Subscribe to Christianity Today
America's Holy War
The American Civil War was not a war about religion. Its object was not to exterminate a religious infidel, or impose religious uniformity. Yet it was a holy war. Religion nourished each side's understanding of its own purposes, and shaped the moral framework within which death and suffering, triumph and disaster, could be explained or accommodated. Men and women of all conditions—rich and poor, white and black, young and old, slave and free, on the battlefield or the home front—found in their religion consolation, resolve, and inspiration. At the same time, churches provided personnel and agencies, in the form of preachers, chaplains, relief bodies, and formidable religious presses, which became an essential part of the Union's and the Confederacy's political and military mobilization for war.
Indeed, some of the most vivid images of the conflict are those of a sanctified war, whether it be five thousand of Sherman's troops, accompanied by regimental bands, singing "Praise God from whom all blessings flow" as they marched through Georgia; or the Confederate president's baptism and confirmation in the Anglican church; or Union coins newly engraved with the words "In God we Trust"; or a Richmond pastor smuggling over a quarter of a million Bibles and other religious works from England through the blockade; or thousands of troops choosing to accept complete immersion in mass baptisms.
Yet, strangely, when we slice through the layer upon layer of Civil War studies we find only a thin stratum of analysis devoted to religion. Why? In part, naturally, because the compelling drama of war lies mainly on the battlefield and in events along the political-military axis. Perhaps, too, because religious faith, language, and practice were so inextricably part of nineteenth-century American life that they are almost as invisible as the oxygen the warring armies breathed. Civil War historians in this respect may be rather like Moliere's Monsieur Jourdain, who was amazed to ...