God and Gatling Guns: Religion in the Civil War by Sandra Thompson & Cecile Suchal

(This is a synopsis of a lecture given to the Ottawa Civil War Round Table in March, 2013 by Sandra Thompson & Cecile Suchal ©)

INTRODUCTION

In God is our trust, he will help us in all times of need. Oh Lord if we should go into battle, be thou our shield and hiding place. If it is consistent with thy will, that any of us should be killed, may we have a happy admittance into thy Kingdom above. Diary entry of William Russell, 26th Virginia Regiment, April 2, 1864

Rarely do Visitor Centres at Civil War sites or the countless books dealing with the conflict note how important religion was in providing soldiers on both sides with inspiration, consolation and even distraction from the ennui of camp life.

By 1861, religion, formerly a unifying element among Northerners and Southerners, became one of several factors exacerbating the conflict. Many Northern evangelicals viewed the South as a land blighted by slavery where true religion could never be practised. Northern evangelicals’ goal was a Christian nation composed of moral individuals who would carry out the will of God in America and throughout the world.

As a reaction against Northerners’ attempts to involve themselves in civil matters in the South concerning slavery, Southern clergy generally advocated separation of church and state. Therefore, the church as an institution ought not to be concerned with the promotion of secular well-being but only with the morality of individuals.

The slavery controversy demonstrated the extent to which cultural assumptions governed biblical interpretation and that ultimately Christianity alone could not provide all the answers to creating a better society.

In the North, church leaders were significantly involved in the struggle and their spiritual contributions aided Northern morale. Revivals in the Northern camps gained strength as victory seemed likely. Southern religious ideology theoretically resisted the notion of Christians’ participation in secular affairs and tended by implication to discourage a full commitment to the work of winning the war. Religion in the South made its most useful contribution after the war as a symbol of the value of spiritual victory in the midst of earthly defeat.

UNION ARMIES

Church leaders were pleasantly surprised that the war revived religion in the North -there was a dramatic increase in church members and domestic missionary activities; and the war drew people away from materialism and towards self-sacrifice for a virtuous end.

Clergy felt the war was purifying America to better undertake its mission from God to promote political and religious liberty throughout the world as epitomized in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Protestants identified the deaths of their soldiers with the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ – bringing redemption to the soldier and to the nation for which he was fighting.

Even Northern black churchmen and orators like Frederick Douglass saw a great purpose in the nation’s suffering. Heavenly warriors, Douglass thought, were prosecuting the fight alongside Union soldiers ensuring that the blood being shed by “martyrs” would pave the way for divine grace. Some Northerners visualized Union soldiers as redemptive agents saving their countrymen from the sin of tolerating slavery.

Other clergy emphasized atonement – Northerners were being granted the opportunity to prove their devotion to the Christian principles upon which the clergy felt their nation should have been founded.

Through the tribulations of war, Northerners could see that only God ruled the affairs of men. The national compromise over slavery had divorced morality from politics.

During the war, the armed forces were the focus of Northern missionary efforts: “the best Christians are the best soldiers.”

In early fall 1861, the New York Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) called upon  other evangelical organizations to establish a single national agency to minister to the spiritual needs of Union soldiers. Shortly after, the United States Christian Commission was founded and eventually over 5,000 volunteer delegates were stationed throughout the armies. Its work was twofold: helping regimental chaplains through worship services, distribution of religious literature and pastoral care; and ministering to physical needs i.e. “practical” Christianity.

The Christian Commission gradually earned fairly widespread acceptance in the Army. When US Grant assumed command of Union forces in the Western theatre, he ordered that Christian Commission delegates have free access to his troops in the knowledge that this could further boost his army’s morale.

 

CONFEDERATE ARMIES

According to one Southern clergyman, the “wicked infidelity” of the North struck blows of rebellion against God’s sovereignty while the “humble loyalty” of the South received those blows to shield God’s sacred majesty. In the “fearful baptism of blood” that the Confederacy was undergoing, patriotism was being “sanctified by religion.”

While Southern preachers praised the religious foundations of prerevolutionary America, they chastised Northerners for straying from these spiritual roots and noted that the Confederate constitution invoked “Almighty God”, unlike the US constitution.  The official motto of the CSA translated from the Latin as “Under God, Our Vindicator.” Confederates expected that God would reward them for this piety. Many clergy felt they were giving witness to the Christian faith by supporting the rebellion against federal authority. But clergy wanted their congregations to know that their enthusiasm for the Confederate war effort was predicated on the South standing for true religious principles. Other ministers, however, cautioned that no matter how much the Confederate government might honour God, independence of the church from the state was critical.

Of all the denominations in the South, Presbyterians had a difficult time deciding how best to support the Confederacy. For example, the Synod of South Carolina stipulated that their motion in defense of the CSA was not undertaken “in their ecclesiastical capacity as a court of Jesus Christ” but “in their private capacity as a convention of Christian gentlemen.”

Some church leaders hoped that the struggle for political freedom would increase Southerners’ dependence on God.

The war had a crippling effect on Southern churches, for example, the Methodists had a 30 percent decrease in members from 1860-66 and a 50 percent decrease in financial donations. Most males were serving in the military, the economy was devastated, church meetings were disrupted or cancelled and church buildings were closed by Union commanders. The popular notion that people turn to the church in time of war was simply not true among Southern civilians and the clergy looked to the Confederate army camps as a more promising field for their labours. Southern evangelicals had little choice but to emphasize the soldiers’ ongoing need for a strong personal faith to see them through the crisis. Clergy prayed that they would bring the joys of heaven to men who fell in battle and also hoped that converted soldiers would become the firm foundations for rebuilding the churches after the war.

The Southern Baptist Convention recommended that ministers be released from their parishes for a short time each year to minister to the military. The opportunity was unique – soldiers were crowded together with time on their hands and were oppressed by the constant threat of death. Early in 1862, the Baptist Mission Board took the first practical steps to solicit money from congregations and to secure appointments for missionaries in the field armies. Baptists refused to accept government pay for their ministers serving in the military.

In 1863, the Presbyterians’ Committee on Domestic Missions funded ministers to work in the army and also appointed special commissioners who functioned as chaplains, recruited other chaplains and liaised with the central denomination. From 1863-65, the church spent over $100,000 to support Presbyterian clergymen ministering to the troops. The clergy had earlier complained that the War Department did not provide chaplains with sufficient pay or status to entice capable clergymen. The government refused to take control, leaving spiritual ministrations to the individual units and denominations.

Also in 1863, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South appointed designated missionaries to military departments to travel, preach and minister spiritually to the soldiers. In addition to the three largest denominations, both the Episcopal and Lutheran churches were involved in ministry to Confederate troops.

Despite both a shortage of funds and paper during the war, Southern church leaders did their best to print religious tracts and newspapers, Bibles and hymn and prayer books. This reading matter seemed to enjoy a large and enthusiastic audience in the Southern camps as soldiers were always eager for something to read.

Maintaining the separation of church and state by both design and necessity, Southern clergy undertook a vigorous army mission independent of their government. Their success with the soldiers confirmed their prejudice against church cooperation with the state. With little aid or encouragement from Confederate officials, clergy could point with pride after the war to what they had accomplished with the army.

 

CLERGY IN THE ARMIES – CHAPLAINS

UNION

Military chaplaincy is the second oldest branch of the US military after the infantry. However, prior to the Civil War, the military chaplaincy was very small and lacked public support. By May 1861, General Orders 15 and 16 stipulated that colonels of both regular and volunteer regiments must appoint a chaplain elected by regiment officers. He was to be an ordained Christian minister and would receive the salary of a cavalry captain – about $1,700 a year.

The War Department instructed chaplains to maintain “the social happiness and moral improvement of the troops” and to hold worship services whenever possible, with the assistance of regimental officers. Since church and state were officially separate, these orders were left somewhat vague.

In 1862, military hospital chaplains were appointed and, as a cost-saving measure, Congress reduced chaplains’ salaries to $1,200 a year for the rest of the war. As well, some paymasters withheld pay if a chaplain was not present for duty regardless of the reason. Chaplains were also the only officers who were required to have their colonel attest that they had, in fact, earned their pay!

Early in the war, professional standards were an issue – men were appointed who weren’t physically or morally fit to serve and nepotism was often a factor. By mid-1862, Congress gave denominations some control over the process of choosing a chaplain and encouraged the dismissal of unsuitable ones. Singing ability was one consideration as hymn singing was considered an important aspect of a chaplain’s duties.

Chaplains’ stipulated clothing made them appear more like civilian clergy than military figures. And they weren’t officially treated as officers by Congress until April 1864 when they were to be listed with surgeons on the rolls of field staff.

Clergy who were drafted as soldiers were expected to fight but in 1863, the War Department decreed that chaplains were noncombatants and that Confederate chaplains were to be immediately released if captured. However, there was no guarantee on either side, especially for those who bore arms, and some were held; others killed. Presbyterian minister Horatio Howell, chaplain of the 90th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry preferred to wear a regulation captain’s uniform rather than clerical black. On July 1, 1863, Howell was serving at the infirmary set up at a church in Gettysburg when he went to the door and was confronted by a Confederate soldier demanding his surrender. The minister began to argue that he was a noncombatant and not subject to capture, but was shot and killed.

Many unarmed chaplains bravely chose to accompany soldiers to the front, rallying them and raising their morale. More militant clergy laid aside their clerical gowns and took up arms.

Most clergy looked on their service as chaplains as a higher calling – inspiring men to fight, protecting them from camp vices and bringing their souls spotless to Christ in the world to come.

Chaplains’ sermons focused on two themes: the patriotic requirement to fight for one’s country and the need for each man to make spiritual preparations for death in fulfilling his duties. Black chaplains also emphasized God’s involvement in their struggle against the defenders of slavery.

Formal worship services were often impossible to hold because of military requirements but chaplains would lead men in spontaneous worship in the open air. Chaplains sought out other unofficial roles to win the support of their men: writing letters for those in hospital, acting as postmaster, maintaining a library, teaching soldiers to read and write, informing families of the deaths of loved ones, accompanying troops sentenced to death by court-martial, aiding freed blacks, carrying men and equipment on horseback during marches, digging wells and rifle pits and foraging for fresh vegetables.

During battles, chaplains were usually stationed in the rear near the field hospital where they could help the surgeons.

About 2,300 chaplains served the Union armies over four years, with approximately 600 on duty at the same time. Methodists supplied about one-third, followed by Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Catholics and Unitarians. Baptist clergy often preferred to serve as volunteer missionaries, rather than in a formal church-state involvement.

Chaplains served an average of 18 months. A surplus of candidates in 1861 became a shortage by the end of the second year of war due to deaths, injuries, disease, recall to churches or lack of interest.

CONFEDERATE

The Confederacy excluded chaplaincy from the original army organization for three reasons: President Jefferson Davis and the Secretary of War thought ministers would be more useful as soldiers; some Southerners thought it was the responsibility of the churches, not the government, to support ministers in the army; and belief in the principle of decentralized power.

If the Confederates had chaplains at all, they were at the rank of private. It was believed that if chaplains were needed, they would emerge via the volunteers from the different denominations.

Following protests from church members, the Confederate Congress directed Davis to assign as many chaplains as expedient at a pay of $85 monthly, midway between that of a first and second lieutenant. There were no qualifications or duties outlined and within two weeks the stipend was reduced to $50 a month, though subsequently raised to $80 in 1862.

Appointments were temporary and expired upon the war’s end. If the South won, there would be no need for an army or chaplains.

Due to the lack of adequate assistance to chaplains, more than half of Southern regiments lacked chaplains by spring 1862. Even the pious Stonewall Jackson only had chaplains for 44 of his 91 regiments. Armies in the western theatre were in even worse shape – several brigades had no chaplains at all.

The Confederate government forced as many men as possible into active service. Though ministers were officially exempted from conscription, after 1863 those who had enlisted as soldiers weren’t allowed to transfer to chaplaincy. As well, theological students were always eligible for the draft.

Most Southerners, however, did not want to see clergy participating in killing. The majority of Southern Christians were shocked when the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, Leonidas Polk, accepted a military commission. And Jackson rebuked a chaplain who advanced into the battleline, believing that he should be in the rear of the army. In fact, all Jackson really wanted his chaplains to do was to pray for the success of the Southern cause!

The consensus in Southern churches was that ministers should only be concerned with saving sinners, never with killing them. Clergy bearing arms were perceived to be defying the separation of the spiritual from the political sphere and violating the notion of privatized religion.

In both the North and the Confederacy, ministers’ rather vague military roles were indicative of the uneasy relationship between churches and the surrounding culture. Consequently, chaplains faced varying, even contradictory, expectations.

 

ARMY REVIVALS AND NORTHERN VICTORY

Army revivals reflected a resurgence of religious fervour and spiritual renewal, providing  comfort and a sense of purpose but also psychological relief from camp discomforts, homesickness and general ennui. They began in large encampments at Washington, Chicago and St. Louis where Northern troops were training. Usually ecumenical, these fervent religious ceremonies included gatherings in which soldiers shared their experiences of accepting Christ, often accompanied by hymns and music.

Boredom prior to the spring campaigns of 1862 led to irreligious behavior and Christian men were often mocked for their beliefs. Evangelical soldiers complained that Sunday was not being set aside as a day of rest or religious observance by their officers but instead was used for inspections or parades. In response, General George McClellan ordered in 1861 that divine services should be held every Sunday morning if at all possible. He himself had undergone a religious conversion soon after his appointment to head the Army of the Potomac.

General Oliver Howard who had once studied for the ministry and was known as “the Christian soldier” wrote in his memoirs that this order had assured God’s blessings on the Union cause. In the western theatre, William Rosecrans made a policy never to fight on Sundays as at Murfreesboro when he refused to pursue his beaten foe on the Sunday after that battle. As a Catholic, however, he was criticized by many Protestants for what they considered religious pessimism and an over dependence on divine initiative.

Revivalism was to supply the inspirational, optimistic quality that would boost the Union troops’ confidence. Many brigades built churches and chapel tents for prayer meetings. Religious fervour also peaked among black troops serving in garrisons along the Atlantic coast.

Religious enthusiasm and military morale were revived simultaneously by the arrival of General Grant and by the victory at Chattanooga. The spectacularly successful storming of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge were considered miracles from God. Afterwards, the Northern army encamped and hundreds of converts were baptized in Chickamauga Creek – a symbol of rebirth to new life in Jesus Christ. Soldiers enthusiastically worshipped without regard for denominational lines, rallying around the same cross for the upcoming offensive. They were not concerned with issues of theology but with the experience of conversion and dedication to Christian living.

Many of the leaders of the United States Christian Commission had been active in the widespread 1857-58 revival and saw the army revivals as a natural continuation. Those men who had been converted prewar carried their faith and enthusiasm into the army and lay leadership was again encouraged.

The constant threat of death forced thousands of soldiers to reflect on God’s control over human destinies and enabled them to turn to religion for meaning. Many men were convinced that God’s inscrutable providence alone protected their souls and bodies. Soldiers who had shared in revivals seemed to emerge braver, more confident, calmer, more disciplined and more accepting of hardships. They associated the deaths of their comrades with martyrdom and the crusade against slavery.

Revivals served another important role – providing stability in harsh, unsettled conditions and linking soldiers both spiritually to the churches at home and emotionally to one another.

Revivals were brought to a temporary halt during the campaigns of early 1864 but resumed in the summer at City Point on the James River – the headquarters and chief supply area of the army. Revivalism reached its peak in the winter and spring of 1865 with mass religious conversions. Soldiers in Sherman’s army marching through the Carolinas gathered in churches along the way and thanked God for the day’s successes. In late spring 1865, agents of the Christian Commission zealously plunged into the task of saving souls knowing that this was the last opportunity to minister to such a large gathering of men.

 

By war’s end, an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 conversions had occurred among Union troops – five to ten percent of those serving. Revivals had gained force as the war’s tempo accelerated and Union soldiers felt themselves carried inexorably toward victory.

 

RELIGION, REVIVALISM AND CONFEDERATE FAILURE

In his memoir, “Four Years under Marse Robert,” Confederate officer Robert Stiles considered the religious life of the military worthy of a full chapter. Confederate armies were estimated to have fostered the conversion of at least 100,000 men – often at the massive revivals that took place on several occasions during the war.

Like their Northern counterparts, in 1861, many pious Confederates worried about the moral conduct of the army as a whole and the unchristian behaviour of their comrades. Heavy drinking in the army upset some military leaders who feared it would arouse divine displeasure resulting in the downfall of the Confederate nation. Consequently, by the second year of the war, several generals changed military regulations to allow their men time to hear the preaching at the revivals which had begun. Some attributed the outbreak of revivalism to “animal excitement” caused by the dangers of battle while others saw it as the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Gettysburg campaign forced an end to regular prayer meetings but what Southern clergy called the “Great Revival” lasted from fall 1863 to spring 1864 in Virginia. About 10 percent of Lee’s army was converted in that period. One soldier wrote of a chapel constructed by his brigade where the whole unit gathered for services and small groups of men worshipped privately at every hour of the day and night. Another described a hillside amphitheatre which seated 2,000 during twice daily revivals. “A sort of religious ecstasy took possession of the army” in the last year of the war, according to a rebel soldier. Soldiers ceased to rely on their military leaders, instead looking “for a miraculous interposition of supernatural power.” The revivals served as a symbolic cushion against defeat, strengthening religious soldiers’ belief that the South would be victorious through the will of God alone.

Revivals also took place in the Army of Tennessee and, in 1863, prominent civilian ministers converted many soldiers, notably Braxton Bragg, the commander.

After their Chattanooga defeat, the army spent the winter and spring of 1863-64 at Dalton, Georgia. Prayer meetings continued but were surrounded by a pessimistic air. Due to military conditions following the Atlanta campaign, revivalism in the armies of the West declined and Confederates awaited with resignation the final outcome of the military struggle. The baptism of General John Bell Hood in fall 1864 symbolized the quest of Southern soldiers for the only support still available to them.

In Virginia as well, by fall 1864, the troops had too little time to take part in organized religious activities and revivalism virtually came to an end. Clergy ministered to soldiers individually or in small groups, preparing them for the difficult days ahead.

Many more Confederate generals than Union ones were known to have been churchgoers and Southern officers expressed themselves more freely about religion. Corps commanders such as D.H. Hill and John B. Gordon were celebrated for their piety. However, some Southerners were critical of even the legendary Stonewall Jackson for his strict reliance on Providence.

After seeing Jefferson Davis and 14 of his generals at a Richmond church service, a friend of diarist Mary Chesnut reflected the sentiments of some fellow Southerners – “less piety and more drilling of commands would suit the times better.” Another diarist believed that Davis became “engaged in seeking to save his own soul” which prevented him from giving appropriate attention to prosecuting the war. Davis himself stated that “it was not for man to command success” but for him to “strive to deserve it and leave the rest” to God.

A sense of guilt about slavery produced unease in Southern people and tempered their original enthusiasm for secession and war. Slaveholders’ religious faith told them that any worldly success they derived from holding others in bondage could well endanger the state of their soul. Losing the war might bring them the absolution they desired but couldn’t realistically obtain any other way.

Unlike their Northern counterparts, Southern churchmen found few genuine opportunities to be optimistic about how the war was unfolding. True to the traditions of Reformed theology, clergy believed that every military victory was due to God bestowing His favour on those who kept His laws. As defeat loomed, church leaders were forced to acknowledge that the war had to be an expression of God’s wrath against an unfaithful nation. Religion, once a support, now sapped Confederate morale as evangelicals believed that they were receiving the punishment they deserved.

After the first 18 months of the war, Christians started to realize that God’s plan might be running opposite to the purposes of the Confederacy! The Episcopal Bishop of Georgia actually saw the results of the war as a beneficial chastisement dealt upon the South by a loving God. The sorrows that individual Southerners experienced in the war compelled them to reject forever any notions they may have once had about the capacity of humans to perfect their world. Evangelicals interpreted defeat as an undeniable sign of the futility of placing hopes in worldly institutions.

By 1865, moral victory looked better than no victory at all and faith was some compensation for military failure. In the eyes of many Southerners, religion had become identified more with failure than success.

 

POSTWAR PERSPECTIVE OF THE SOUTH

Church leaders saw in the downfall of the Confederacy universal lessons about redemption in the midst of suffering. But many Southern Christians found themselves filled with despair and some rejected their religious faith altogether. They concluded that if there were a merciful God, he would not have let the South suffer so terribly. Others looked on defeat as a testament of God’s disfavour with them. Virtually no one openly espoused the notion that slavery per se was sinful though most were reconciled to its end. Defeat, therefore, left Southern churches with the burden of defending – all contrary evidence aside – the moral worthiness of their society. For many years, clergymen preached that hardship taught forbearance and Christian humility. This theme of religious victory in the midst of temporal defeat provided a seductive figure of strength for the downcast South.

Abram Joseph Ryan, a Catholic priest and former chaplain, wrote often of the South having been “consecrated” by its “crowns of thorns” and came to be known as the “Poet Priest of the Lost Cause.”  William Pendleton, once chief of artillery in the Army of Northern Virginia and later rector of the Episcopal parish where Robert E. Lee was vestryman, also linked the Southern experience to that of the crucified Christ. He had been arrested immediately after the war for refusing to reinstate the prayer for the President of the United States in the worship services of his church. Pendleton believed that Southerners were living under foreign domination and suffering persecution comparable to that borne by first-century Christians.

The first book that chronicled the religious life of the Confederate forces appeared in 1877: “A Narrative of the Great Revival Which Prevailed in the Southern Armies.” The author argued that the Southern army camp had been “a school of Christ” which prepared Southerners to live at peace with their former enemies. A decade later, the book, “Christ in the Camp”, chronicled the spiritual invigoration that men had received during their military service.

In postwar writings, both Jackson and Lee were portrayed as spiritual leaders and men of outstanding personal sanctity. Lee, in particular, was extolled as a paragon of military, civic and religious virtues – the archetype of the Christian man whose spirit was never conquered.

Southern ministers placed religion at the heart of the mythology about the Civil War. The church remained the single institution capable of maintaining the ideals for which the South once had stood. Defeat and preoccupation with the past actually helped rejuvenate the South’s religious tradition.

 

RELIGION AND NATIONAL RECONCILIATION

An 1867 poem, “the Blue and the Gray” described the reunion of Northern and Southern soldiers in heaven and the mystical bonds that existed among earthly mourners in their common sorrow over their loss. However, the process by which Americans were eventually reunited was a tortuous one.

Clergy were reluctant to forgive the foes against whom their people had fought. Northerners’ sense of righteousness had been confirmed and they chastised Southern church leaders for the double sin of supporting slavery and plunging the nation into war in a vain attempt to keep their slaves in bondage. In the words of Congregationalist clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, a righteous God could never grant forgiveness to the “guiltiest and most remorseless traitors” who had caused “this ocean of blood” to be shed. Nevertheless, Beecher extended the hand of fellowship to Southerners who would repent.

The Union victory had given Northern clergy the opportunity to undertake a Christian reconstruction in the South that would parallel the political and social reconstruction. The American Missionary Association aimed to guide freed Southern blacks intellectually, spiritually and morally in order to strengthen American society. In particular, the Methodists received government support to erect churches in the South which would also be used as schools for freed blacks – church and state united in a mutually beneficial venture.

Another Congregational minister, Horace Bushnell, used powerful religious imagery in declaring that battlefield sacrifices had atoned for all the nation’s past sins and “cemented and sanctified” American unity and “consecrated our free institutions.”

Abraham Lincoln himself, through his death on Good Friday, served as a perfect fulfillment of everything the North had hoped to gain: the destruction of slavery, the preservation of the Union and an image of sacrifice and rebirth. The Christlike Lincoln metaphorically embraced and forgave the equally forgiving figure of the Christlike Robert E. Lee.

In the South, clerical interpreters of the Lost Cause insisted that Cromwell, the stern Puritan, best described the typical Southern soldier. This virtually reversed the traditional paradigm of the Cavalier South and the Puritan North. The symbol of the pious Puritan soldier, best personified by Stonewall Jackson, enabled Southern Christians to reassert the South’s moral superiority. It was also effective in convincing other Americans of the religious strength of the defeated South.

Ultimately, the otherworldly tenor of Southern Christianity proved best suited to a losing cause for the churches of the South remained relatively untouched as a powerful force for the revitalization of the region. In fact, thousands of new churches were founded after the war, creating the “Bible Belt” that remains a major factor in American society to this day.

Presented by Sandra Thompson & Cecile Suchal, March 28, 2013.