Religion, Civil War

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Religion was central to the American Civil War experience. It gave Americans at war a vocabulary through which to understand life and death, a rationale for fighting (or not fighting) for one's country, a moral compass, and an institutional means of providing relief to soldiers in the field and people suffering on the homefront. Before the war, religious ideas informed the debates on slavery and the character and destiny of the Union. After the war, religious institutions and imperatives gave substance to African-American aspirations for freedom and autonomy; helped rebuild the defeated South and explain defeat to white Southerners; and spurred Northern interest in Reconstruction.


Although much variety existed among Americans regarding culture and class, the men who served in the armies, especially those who rallied to the flags in 1861 and stayed for the duration of the conflict, were remarkably homogeneous in their backgrounds and beliefs. In both North and South, they came largely from farms or small towns in which family and church formed the basic cement of community. If they were not ardent believers or churchgoers, they at least accepted the basic tenets of nineteenth-century American Protestantism. Theirs was a faith still deeply rooted in the Old Testament, with a God of judgment who demanded discipline and devotion from His people. The theme of America as a new Israel rang from pulpits and in public rhetoric with great force, invoked and adapted by Northerners and Southerners alike to their particular regions but no less powerful as an axiom of faith.

To be sure, the New Testament God of love and mercy gained much currency during the religious awakenings of the nineteenth century, but the prevailing tone of Protestantism was that God expected His children to follow His ways as prescribed in scripture. And it was a largely Protestant people who went to war in 1861. Later in the war, when African Americans, Irish, and Germans formed an increasingly large percentage of the Union forces, numbering collectively in the hundreds of thousands, greater religious variety marked the Northern armies. Although Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, and others did not subscribe to the dominant evangelical Protestant code, with its Calvinist thrust, they were not numerous enough to displace it.

The Protestant religion of the time, in both North and South, spoke directly to the way people were supposed to conduct themselves. It informed and reinforced the emerging Victorian code of courage, which demanded that men be brave and virtuous to honor family, community, and God, and it promised that their faith and good habits would be their armor. Such beliefs cast war as an ennobling experience, in which those who were right with God would prevail. It assumed that individual character counted and that virtue would be rewarded. The individual soldier's actions in battle and in camp thus would not only decide the contest but also inspire and save others. Such beliefs made parting from home less painful, for the men had a high purpose and their women trusted in them.

But war in fact proved different than war in imagination. In camp, men found vice, not virtue, in the form of gambling, drinking, swearing, and sometimes a shocking indifference to religious services and discipline. The religious societies and churches of the North and South tried to combat these evils with a prodigious output of Bibles, religious tracts, hymnbooks, and papers, and men hungry for anything to read grabbed at the materials. The Northern effort to reach the soldiers was more organized than the Southern one. The United States Christian Commission, established in 1861 by branches of the Young Men's Christian Association, provided reading materials and succor to Union soldiers and sailors. The Christian Commission allied with the American Bible Society and the American Tract Society to distribute almost 1.5 million Bibles, testaments, and scriptural chap-books, over 1.3 million hymn and psalm books, more than 18 million religious weekly and monthly newspapers, and roughly 39 million pages of tracts. It also established lending libraries in the camps to facilitate reading.

Religious publishing houses in the South produced enough materials to get a Bible into the hands of any soldier wanting one, even though paper and printing facilities became scarce during the war. Southern religious tracts and papers stressed personal stories of redemption and moral discipline. Typical was the immensely popular A Mother's Parting Words to Her Soldier Son, by the Reverend Jeremiah Jeter, in which the mother called on her son to "uphold liberty and Christian valor" by acting honorably in all ways.

Both the Northern and Southern churches, and then governments, attempted to supply the armies with preachers and chaplains. Most Civil War chaplains on both sides were Methodist, reflecting the large percentage of Methodists in the churched population, but all the major religious groups had chaplains with the armies, although they were unevenly distributed and too few to meet all the needs of their coreligionists. At first, officers worried that ministers and the purveyors of religious literature stalking the camps would distract soldiers from the duty of war. But the chaplains and religious societies soon showed that they could help make the armies more effective because religious men were disciplined soldiers. Many officers on both sides came to recognize that organized religion brought order to the camps by emphasizing the need to submit to authority as the Protestant and Catholic emphasis on submission to God's will demanded. Also, a Christian army was believed to be less likely to dissipate its energies in brawling, boozing, and malingering, and it was thought that a Christian soldier would not be afraid to die. The presence of chaplains also reassured those at home that their men would not lose their faith and morals while at war. Organized religion thus promised to bind homefront and camp and to make the troops fight harder.

It is difficult to measure the extent to which soldiers accepted the logic of submission, the preaching of the ministers, the advice in the religious tracts, and the prayers from home, for few soldiers' diaries and letters offer any sustained reflections on their spiritual or moral development. The most visible evidence of religious concerns is the wave of revivals that swept across both armies

from 1862 on. The Army of Northern Virginia erupted with widely reported revivals in 1862, 1863, and 1864, which contributed to the postwar myth that Southern armies were more Christian than Northern ones and to the later deification of Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson as exemplars of piety and nobility. Revivals in Northern armies got less notice but counted tens of thousands of converts each year. Among victor and vanquished alike, revivals broke out most effusively after bloody battles, suggesting that what happened in battle had spiritual consequences. Faced with the horror of a war that was unimaginable in the Victorian code of courage, soldiers sought a way to regain control and to give meaning to life and death.

Religion came to matter more as the war dragged on. Death proved anything but noble in a war where disease, mass slaughter, protracted suffering from fatal wounds, and anonymous burial challenged the Victorian code of death's noble, gentle embrace. Dismembered and disemboweled bodies, left rotting on fields after battle, proved no temples of God. The governments responded by acknowledging and dignifying death through religious ritual. The Union made a special effort, through the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a quasipublic agency, to identify and reinter the bodies of soldiers buried in mass graves and with the consecration of national cemeteries such as the ones at Gettysburg and Arlington. The reinterment effort also further bound the soldier and his family to the nation, for it nationalized death and linked the nation to sacrament. In popular culture, especially in the North, new ideas about heaven as a home where family would be reunited gained currency. In the South, pilgrimages to the gravesites of "Stonewall" Jackson and other Christian heroes during and after the war—and later in the century the profusion of memorials and statues in the public squares across from the main churches and county courthouses—fused together the idea of the Confederacy as a Christian effort and the departed warriors as soldiers in Christ.

During the war, both the Union and Confederate governments claimed the mantle of redeemer nation and emphasized the Christian duty of soldiers and civilians by establishing national fast days, using religious symbols in public places, having ministers bless the troops, and uttering public prayers. The Confederacy was perhaps more vigorous and self-conscious in doing so because it had to create a national identity distinct from the North's. It moved quickly to place the Confederacy in the chain of Christian history as the true heir of Israel and the Founding Fathers of the United States. In their currency and coinage, both sides proclaimed themselves God's chosen people. Beneath George Washington's image on the Confederacy's national seal were the words Deo Vindice (God will avenge), and the United States government added "In God We Trust" to its money, where the assertion remains.

religion and the politics of slavery

Religion and religious leaders figured prominently first in the politics that led to the war and later in the interpretation of its meaning. Abolitionists in the North had long made the moral argument for emancipation and challenged churches to come out against slavery. Before the war, however, Northern churches were not of one mind on how to deal with the slavery question, and some congregations splintered over the issue. Southern churchmen were more unified in their stand, using pulpit and print to defend slavery and "Southern rights." In the hothouse of sectional politics and amid angry arguments over biblical literalism and church missions in the 1840s and 1850s, the slavery question caused the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches to divide into Northern and Southern branches. The rupture of the three dominant denominations left the United States with few national institutions and contributed to secession.

The war caused many northern Protestants to see ending slavery as central to the salvation of the Union. Protestant ministers from several denominations organized petition campaigns to lobby Lincoln and the Congress to make the war for Union also a war for freedom in order to ensure America's claim to be a redeemer nation. Ministers explained Union defeats in 1861 and 1862 as God's judgment on the nation for failing to end the abomination of slavery, and they pointed to Union military successes after emancipation became Union policy as proof of God's favor. The blood baptism of war, they insisted, also required citizens to sacrifice for the national good and made support for the government's war effort almost a moral obligation. Thus resistance to the draft, hoarding goods, organizing dissent, and other acts that were considered unpatriotic became sins in the new civic religion. Some Protestant churches brooked no dissent on the war effort, driving out supporters of compromise with the South and even supporters of the Democratic Party. Churches thus radicalized the Union war effort. They also hastened slavery's demise by providing teachers and other support to help prepare African Americans in Union-occupied areas of the South for freedom.

religion on the homefront

Faith played an important role in providing strength to the men and women on the homefront who kept their houses, farmed their land, ran their businesses, and raised their children. People who experienced the deaths of loved ones turned to their faith to help them deal with their sufferings and sorrow. Religious beliefs became their mainstay in facing the horrors and tragedies of war and the daily struggles they confronted in order to survive. Many churches, especially in the South, were now empty as preachers left to minister to soldiers on the battlefront. Lacking formal religious services, men and women on the homefront read their Bibles, said their prayers, and sometimes gathered together to share the strength of their faith to help them endure the tragedies of war.

After the war, Northern churches continued to send resources (Bibles, tracts, and financial support) and missionaries to the South. They saw the region as ripe for their religious message and in need of assistance in building churches and Sunday schools. Most freedpeople voluntarily left biracial churches by 1867 or spurned Northern white efforts to establish churches for them after the war, preferring instead to form all-black churches. The African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches, both independent black denominations, made a major effort to attract former slaves into their churches, with some success. Many freedpeople, however, preferred to form their own Baptist congregations wherein they had more control over their particular religious needs and ministers. Still, the connections between Northern churches and Southern black ones helped the freedpeople construct and supply church buildings and establish and run schools.

The North emerged from the war emboldened in the conceit that it was the true instrument of God's will. Radical Republicans especially draped themselves in this belief when they made the case for entrusting the federal government with new powers to ensure the reconstruction and redemption of the South. Lincoln's assassination on Good Friday 1865 offered a martyr to the Union cause that Republicans traded on for years. The postwar deification of Lincoln proved a powerful political symbol for Republicans and a reminder of the people's religious obligation to stand by the nation.

At the same time, Southern ministers blamed Southern reverses and the sufferings of war on moral laxity and corruption at home (e.g., hoarding of goods, refusal to serve in the army) and, after major military defeats in 1863 and 1864, on Southerners' failure to be good masters to their slaves. Only through spiritual renewal might the South be saved, they warned. In such arguments lay the South's postwar explanation for defeat. Southern white ministers—along with many politicians—insisted that God had not abandoned the South; rather, the argument went, God had chastised Southerners for their moral failings and lack of will. Southerners thus remained a chosen people who like the Israelites of the Old Testament needed to be humbled by defeat and exile as the prelude to building the true church and nation.

The war had significant effects on American religion, which in turn helped shape American society and culture. In making possible the liberation of African Americans in the South, it allowed Southern blacks to create their own churches. It also left the three largest white denominations divided in politics and organization for decades (the Baptists remain divided). Yet even though the war did not much change the dominant American religious belief, it deepened the millennial strains within it. It also reinforced Americans' idea that they had a special place in history as God's chosen people. This belief would contribute to the ways Americans remembered the Civil War, enshrined the nation, and justified their involvement in subsequent wars.


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Randall M. Miller

See also:Reconstruction.

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Religion, Civil War

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Religion, Civil War