denomination, and Christian ministers, by and large, refused to condemn any atrocity and, instead, played the role of sectional cheerleaders. Dead soldiers became “martyrs” not for Christ, but for the born-again nation state. The ultimate sacrifice, however, came on Good Friday, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth assassinated the president, resulting in the apotheosis of Lincoln. “Through his death, an innocent Lincoln became transformed from the prophet of America’s civil religion to its messiah.” (pg. 455).
Three flaws mar Stout’s fascinating and well-written Upon the Altar of the Nation. First, by focusing so much on the tragedies of the Civil War, Stout ignores the overwhelming nobility of the struggle in which men cared deeply and personally about the republic and its future. It’s difficult not to see the western virtue in the last stand of William H.L. Wallace at the Hornet’s Nest in April 1862, allowing Grant time to regroup and retake Shiloh the following day; or the fierce fighting of the 24th Michigan—with men from my college—who willingly gave their lives on the first day at Gettysburg, preventing the Confederacy from taking the higher ground; or the voluntary sacrifice of the 54th Massachusetts in July of 1863 at Fort Wagner, thus creating a rallying cry and legend for other black troops to follow. It should never be forgotten that ninety-four percent of Union troops volunteered. This was not a cynical age.
Second, though Stout discusses Lincoln’s policy for peace several times and, often, in great detail, he focuses so much on Lincoln’s war policy that his peace policy tends to get overwhelmed. No historian can doubt that Lincoln waged a brutal and hard war. But, Lincoln also wanted an equally soft peace. “Let them all go, officers and all, I want submission and no more bloodshed,” the president told Grant and Sherman in the Spring of 1865. “I want no one punished; treat them liberally all around. We want those people to return to their allegiance to the Union and submit to the laws.” Or, could one find better words than in the second inaugural?
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Third, one must also wonder if Lincoln and the nation’s “baptism in blood” is a co-opting, distortion, or mocking of the Christian message, attempting to create Heaven on Earth, or, more powerfully, a reflection of the true act of sacrifice, the death of the Incarnate Logos on a piece of wood on a Friday afternoon, reconciling all things to Himself. Counter Stout, one could argue that the West was born in sacrifice as the 300 under Leonidas gave their lives to prevent the tyrannical Persians from conquering the various Greek city states in 480 BC. Such sacrifices continued throughout the history of the West, sustaining it: Socrates; Cicero; the apostles; and Sts. Stephen, Perpetua, Felicity, Lawrence, Boniface, Thomas More, John Fisher, and Maximilian Kolbe, to name just a few. Each such sacrifice should remind us of what it means to be human, to cherish the good life and the many gifts given to us. If properly understood, these acts should awaken our imagination, our sense of honor, and increase our humility. Such should be the case not just with Leonidas’s 300, but also with America’s 620,000.
[This review originally appeared in CRISIS magazine]