17th & 18th Centuries
19th Century Essays
Religion in the Civil War:
Divining America is made possible by grants from the Lilly Endowment and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Civil War began with a largely symbolic battle at Fort Sumter, a battle in which the only fatality was a (southern) horse. Yet it immediately raised to national crisis a conflict that had been spilling blood regionally for decades. The perspective of what would quickly become the “Confederate States of America”—the southern perspective—balanced on two points: first, that the individual state was sovereign, even to the point of secession; second, that the “peculiar institution” of slavery was not only expedient but also ordained by God and upheld in Holy Scripture. When news spread of the surrender of Fort Sumter on April 13 and of Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops, one southern state after another seceded and the Confederacy (of 11 states in all) was born. With it was born the South’s embrace of religion as its moral defense and its motive force.
It’s abundantly clear, as recent scholarship has demonstrated that religion stood at the center of the Civil War for both sides. Both North and South looked to God for meaning, and each side believed—with equal fervor and certitude—that God was on its side. Many ministers, generals, leaders, and editors went so far as to proclaim that God had ordained the war and would determine its length, its damages, and its outcome. The victor would show, in other words, whose side God really supported. New England political and religious leaders had long proclaimed themselves God’s “chosen people.” With the start of the Civil War, southerners laid claim to the title and, through speech, print, and ritual actions, proceeded to “prove” their claim.
On June 13, 1861, President Davis declared the Confederacy’s first national fast. National fast days had long been quintessentially northern. Before the Civil War, the South had assiduously avoided both politics in the pulpit and the “jeremiad” (the language of religious devotion and lament, named for the biblical book of Jeremiah) from the secular rostrum. In the teeth of conflict, however, the South discovered a religious rhetoric that could interpret God’s involvement with the Confederate cause and define the role of the Christian churches in the Confederate nation. This language of Christian nationhood dissolved the barrier between religious and secular speech in the South, and set the stage for a moral battle that declared a declined spirituality in the North, a region—according to southern voices—now run by infidels and fanatics under a godless government.
Vindication for this new nation under God seemed to come with the South’s victory at First Manassas on July 21, 1861. In a thanksgiving sermon preached the same day in Richmond, Virginia, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, William C. Butler declared:
God has given us of the South today a fresh and golden opportunity—and so a most solemn command—to realize that form of government in which the just, constitutional rights of each and all are guaranteed to each and all. … He has placed us in the front rank of the most marked epochs of the world’s history. He has placed in our hands a commission which we can faithfully execute only by holy, individual self-consecration to all of God’s plans.
Such declarations, once rare in the South, would now become a staple of the religious press, the civilian preacher, the military chaplain—and the politician.
For the remainder of Confederate history, nearly three-quarters of all published sermons were thanksgiving, public fast or other war-related sermons, and the number of sermons actually in print represented only a fraction of the total. Not only did church-goers hear the message that their war was a holy one, but so did virtually anyone who read a newspaper, attended a public gathering or served in a military camp or on the battlefield.
It’s instructive to realize that most of those who attended local churches in the South during the war—and therefore listened week after week to their local pastor sacralizing the southern war cause—were women and children. With husbands, sons and fathers off at war, women filled the pews, and in turn, the preachers filled the women’s hearts and minds with a new sense of their place in both politics and public action. It would be the women, they understood, who would be keeping the godly “covenant” with their morality, prayers, and home-front support of the war.
The net effect of this was to make the southern women ferocious in their opposition to the North and their insistence that their men keep fighting. It was their unbending resolve, in part, that caused northern general William Tecumseh Sherman to feel justified in inflicting enormous civilian damages against the South in his infamous “March to the Sea.” As far as Sherman was concerned, the southern women’s sense of outrage and their religious determination to hold out against the North forfeited the protection that decency and the rules of war afforded “civilians.”
For their part, the southern women believed that they, no less than their men, would bear a critical responsibility before God for the outcome of the conflict. When they went to work in the mills and factories left unmanned by war, when they took over the roles of protector and provider at home, they understood themselves as vital players in a divine experiment of Christian nationhood. And when they suffered the afflictions of northern armies in their backyards and growing numbers of war dead, they strengthened and consoled themselves with the knowledge that they were doing God’s work on earth.
Part of that work, as had long been argued, was the “Christianizing” of the African slaves. To address abolitionists’ cries for an end to slavery, southern preachers declared that slavery was a sacred trust imposed on the South by the slave traders of Great Britain and the northern states. Furthermore, some averred, God had ordained slavery as a punishment for African paganism.
Ironically, this very conviction led Southern educators to talk seriously for the first time about educating the black people among them. Baptist ministers, especially, sought to pass resolutions encouraging their congregations to work politically toward repealing laws banning slave literacy. It was only logical that if the South was commissioned by God to create a Christian nation, its success in the war would depend on God’s favor. For some, this suggested that God’s favor could be lost through ill treatment of the slaves or, conversely, won through greater humanitarianism.
Within the privacy of the southern slave quarters, the Bible told a different tale. The slaves had their preachers too, as well as their own secret religious gatherings. Black preachers were often among the few literate slaves, and they created powerful stories of redemption, freedom, and retribution against their white masters out of the language and ethos of the Old Testament tales of Israel’s captivity and release. In the presence of white observers, black preachers echoed the message heard in white pulpits of obedience and subservience to “God-ordained” masters. In fact, there was strong practical incentive to do so, because often it was only through obedience and subservience that slaves avoided the lash and other penalties. Yet at the end of the day, slave religion emphasized that God would change their earthly situation and punish the cruelty of the slave holders.
It was the slaves’ conviction that God was ultimately on their side that gave them the courage to run away and throw themselves on the mercy of the northern army. It strengthened their resolve to follow the Underground Railroad in the face of untold risks and dangers toward what they supposed would be a new life in freedom. Their religious beliefs became vocal in their spirituals—songs full of their pain, sorrow and resignation, their hope, joy and rebellion.
While the runaway slaves sought the protection of the northern army, buoyed by religious messages of freedom and redemption, the armies of the South fought to maintain their right to own those slaves and otherwise to determine their own destinies, both politically and economically. As the momentum of the war seemed to veer in the North’s direction and news of victories slimmed for the South, the dispirited southern soldiers turned to religion in ways that were increasingly visible. As good news for the Confederacy dwindled, the religious press filled the lackluster newspaper columns with ringing stories of revival in the military.
“There is a mighty work of the Spirit going on now in the camps of this regiment and brigade,” reported the Central Presbyterian of Richmond, Virginia, in June 1863. With such news to cling to, the demoralized populace of the South now looked to the army for their spiritual hope. The Southern Churchman from Tennessee wrote of “immense congregations assembled to hear the word … and many sinners led to cry for mercy; a chaplain informed me that 1,000 men in his division had professed the faith.”
Even the secular press got in on the spin. The Richmond Daily Dispatch reported in January 1864 “the religious interest in the army is unchilled by the cold weather. Meetings are still held in every part of the army; and in many, if not all the brigades, meeting-houses have been constructed for their own use, and faithful chaplains nightly preach to large and deeply attentive congregations.”
All this brings to mind the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes—the idea that the fear of imminent death can make a “believer” of anyone. Did soldiers of the South experience “conversion” out of terror? Did they turn to religion out of a growing certainty that theirs was a lost war? Perhaps some did, but it was far more complicated than that. Facing failure, they needed to know that they had not fought in vain. Having sacrificed so many fathers, brothers, and sons, they needed to explain and justify the apparent lack of God’s blessing on their efforts. In those makeshift churches in the military camps, a new religion was born—the religion of the “Lost Cause.”
The religious press made a myth of one of the Confederacy’s most famous and favored leaders—General Stonewall Jackson—and his religious faith. Jackson rallied his troops with his conviction that God would give the victory to them. When he died on the battlefield, his memory and the strength of his conviction lived on. Meanwhile, southern army chaplains played a considerable role in fostering a religious view of Jackson’s death and the war. Jackson, they emphasized, embodied southern religious values, and in his death he led the war dead as a “martyr” for the Lost Cause of the South. It is no coincidence that in many regions of the South in the aftermath of its defeat in the Civil War, the date of Jackson’s death—May 10—was chosen as the date for a Confederate Memorial Day.
When all was said and done, religion formed the backbone of the South in the Civil War. It affirmed the spirituality of the southern church, and it gave the white South its self-proclaimed sacred identity. God had not deserted the South, they declared, but had rather disciplined them in a refining fire that would hone them for a higher calling, yet to be revealed. For the black South, religion formed a mighty rallying point for freedom fighters and the cause of equality. It empowered African Americans with a cultural and shared language that would fuel their entry into leadership, civil rights, the arts, and education.
Guiding Student Discussion
You’re unlikely to find any student who doesn’t have an idea, and probably plenty of opinions, about the Civil War, including who was right and who was wrong. Regional biases live on, so where you teach may play a part in the views your students have formed. An important facet of your work in presenting the Civil War from the Southern perspective will be in helping your students to put aside their biases for the sake of a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the people, whether northern or southern, black or white, religious or not, who participated in the conflict.
In order to do this, you may need to give your students an opportunity to express their opinions. Best case, you can set up a chart and write out the various views represented in the class. This is the first step in moving class discussion toward an evenhanded, contextualized discussion of the Civil War, and especially of how religion informed the people engaged in the conflict.
You may want to give your students the opportunity to do some research on antebellum southern life. Much has been made of plantation life on the grand scale that cotton and sugar produced. But the majority of southerners did not live on huge plantations. [Learn more about plantation life at “The Making of African-American Identity: vol. I”.] They worked smaller operations growing tobacco, rice, or indigo, or they lived on small farms with no slaves at all. Townspeople often employed white and freed black workers to run their businesses and factories. What all southerners had in common was their dependence on the slave economy. They viewed the North, with its superior resources and industrialization, as exploitive and irreligious. The North’s attempts to limit the spread of slavery and eventually to abolish it they understood as acts of aggression against their way of life and their means of survival.
Make sure your students understand that the North—and especially New England—had made itself obnoxious to the South with regard to expansion across the continent. Politicians, ministers, and abolitionists used the occasion of western settlement to preach and act against not only slavery but also the economy that depended on it. Southerners did not share the long-held northern assumptions about a special status in the eyes of God that could only be realized in a single Union. They had their own religious identity and firmly held to their own role in God’s providential work.
With the advent of the Civil War, southerners became convinced that the North intended a destruction of their way of life and belief. Although the North’s first self-proclaimed aim in the conflict was to preserve the Union, religious and humanitarian groups in the North increasingly touted the war as one of liberation for the slaves.
In your discussion, remind your students that people make sense to themselves. Southerners, raised in a slave economy and versed in biblical language that had been amply applied to the context of that economy, truly believed that they were the good guys. Those in the North, of course, believed the same of themselves. Help your students step into the shoes of the ordinary soldier, sometimes a mere child, sometimes facing enemy soldiers who in other circumstances would have been friends and family; the woman left at home with children and often hostile slaves, aware that enemy troops might be near at hand ready to steal or kill; the leaders whose responsibility it was to defend home and wealth and nation; the African Americans who heard the cry of freedom, but faced deadly odds.
War is not “virtual,” with icons moving on a screen or through cyberspace with blood that is nothing more than a splash of color. It is not a chess game, with canny hands moving inanimate pieces on a playing board and discarding the pieces only to set them back up for the next contest. War is a cruel, wasteful, and terrifying engagement between opposing forces that often must kill, or be killed. The Civil War was the single most destructive war in the history of this nation. In fact, it equals all other wars combined. Let your students discuss the ways in which religion would affect people under circumstances of war such as these.
To aid in their understanding and to help them build their ideas and arguments, refer them to the fine online sources available. For the African American point of view, for instance, direct your students to Africans in America/Part4/Narrative: The Civil War. For a more immediate sense of the conflict, take them on a visual tour through the Library of Congress, American Memory, Selected Civil War Photographs. Ed Ayres and the University of Virginia have made available a remarkable archive of two communities during the Civil War—one North and one South—at The Valley of the Shadow that could give your students experience in examining primary resource material for a closer understanding of the differing points of view.