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David Rolfs


When Thou Goest Out to Battle

The religious world of Civil War soldiers

Although the Civil War has been one of the most widely researched subjects in American history, scholars have largely overlooked one of the principal forces that inspired and sustained the soldiers on both sides: their religious faith. Indeed, as Steven E. Woodworth notes in his preface to While God Is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers, the silence on the topic has been deafening. As a salient example of this neglect, he cites the treatment of Elisha Hunt Rhodes in Ken Burns' celebrated pbs series. While the series featured Rhodes as the archetypical Union soldier, it completely ignored his faith. That Rhodes was a devout believer who regularly attended church and participated in the wartime revivals was apparently deemed irrelevant.

Woodworth's book is the latest in a long series of books examining the common soldier's experience in the Civil War. Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac trilogy was the first popular history to incorporate the "view from the ground" into the traditional top-down narrative. But it wasn't until the publication of Bell I. Wiley's influential Life of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank books that the historical profession finally decided the common soldier's ideas and experiences warranted their own special study. The result has been a steady stream of books over the last three decades re-examining the war from this perspective.

Many of these books touch upon soldiers' religious experience, with brief chapters discussing their beliefs and practices, but none of them systematically examines religious soldiers' experience in the army. Gardiner H. Shattuck's 1987 book A Shield and Hiding Place comes the closest to such a study, but his book focuses more on the history of the chaplaincy, the Christian Commission (an interdenominational religious aid organization that ministered to the Northern troops' spiritual and physical needs), and wartime revivals than the religious life of the common soldier.

Thus Woodworth's book is the first serious ...

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