“Both prayed to the same God …
(Robert J. Miller, author of Both Prayed to the Same God)
In 1861, the world’s most devout, Bible-reading country went to war. Soldiers and civilians alike “read the same Bible, prayed to the same God and invoked His aide against the other.” In the ante-bellum era, organized faith and religion were easily the most important social and cultural values at work in America. Membership in churches grew from 1 in 15 to 1 in 7 Americans. The Second Great Awakening had led to the most prolific period of church growth in world history after the 1st century. Even the non-religious Abraham Lincoln would say to an aide, “take all of [the Bible] upon reason that you can, and the balance upon faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.” Though not a “war of religion”, America’s Civil War truly was a religious war.
Yet today, the role that Religion and Faith played for the average 19th century citizen is unknown to most Civil War aficionados. The life and battles of Civil War soldiers are re-enacted precisely, written about thoroughly, discussed passionately, and argued endlessly – yet their Faith life is for the most part ignored. This CD and article is an effort to balance that longstanding bias. As we listen to the beautiful hymns that mid-19th century soldiers sang and heard, let us also learn of the enormous impact that religion played as they entered combat. For religion and Faith did indeed influence, enflame, instigate and even help cause our deadliest American conflict.
- A Christian in the 38th TN wrote after Shiloh that he had “continually raised my heart to him in prayer, and in the thickest of the fight, I invoked his intercession.” He wrote his wife that “I have struggled and prayed to God until I am altogether another person … Oh, I feel as I have not felt in years.”
- During the Civil War, three famous hymns were written: Battle Hymn of the Republic (Juliet Ward Howe in 1861, motivated by seeing the campfires of a vast Union camp); Hold the Fort, I am Coming (Phillip Paul Bliss in 1864, inspired by the Battle of Allatoona Pass on Oct. 4, 1864) and Onward Christian Soldiers (Sabine Waring-Gould in 1864).
- The soldiers of the Civil War came from a deeply religious country. From its beginning, the United States was awash in a sea of faith, with religion playing an immense role in the founding of states and our country’s Constitution. Religious dissident Pilgrims, Deist Enlightenment founders, and Great Awakening preachers all were powerful shapers of the Revolutionary Era culture which birthed and inspired the Civil War generation. One French visitor to our country said that religion was “the foremost of the political institutions” in early America.
As the Civil War began, this had not changed, and (due to the Second Great Awakening) America had in many ways become a society rampant with religious beliefs and attitudes. Certainly no antebellum group had as much power to regularly influence the number of citizens as American clergy did. As George Marsden so aptly says, “American history recounted without its religious history is like Moby Dick without the whale.”
- William Corby (88th NY “Irish Brigade”): “Some people regard soldiers as reckless, hardened men, but there is a bright side to this question. The Christian soldier does not fail to recognize a Providence about him, and in time of expected peril evinces the real, genuine piety – that which he learned at his mother’s knee and which he imbibed with his mother’s milk. … As a rule, a soldier does not wish to parade his piety, and often, through human respect, he prefers to be considered as possessing a sort of bravado; but under all this, men of faith, in times of great peril, think of the great future and pray for help and protection.”
- America’s first moral encounter was the slavery issue. Despite our deeply religious roots, a “Great Paradox” lay at the roots of America’s founding. It was the simultaneous development of both race-based slavery and ideals of “liberty and freedom for all” at the same time. In 1787, our Founders consciously marginalized the contentious slavery issue so that the 13 colonies could agree and sign our Constitution. However in just 50 years, the deceptive compromise of this “Great Paradox” led to a huge moral impasse in America. It brought about divisions both denominational and national, and demanded a horrible price for its eventual resolution. It would be the fate of 623,000 innocent Union and Confederate soldiers to harvest the bitter fruit of America’s revolutionary tree of liberty – all because of our Founders’ one unresolved moral issue.
- MO senator Thomas Hart Benton compared the unceasing prewar religious conflict over the slavery issue to ancient Egypt’s plague of frogs. “You could not look upon the table but that there were frogs, you could not sit down at the banquet but there were frogs, you could not go to the bridal couch and lift the sheets but there were frogs!” It was the same way with “this black question, forever on the table, on the nuptial couch, everywhere!”
- Despite being a comfort for many soldiers, the Bible actually helped cause the Civil War. Postwar veterans never forgot one soldier on a Richmond battlefield whose dead hand was resting on these words of Psalm 23 – “Thy rod and staff they comfort me.” In 1861, the Bible was America’s most read and valued book. Printed and imported in massive quantities during the War, soldiers on both sides read and carried the Scriptures in many forms. In a predominantly Calvinist America, the Bible was truly the national book par excellance – and yet in the 1840s it became the cause of a deadly moral and theological crisis.
Just how literally are the words of the Bible to be interpreted by believers? And specifically, how literally should those difficult passages about slavery be interpreted? The Bible’s words about slavery – and how scholars, clergy and theologians in the North or South interpreted them – caused an immense theological controversy in a very religious America. Not only was the Bible unable to provide clear guidance in our country’s most difficult time, but it actually helped divide the United States even more.
- A Confederate surgeon came to the chaplain to ask for prayer, saying he’d finally become a believer. Admitting his lengthy religious skepticism, he said he had seen a clear difference between the deaths of believers and unbelievers. After long wondering why, he finally pulled out a little-used Bible his mother had given him, seeking answers. He turned to 116:15:“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” That was enough. He told the chaplain “I came here tonite resolved to accept publicly the invitation of the Gospel which, for 2 days and nights, you have so earnestly urged upon this congregation. Oh that I had submitted my stubborn heart to God years ago! I thank God that I am spared to bear testimony here tonite that Christ is able and willing to save the worst of sinners.”
- Pre-war denominational divisions paved the way for our national division. As a devout country divided economically and socially, it also grew farther apart religiously. By 1845, the red-hot rhetoric over the slavery issue had caused splits in America’s three largest religious denominations (Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians) – all in essence over the contentious issue of slavery or non-slavery. Their divisions paved the way for the decisions of 1860 – since 94% of the South belonged to one of those three denominations.
Soldiers would join militias and go to military camps fired up with religious rhetoric and fiery sermons – which rationalized their motives (Southern or Northern), and inflamed their sectarian biases. Battle flags and cannons were consecrated by prayer. One Confederate Bishop-General (Pendleton) even nicknamed his 4 artillery pieces “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John”! Troops were blessed before leaving on trains, and several “Preacher’s Regiments” were even formed. On both sides, but in the South especially, clergy led the way into the War.
- Henry Clay was not a practicing Christian most of his life, but he joined the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1847. The final years of his life were devoted to efforts of pacification and compromise. Clay seems to have brooded frequently over the political consequences of the church schisms. Shortly before his death in 1852, he said “I tell you, this sundering of the religious ties which have hitherto bound our people together, I consider the greatest source of danger to our country. If our religious men cannot live together in peace, what can be expected of us politicians, very few of whom profess to be governed by the great principles of love?”
- The greatest morale-booster for soldiers was their Faith in God. In March 1865, Col. Samuel Walkup (48th NC) lamented the long odds facing the Confederate cause – “The sea before us, the mountains on each side, behind us a mighty and desperate enemy. Where can we look for help but upwards.” Indeed, during the deadly War, it was religion more than any other factor which increased soldiers’ capacity to endure the conflict and battle stress that raged around them. Religious Faith strongly motivated the attitudes of an enormous number of soldiers —as many as three-quarters took Faith very seriously, by one estimate.
Although there were never enough for the soldier’s needs, Civil War chaplains labored valiantly – the best ones becoming jacks-of-all-trades ministering to a wide variety of needs both spiritual and material. Non-ordained colporteurs distributed religious literature, Bibles in many forms were carried and used by soldiers, religious services were held as regularly as possible given the unexpected demands of army life. One southern soldier spoke aptly of the key role Faith played during the Civil War: “religious sanction was demanded by the righteous, approved by the lukewarm, and tolerated by the wicked. All felt better to have had the blessing of the church.”
- Outside Atlanta in July 1864, LaForrest Dunham (129th IL) wrote to this sister: ‘If thare is any place that a person ought to lade a criston life, heare is the place, for a person don’t know what time he will be cald up for to leave this world of trouble. Iff it should be my lot to fall, I hope and trust that we will all meat in a better world whare wore and troubles are no more.’
- The somewhat better educated William H. Walling (142nd NY) spoke of the constant danger of the picket lines: ‘Every time we lose some. God only knows who will be ‘next’. Now all ought to be ready to obey the summons of our Heavenly Master. Surely we do not know the day nor the hour when He will call for us ….He who cares for the sparrows in their fall will care for me. My mind is at rest and the issue of life and death I will leave with Him who has them in his hand.’”
- Perhaps half of all soldiers were touched by war-time revivals. By 1863, the Civil War had lasted longer and become far more deadly than anyone had expected. Horrendous battles like Shiloh and Antietam only led to more battles, without an end in sight. Thus, “driven to their knees by the realization that they had nowhere else to go,” it was no surprise that an immense religious revival broke out. Soldiers North and South, black and white, Eastern and Western theaters, were affected. These intense revivals caused a huge surge in attendance at religious services, with thousands of soldiers formally converting and joining “the Lord’s army” for the first time, including such wartime converts as McClellan, Bragg, Ewell, Hood, Cheatham, Joseph Johnson and Jefferson Davis.
Bloody battles like Gettysburg led to even greater numbers of conversions, as one soldier testified – “I never prayed until last night; when I saw that [Christian] man die so happy, I determined to seek religion too.” A strong argument can be made that these Confederate revivals actually extended the War another year – so strong was the uplifting effect of Faith upon their morale in the desperate last days of the War.
- A colporteur in a Lynchburg VA hospital talked with a wounded soldier who told him “that at home he had been a prominent member of the Church, but that since he had been to camp he had wandered off and brought reproach upon his profession [i.e. Christianity], but that this sickness, from which he was then suffering, had been blessed to his soul, and that he should, with divine help, live a new life and consecrate himself to the cause of God.”
- Confederate soldier Ignatius Brock was impressed with the peace with which his brother spent his dying moments. ‘His end was peaceful in the full assurance of eternal rest,” Ignatius wrote to his sister, ‘It was a beautiful example of the power of our holy religion. May we all enjoy its full power and like him die in peace.’”
- A “religious army” supported Civil War soldiers in many varied ways. Whether Union or Confederate, official army bureaucracies could never meet all the soldiers’ needs. As soldiers wrestled with loneliness and boredom in camp, terror on the battlefield, and anguish in hospitals, it was America’s churches and religious groups who stepped in to provide for them. Through two well-organized Northern religious groups – the Christian Commission and Sanitary Commission – food, fresh vegetables, lending libraries, medical aid, religious materials, church services and more reached nearly all Union troops.
In the Confederacy, since churches were greatly disrupted by the war, more localized and limited efforts prevailed. Civilian and church aid societies supported Confederate troops with clothing and blankets made by local women, artificial limbs, ambulances, religious literature, colporteurs, orphanages, care for orphans, and support for needy families. In all, an amazing variety and broad system of support flowed out to Civil War troops – with religious-inspired financial giving and charity ($212 million in the North alone by 1864, in one estimate) making a significant difference in the conditions of many soldiers.
- Catholic nuns working as nurses had tremendous impact upon many people, including formerly staunch Southern Protestants, because of their expertise and dedication. An amusing story is told about CSA chaplain Fr John Bannon (1st MO) ministering to a badly wounded Confederate at Vicksburg who refused to believe what he was saying until the nun who had taken care of him confirmed he was correct! The tough soldier then said to Bannon, “‘Very well, all right. Go ahead, Mister, what’s next’.” Bannon later added “In the end I baptized him, although it may be said that perhaps it was rather in fidem Sodorum [in the faith of the nuns] rather than in fidem Ecclesia [in the faith of the Church].”
- Religion played a major post-war role among soldiers and in society. When the War ended, the South was physically and socially devastated, the Confederacy was dead, and former slaves were adrift in a new world. In these difficult days, as happened so often in history, Religion and Faith stepped in to fill the social and spiritual gaps. It was the Southern clergy and churches who breathed credibility and power into that Confederate post-war remembrance known as the “Lost Cause” – that broad, over-arching social attitude and “selective remembering” which justified Southern defeats, emphasized moral victory over military defeat, and promoted traditional Southern values and identity. As one author half humorously said, the Lost Cause meant that the Southern soldier was “holier, braver, purer, nobler, tougher, and a better shot than his Yankee counterpart.”
It was the clergy and churches who empowered the meteoric post-war rise of black churches and educational institutions – making one of the clearest and long-lasting results of the Civil War black religious self-determination. By 1900, though their population had only doubled, black church membership quintupled – with 2.7 million blacks (out of 8.3 million) belonging to some church, and many more merely affiliated somehow.
Finally, the overheated denominational passions of the war gave birth to a unique post-war phenomenon – a non-sectarian American civil religion, where Abraham Lincoln became “messiah”, the “deity” was National Unity, the new “holy days” Independence and Memorial Days, with the American flag becoming the “sacred symbol” of the land.
- At one point in war, a NC soldier prayed “Lord, we have a mighty big fight down here, and a site of trouble; and we hope, Lord, that you will take the proper view of the matter, and give us the victory.”
- Albinus Fell (6th OH Cav) spoke these words at the war’s end: “I think the damned old cuss of a Preacher lied like Dixie for he sayed that God has fought our battles and won our victorys. Now if he has done all that why is it not in the papers, and why has he not been promoted.”
- In the end, perhaps only the Confederate soldier Joshua Calloway – killed at Missionary Ridge – best captured the ultimate Truth of God’s role in the horrible war: “God will bring us peace on his terms not ours”.
In conclusion …
A popular image for soldiers, reflected in period literature and music, was that of “Christian soldiers marching as to war”. By 1865, a majority of soldiers had clearly come to see themselves and their causes (whether Union or Confederate) as under God’s influence and Divine Will in some way. An anecdote illustrating this occurred on Gen. William Sherman’s famous march through Georgia when, as they encamped, one of his regimental bands began to play the popular hymn the “Old One Hundredth”. Soon band after band in the Union army picked up the melody, and soldiers everywhere joined in the singing – until 5000 or more soldiers were soon singing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him above all creatures here below…” Events like this led even the notoriously irreligious Sherman to say “I’ve got a Christian army – noble fellows – God will take care of them.”
Whether Union or Confederate, one of the unexpected “blessings” of a horrible Civil War between brothers was the Faith they acquired, and the Religion they practiced. Two million soldiers fought and died, laughed and sang – but they also prayed and worshipped as a “Christian army”. As we study their battles and remember their sacrifices, let us never forget that overwhelmingly they also became men of Faith. Both prayed to the same God and read the same Bible. “The prayers of both could not be answered.” As always, the Almighty had “His own purposes”.
Citations taken from:
C.C. Goen, Broken Churches, Broken Nation (1985)
James McPherson, For Cause and Comrades (1997)
Robert Miller, Both Prayed to the Same God (2007)
Reid Mitchell, Civil War Soldiers (1988)
James Robertson, Soldiers Blue and Gray (1988)
Steven Woodworth, While God is Marching On (2001)