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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 scholarly effort to provide a detailed picture of religious soldiers' beliefs, experiences, and ultimate influence in the Civil War. Although he briefly discusses some of the motives that inspired religious soldiers to enlist, his primary aim is to immerse the reader in the soldiers' world, interspersing his narrative with dozens of excerpts from their letters and diaries.

In part 1, Woodworth outlines the religious setting of the conflict. After a cursory review of the early religious history of the colonies, he properly devotes special attention to the Second Great Awakening, which "provided the framework and trappings for the religious beliefs and practices of the Civil War soldiers" and ensured that the generation that fought the Civil War was "strongly influenced by Christianity."

Woodworth's conclusions about the worldview of religious soldiers seem to support Lewis O. Saum's contention that the religious beliefs of America's antebellum masses were far more similar to those held by their Puritan forefathers than to the beliefs of their modern descendants. Most religious soldiers were convinced that an all-powerful, sovereign, and immanent God was ordaining their ends, and that everything that happened was God's will. As James G. Theaker of the Fiftieth Ohio Regiment observed, "I sometimes think that I can plainly see a Providential hand connected with our co. so far. I do not put my trust in any arm of flesh nor in heavy battalions of men, but in Him who rules the armies & holds the destiny of the nation in His hands."

Like their Puritan ancestors, religious soldiers in the Civil War were acutely aware of the "shortness of life and certainty of death"; as one Union soldier reminded his loved ones, "This world is but a short period of our existence." And this encouraged many of them to live faithfully and always be prepared for their death—regularly reading God's Word, praying frequently, and observing a strict Sabbath Day rest. Religious soldiers also struggled to avoid the sins of public drunkenness, card playing, cursing, and sexual impropriety.

In the second part, Woodworth chronologically records the various religious currents that flowed through the armies over the course of the war. Regardless of which section they were fighting for, the volunteers of 1861 believed they were engaged in a just and holy war. They viewed their co-religionists on the opposing side as lawless radicals—misguided backsliders at best, or cursed reprobates. But as the war continued and the casualty lists grew longer, clergymen and religious soldiers on both sides were forced to reinterpret the spiritual meaning of their suffering. Perhaps a just God was also using the war to punish and purge the sins of a chosen people.

Much of what Woodworth has to say about this or that specific aspect of religion in the war is not really new. But always the masterful synthesizer, he has successfully integrated other historians' best bits and pieces about the armies' religious life into one narrative—and, more important, sifted through a huge body of primary materials to discover what the common soldiers themselves had to say. And Woodworth also introduces some provocative arguments of his own. For example, he contends that the South's pre-war pietism preconditioned Southern soldiers to blame their military defeats on individual sins of pride and selfishness rather than communal sins like slavery. He also suggests it is more accurate to describe the multiple, punctuated wartime revivals as one massive revival that began in the fall of 1862, spreading to all the armies and continuing until the end of the war.

Having spent the last four years working on a similar topic and examining many of the same sources, I do have a couple of minor disagreements with Woodworth's conclusions, but these do not seriously detract from his study. My most serious criticism is that at times, he seems to oversimplify or ignore the complexities of 19th-century America's highly diverse and rapidly evolving religious life. For example, while my own research suggests that religious soldiers often articulated beliefs remarkably similar to those held by the Puritans, I would not go so far as to say, as Woodworth does, that "In the religious world of the Civil War soldiers, and that of the families to which they had returned when the war was done, nothing fundamental had changed. With remarkable continuity, that world was still, at the most basic level, the world of Charles G. Finney, William McCreedy, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, John Winthrop, and William Bradford."

Woodworth should also clarify that his book focuses mainly on religious soldiers' experience in the army—not the typical Civil War soldier's religious world. In his preface he says that he did not go out of his way to find religious soldiers, but more than 90 percent of his quotations clearly come from deeply religious soldiers, or from men who aspired to find such faith. This leads to my last concern, that Woodworth may have painted a bit too rosy a picture. In my own research I discovered a number of religious soldiers whose wartime experiences caused them to question or abandon some of their religious beliefs. Why doesn't Woodworth include these soldiers' experiences in his study?

In the final assessment, however, Woodworth has undoubtedly written the best history of the Civil War armies' religious life to date. Provocative, highly readable, and filled with excellent source material, it is an invaluable resource, and will no doubt inspire imitators, ushering in a new school of books dedicated to further advancing our understanding of the religious life of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank.

David Rolfs is a member of the history faculty at Maclay College Preparatory School in Tallahassee, Florida. He received his doctorate in American history from Florida State University in 2002.

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