During the Civil War, major religious revivals were taking place across the country as well as within both the Union and Confederate Armies (Olsen 1998). In addition, many churches believed that building good Christian character among the soldiers would make them better soldiers. In contrast to "unbelieving and careless comrades," a Christian soldier would be "disciplined, brave, persevering, and in all ways manly, for religious courage elevated men above the fear of mere physical death" (Shattuck 1987, p. 46). To meet the spiritual need of soldiers, win new converts, and keep Christian young men from being led astray by the drinking and gambling prevalent in the army camps, churches and Bible societies sent the armies Bibles, tracts, and preachers (Woodworth 2001, p. 161). Many evangelical denominations also sent prayer books and hymnals, and the religious military press began publishing numerous newspapers designed particularly with the needs of soldiers in mind. Missionaries whose chief role was to distribute religious literature were called colporteurs. Colporteurs were often well received by the soldiers because the soldiers had a lot of free time on their hands between war campaigns and they were often desperate for any kind of reading material that would relieve the boredom of camp life (Woodworth 2001, p. 163).
The American Tract Society, one of the earliest providers of evangelical literature, was organized in 1825 in New York City by members of several Protestant denominations. Its goal was "to diffuse the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ as the Redeemer of sinners" through the distribution of inexpensive religious tracts and the use of colporteurs (Gaustad 1982, p. 332). Tracts were a cost-effective means of distributing the Gospel. A ten-page tract could be printed in 1825 for one cent, and this same tract could be passed on and read by many families. Tracts could be read a little at a time at one's leisure, and they contained "instruction important and weighty enough for the sage, and yet simple enough to be accommodated to the taste and intelligence of a child," thus making it easy for readers to remember the content (Gaustad 1982, p. 333).
The Rev. Dr. A. E. Dickinson, superintendent for several years of the Virginia Baptist colportage board, wrote that "in a few hours a colporteur may place a tract in the hands of hundreds of our most promising young men, may urge upon them the claims of the Gospel, and in many ways do them good. How many leisure hours may be rescued from scenes of vice and turned to good account by having a colporteur in every regiment?" (Jones 1888, p. 24)
In the North, most of the need for tracts was supplied by the U.S. Christian Commission, an interdenominational evangelical organization formed by the Young Men's Christian Association in November 1861 in cooperation with the American Bible Society and the American Tract Society, with the goal of meeting the spiritual needs of soldiers. One effort of the Christian Commission was to provide quality reading materials for the troops. The organization raised more than $500 million and distributed thirty million religious tracts (Olsen 1998) and nearly one million Bibles among the troops to try to curb the swearing, gambling, drinking, and other immoral behavior among the soldiers (Volo and Volo 1998, p. 169).
The Christian Commission received donations from the British and Foreign Bible Society in London, who in March 1863 sent to the Christian Commission 14,000 volumes valued at $1,677.79, and offered more if requested (Moss 1868, p. 696). In addition, according to the Annals of the U.S. Christian Commission, many other societies also cooperated with the Christian Commission to provide reading materials. These included the American Sunday-School Union, the Tract Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Board of Publication, the Presbyterian Publication Committee, the American Baptist Publication Society, the Protestant Episcopal Book Society, the American Reform Tract and Book Society, and many others (Moss 1868, p. 700). Many of the denominational organizations forwarded cash donations collected by their constituent churches, sometimes as much as $1,000 or more, "with the request that its value in publications be sent to the Christian Commission" (Moss 1868, p. 700). Many of these organizations also sent their own contributions to the troops in addition to their contributions to the Christian Commission, as did the American Tract Society, which according to its website, distributed over 39 million pages of tracts to the soldiers in the war camps.
In the South much of the soldiers' religious literature was supplied by the Evangelical Tract Society of the Confederacy, which was supported by various Southern denominations. During the war, the tract society issued more than a hundred different tracts with a total print run estimated at some 50 million pages (Woodworth 2001, p. 165).
Southern churches not only sent chaplains to minister to soldiers, but also sent religious tracts and newspapers, Bibles, hymnals, and prayer books to the troops. The tracts were seen as the most effective way to save the army from the "demoralizing influences of camp life" (Shattuck 1987, p. 48). The Southern Baptists' Sunday School and Colportage Board had been distributing tracts before the war, so they were ready to send representatives of their denomination to the troops with plenty of reading materials. The demand for tracts and other devotional materials increased so greatly during the war that new agencies were created during this time to produce religious literature for the troops (Shattuck 1987, p. 49). The largest and most prolific of these was the interdenominational Evangelical Tract Society of Petersburg, Virginia. In addition, five religious newspapers designed for circulation among the Confederate troops were founded in 1863 alone.
Robert Franklin Bunting, a chaplain of Terry's Texas Rangers, the Eighth Texas Cavalry, wrote regular letters to several newspapers to keep them informed of how the troops were doing both physically and spiritually. In a letter to the Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph, published May 1, 1863, Bunting wrote that the constant migration of the troops had left the troops "almost entirely deficient in religious reading" (Cutrer 2006, p. 151).
Fulfilling the demand for tracts and other religious reading materials was a more difficult task in the South, however, than it was in the North. At the beginning of the war, most of the religious publishing houses were located in the North. The Rev. J. William Jones, a chaplain in the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of General Robert E. Lee, wrote that
… our people generally did their Bible and tract work in connection with societies whose headquarters were in Northern cities, and our facilities for publishing were very scant. The great societies at the North generally declared Bibles and Testaments 'contrabands of war,' and we had at once to face the problem of securing supplies through the blockade, or manufacturing them with our poor facilities. (Jones 1888, p. 148)
To solve the problem of the blockade, the Rev. Dr. M. D. Hoge of Virginia visited England during the war to obtain religious reading matter for the Confederate soldiers. The British and Foreign Bible Society gave to the Confederate Bible Society 10,000 Bibles, 50,000 New Testaments, and 250,000 portions of the Scriptures. In addition, the American Bible Society donated 20,000 Testaments to the Baptist Sunday-school Board (Jones 1888, p. 150). Hoge was able to elicit from Christians in Great Britain donations of "many very valuable books and tracts," some of which were republished for use in the Confederate armies (Jones 1888, p. 150). Some of the Bibles and other supplies secured by Dr. Hoge did not make it through the Union blockade of the ports, however (Jones 1888, p. 151).
Content of the Tracts
Many of the tracts dealt with the subject of salvation and sought to win soldiers to active commitment to Christianity. Such titles as "Prepare to Meet Thy God" and "Where Are You Going?" are examples of the many tracts aimed at assuring soldiers of salvation in case they died in the conflict. "For the Soldiers: Are You Ready?" reminds soldiers that death is certain although they cannot know when it will happen. The tract urges soldiers to be certain of the state of their soul, telling them that
… this is a most momentous event. It will sunder all your relations to the present world: it will break every tie of mortality—strip off every disguise—expose every error and deception—bring out to light your whole character, even to every secret thing—present you before a just and holy Judge, and introduce you to an unchangeable condition of joy or sorrow. This event is DEATH; and the question is, 'Are you ready to die?' ("Are You Ready?", 1861–1865).
Such other tracts as "A Word of Comfort for the Sick Soldiers" and "The Wounded Soldier" aimed at comforting wounded soldiers as they lay in the hospital recovering. "In the Hospital," written by the Rev. G. B. Taylor of Staunton, Virginia, tells its readers,
… your cheerful suffering, your heroic endurance are seen to be no less valuable qualities than the courage that would charge a battery. … Do not, then, I beseech you, yield to a feeling of discontent, because you are laid aside from active duty. Yours is now the more difficult, and the no less useful part. Every right thinking person regards the sick or wounded soldier, who patiently and cheerfully suffers his appointed time, as no less heroic than when marching or fighting; and doubtless, the historian of this war will refer to our hospitals as being not less glorious to our people than our bloody and victorious battle fields.
Other tracts dealt with moral issues, particularly the drinking and gambling that were prevalent among the troops. "Liquor and Lincoln" urged soldiers to abstain from drinking whiskey. Written by a physician, it stated "That the Total Abstinence regiments, can endure more labor, more cold, more heat, more exposure, and more privations than those who have their regular grog rations" ("Liquor and Lincoln," 1861– 1865). Other titles dealing with moral issues included "Advice to Soldiers" (Royal 1861–1865) and "The Evils of Gaming: A Letter to a Friend in the Army" (Jeter 1861–1865).
Soldiers' Reception of Religious Reading Materials
Much evidence suggests that soldiers were more than eager to receive such reading materials. One colporteur, the Rev. W. J.W. Crowder, reported that within the space of several weeks he had distributed 200,000 pages of tracts and had over 2,800 conversations about religion with soldiers in the camps and hospitals (Woodworth 2001, p. 164). Another colporteur working in an army hospital in Atlanta reported distributing 20,000 pages of tracts in a single day and speaking to more than 3,000 sick men during his entire time there (p. 165).
The Confederate army chaplain, Rev. J. William Jones, wrote,
I had a pair of large 'saddle-bags' which I used to pack with tracts and religious newspapers, and with Bibles and Testaments when I had them, and besides this I would strap packages behind my saddle and on the pommel. Thus equipped I would sally forth, and as I drew near the camp some one would raise the cry, 'Yonder comes the Bible and tract man,' and such crowds would rush out to meet me, that frequently I would sit on my horse and distribute my supply before I could even get into the camp. (Jones 1888, p. 155)
He describes how the men formed "reading clubs," gathering around a "good reader" who would read aloud portions of Scriptures for several hours. He observed, "I have never seen more diligent Bible-readers than we had in the Army of Northern Virginia" (Jones 1888, p. 155).
A letter published in a Southern Baptist paper on March 17, 1864, further illustrates the eagerness of the soldiers to receive the tracts. The article reports that
… a chaplain arrived in Staunton, [Virginia,] with several large packages of Testaments and tracts, which he was anxious to get to Winchester, but had despaired of doing so as he had to walk, when a party of several soldiers volunteered to lug them the whole distance—ninety-two miles—so anxious were they that their comrades should have the precious messengers of salvation. (Jones 1888, p. 153)
Dr. W. W. Bennett, the Superintendent of the Soldiers' Tract Association, reported that "the number of religious tracts and books distributed by the colporters, chaplains, and missionaries in the army, we can never know. But as all the churches were engaged in the work of printing and circulating, it is not an overestimate to say that hundreds of millions of pages were sent out by the different societies" (Jones 1888, p. 156).
"Are You Ready? [Tract No. 26, For the Soldiers]." Raleigh, NC: n.p., 1861–1865. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Documenting the American South. Available online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/.
Berends, Kurt. O. "'WWholesome Reading Purifies and Elevates the Man'": The Religious Military Press in the Confederacy." In Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson. New York: Oxford University Press 1998.
Cutrer, Thomas W., ed. Our Trust is in the God of Battles: The Civil War Letters of Robert Franklin Bunting, Chaplain, Terry's Texas Rangers, C.S.A. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006.
Gaustad, Edwin, ed. A Documentary History of Religion in America to the Civil War. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982.
Jeter, Rev. Jeremiah Bell. "The Evils of Gaming. A Letter to a Friend in the Army." Raleigh, NC: n.p., 1861—1865. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Documenting the American South. Available online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/.
Jones, Rev. J. William. Christ in the Camp or Religion in Lee's Army. Richmond, VA: B.F. Johnson & Co., 1888.
"Liquor and Lincoln." Petersburg, VA [?], n.p.: 1861–1865. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Documenting the American South. Available online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/.
Moss, Rev. Lemuel. Annals of the United States Christian Commission. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1868.
Olsen, Ted. "Memorializing the Civil War." Christianity Today, Christian History and Biography, May 22, 1998. Available online at http://www.christianitytoday.com/.
Royal, William. "Advice to Soldiers" [Tract No. 44]. Raleigh, NC: n.p., 1861–1865. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Documenting the American South. Available online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/.
Shattuck, Gardiner H., Jr. A Shield and Hiding Place: The Religious Life of the Civil War Armies. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987.
Taylor, George Boardman. "In the Hospital." N.p, 1861–1865. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Documenting the American South. Available online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/.
Volo, Dorothy Denneen, and James M. Volo. Daily Life in Civil War America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Woodworth, Steven E. While God Is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.