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Richard Carwardine

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 discover that he had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it: they have been looking at a religious event for years without recognizing it as such.

Happily, though, that is changing, as the bright galaxy of essayists whom Miller, Stout, and Wilson have brought together in Religion and the American Civil War demonstrate. Building on the best of existing work and breaking into new terrain, they collectively make a powerful case that religion ("understood in its broadest context as a culture and a community of faith") was integral to the sectional alienation that preceded the war, to the course and intensity of the conflict, and to the shaping of the post-Civil War order.

Evangelicalism had fused with republican ideology and free labor values in the antebellum North; Protestants generally expected the improvement of society, and the gradual removal of slavery, through responsible, righteous action, including engagement in politics. But in the South evangelicalism had blended with a variant, conservative republicanism, one that flourished within a hierarchical social order founded on slave labor and paternalistic values; there Protestants invoked the concept of the spirituality of the church to deny its leaders a political role. The great denominational schisms of the 1830s and 1840s not only robbed the heartland of American Christianity of its channels of intersectional communication but also encouraged unsympathetic, even grotesque, mutual stereotyping. On the eve of war Christians on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line believed they alone were the guardians of the true faith.

Their conflicting certainties rested on their contrasting readings of the Bible. Mark Noll, in a superb essay with a perspective as fresh as it is broad, examines the limitations of the dominant approach to scripture by the 1850s, a hermeneutic that comprised a Reformed understanding of biblical authority and a commonsense literalism celebrating the discernment of ordinary folk. This left room for competing interpretations: Southerners claimed the scriptures sanctioned slavery, conservatives in the North and border states that the scriptural treatment of slaves led inexorably to emancipation, and radicals that the spirit of the Bible demanded abolition. But a hermeneutic that Henry Ward Beecher characterized as "an untrammeled Bible" for "an untrammeled people" left no means of resolving these differences short of war. Nor did Reformed literalism leave real space for the alternative hermeneutics proffered by African Americans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans and other culturally marginal groups. And, as Noll sharply observes, all approaches foundered on the failure to distinguish between the issues of race and of slavery. Even (perhaps especially) amongst self-conscious scriptural logicians like Charles Hodge and James Henley Thornwell, a thoroughly unbiblical intuition about black racial inferiority contaminated a commonsense reading of the Bible on slaveholding.

We cannot be sure how far the Christian proslavery case that southerners advanced publicly in pulpits, colleges, and print hid a private uncertainty. Eugene Genovese's essay emphasizes the southern clergy's self-conscious rallying to the defense of orthodoxy, but Bertram Wyatt-Brown argues more compellingly for a divided private conscience and more ambivalent political response to the se cession crisis. There is no doubt about the inherent caution of such conservative Presbyterians as Robert Lewis Dabney, a late convert to the Confederacy, and even Thornwell himself. As men of honor, they found disloyalty to the Union no easy course to follow. Dabney, indeed, bitterly excoriated the South Carolina fire-eaters through the winter crisis of 1860-61.

Still, the experience of war itself acted to fuse these elements into a more coherent southern nationalism. Dabney for instance would become not just a Confederate chaplain but chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson, the apotheosis of Christian military command in the South. Several essays bear upon the religious construction of this crystallizing Confederate nation. Drew Faust's discussion of planters' wives in wartime shows not only their struggle to contend with agony and loss, one that often prompted anger against a vengeful Old Testament God of chastisement, but also their growing realization that the South's chosenness might lie in its being tested, Job-like, with suffering that would purify faith. Kurt Berends's solidly grounded examination of the religious military press unmuffles a clarion voice that bade receptive Confederate troops see the conflict as a struggle for religious as much as for political liberty, for God as well as for country.

The process of nation-building led wartime Protestant leaders in the South to shed their antebellum doctrine of the spirituality of church. The story is compellingly told in Harry Stout's and Christopher Grasso's path-breaking examination of religion in the Confederate capital. Richmond was a spiritual as well as a political, economic and military focus of the South. Its clergy included some of the most distinguished in the country. When the Davis administration repeatedly declared fast days (remarkably, ten in all, compared with the Union's three), the pulpit reversed its historic antipathy to an alien, New England practice. By combining the preaching of jeremiads with the ritual of public fasting, the clergy pursued a novel, theocratic course. Their repeated assertion in fast and thanksgiving sermons—and in the prodigious outpourings of the religious presses—that the Confederacy was godly, unique and homogeneous may well have been the essential element in the construction of the Confederate nation.

In the North, too, the clergy played a decisive role in sanctifying patriotism. Here the tradition of a political pulpit was already well rooted before the outbreak of war. But the secessionist challenge to the Union brought an even greater coherence to evangelical political engagement than had the pre-war provocations of alcohol, Catholicism, and slavery. "Rebellion" galvanized the main Protestant churches into energetic defense of law and order. The pulpit encouraged recruitment, mobilized opinion behind the Union's changing war aims, and sustained morale. Many clergy backed the coercive actions of the Union administration with a repressive, authoritarian rhetoric of unconditional loyalty to "the powers that be" quite unlike the prevailing tone of the prewar churches.

In general, northern clergy were far clearer than the president himself about the Almighty's role as the spiritual commander-in-chief of the Union. Lincoln's understanding of God's part in human history seems to have changed under the pressure of wartime events. The mounting horrors of the battlefield and the death of his beloved son Willie led Lincoln to reflect on the active intervention of a "Living God" in history, and implicitly to modify the fatalism and "environmental determinism" that historians have detected in his prewar thinking. Ronald White sensitively dissects Lincoln's Second Inaugural ("a sacred effort," as Frederick Douglass called it) to analyze the president's evolving thought, and its structure and character as a Puritan jeremiad. Lincoln doubted that a just God would assist slaveholders "in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces," yet his message was by no means a comfortable one for Unionists: God's purposes might differ from those of both parties to the struggle.

The theological subtlety of this position was hardly designed to nerve Union troops in the field. But, of course, when Lincoln enunciated it the war was al ready into its final weeks. Before then, Union forces for the most part heard from their chaplains and leaders a message less complex than Lincoln's: the fighting men were the Lord's arm personified. Ulysses S. Grant was sure his men "knew what they were fighting for," and James McPherson's recent study of soldiers' motivation makes a powerful case for the importance of religion in defining their cause.

This may well have been as true of the early Catholic enlistments as it was of Protestant regiments. The wartime interplay of Catholic religion, Irish ethnic identity, and American nationalism has been as little explored as it was undeniably complex. Randall Miller's essay, shrewd and admirably unsentimental, shines a gloriously bright light into this dark corner of Civil War history. Catholic leaders in the Union seized the opportunity to show off their patriotism, by recruiting volunteers, sending priests to the field and locating sisters in the hospitals. At the same time Irish American leaders used wartime service to link Irish and American nationalism: the fight to preserve the Union became a fight for political freedom everywhere. No doubt the earliest recruits were moved by a genuine, religiously based, Irish American patriotism. But as losses mounted, as the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation altered the aims of war, and as the Catholic authorities found it ever harder to supply the re sources to meet the religious needs of the troops, enthusiasm waned and the Irish presence in the field increasingly comprised newly arrived immigrants attracted by pay and bounties. Ambivalence turned to outright hostility in some quarters. In the New York City draft riots of 1863 the guns were turned on the rampaging mobs. Most of those who died were Irish.

The attempt to rehabilitate the Irish Catholics began soon after the war ended. The lingering image of the Irish hooligan of the draft riots, and the conditional patriotism of the desperate immigrants, eventually gave way in reminiscence and representation to the loyal heroes of the Irish Brigade. In 1910 at Gettysburg Catholic veterans at last erected a statue of Father William Corby, the priest who had offered a general absolution before the fighting on the second day of the battle, a symbol of the yoking of Catholicism and American nationalism. With that, in Miller's words, "Catholics entered American sacred space."

The story of the religion of the Civil War, then, is also the story of postwar religious memory and the construction of identity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the developing myth of the Lost Cause. In their painful introspection after Confederate defeat and regional devastation, southerners seized on the conviction that God had inflicted temporal ruin as a means of religious purification. As Jehovah had chastised Israel, his chosen people, without deserting them, so He had rebuked southerners for their sins, without withdrawing his spiritual favors. Daniel Stowell's and Reid Mitchell's essays show how in postwar literature the theme of the religious triumph and special mission of Confederates and their heirs was nourished by persisting celebrations of godly soldiers, of war time "revivals in the ranks," and of the quintessential manly Christian martyr, Stonewall Jackson. And Paul Harvey's study of southern white Baptist ministers tells how orthodox southern Protestants deployed the fertile myth of a spiritually cleansed South in the battle against godless Republicans and scalawag Judases, to "redeem" their home land and reassert white supremacy.

It is part of the richness of the story of Civil War religion that as well as helping to crystallize southern nationalism and contributing the ingredients essential to the Lost Cause, the struggle also energized American nationalism. Here the religious narrative becomes both more familiar and powerful. We need little reminding that Unionists read victory—the triumph of Christian armies under the providence of God—as an endorsement of the nation's republican, millennialist purpose; that the death of slavery fulfilled the country's Revolutionary promise. As with the fratricidal wars in seventeenth-century England and twentieth-century Spain (points of comparison developed neatly by Charles Reagan Wilson), religion worked in the American conflict to re fine and intensify national identity. It was an identity able to embrace both Unionist and Confederate. That the later years of the last century saw Christians north and south uniting in the cause of global mission, and that once again both constituencies could feel a loyalty to the idea of the American nation, may tell us something about persisting shared values which not even fratricide had been able to destroy.

In A Consuming Fire Eugene Genovese provides his own distinct perspective on that postwar convergence. The book is a guide to proslavery Christian southerners' retreat from pre-war orthodoxy to their subsequent accommodation with a bourgeois social order and scientific racism. There is an element of the jeremiad here, a seeming lament over the failure of Christian reformers to humanize and transform slavery before the South was overwhelmed by capitalism, materialism and theological liberalism. Naturally, Genovese is no apologist for slavery, but he makes evident his admiration for the intellectual profundity and all-embracing worldview of the central characters of his narrative, those southern Christians, especially Protestant divines, who sought to reform slaveholding and protect the South against the advance of free labor, socially corrosive marketplace individualism, and theological license.

There is nothing routine about Genovese's lament. For one thing, he asks us to recast the hoary question of the degree of guilt amongst slave owners. Modifying his earlier views, he agrees that there was indeed guilt and anxiety in the Old South. That, though, was prompted not by slaveholding per se, but by its unbiblical practices. Slaveowners, in selling slaves, conniving at family separations, and keeping slaves illiterate and ignorant, fell short of the scriptural standards set by the commandments, Abraham's example, and Christ's teachings. Anxious Christians tussled with the question of how to advance to a biblical form of slaveholding without wrecking the peculiar institution in the process. They made little political headway before the war. During the conflict their preaching generally avoided blasphemous chauvinism, calling instead on southerners to be have as responsible Christians as the means to victory. And the list of sins that demanded repentance included the abuses of slavery, which, following secession, were deemed within legislative grasp. Thus, when the Confederacy fell, reforming divines drew an unequivocal lesson. The South had lost for failing in its duty to the slaves.

Genovese tells us that the Christian reformers failed by being too cautiously doubtful on the question of slavery's perpetuity, and too easily convinced of the rightness of racial stratification. Those pre-1865 racial prescriptions, though, were based on their reading of history and culture, not biology; nor were they central to their defense of slavery. But after the war, given the advance of northern capitalism, the dependence of southern churches on northern finance, and the growing pressure on those churches from democratic, segregationist movements within, southern divines succumbed to doctrines of scientific racism against which their pre-Appomattox orthodoxy had defended them.

Not everyone will be persuaded that southern divines were generally as alert as, for instance, Thornwell to the implications of capitalism for evangelical orthodoxy, or were so hostile to the market order and free labor. Some may also ask how exactly the reformers' assertions about the evils of southern slaveholding are to be squared with the emphasis on planters' paternalism in Genovese's earlier work on the slave system; or how the populistic influences on postwar church leadership differed from the democratic pressures exerted by antebellum Methodists and Baptists. Some, too, will be startled by the description of southern divines re treating "into theological liberalism" after the war. But, as ever, Genovese provokes, stimulates and engages his readers, and sets an agenda that we cannot ignore.

It is a measure of their quality that both books leave us asking for more. Significant and influential minority voices re main drowned out by the clamor of war. The antimission, "primitive" tradition, fearful of Yankeedom and modernity, and tenacious amongst rural outsiders in the antebellum South and Midwest, surely sustained Peace Democrats' opposition to the Union mobilization, and stiffened localist resistance to the centralizing demands of the Richmond administration.

There remain, too, questions on the effect of war on religious faith. After all, in some historical settings mass destruction has accelerated secularization, not intensified conviction, as happened in much of Europe in the wake of World War I. A few years ago, Anne Rose addressed the tension between the Civil War's revival of wavering piety, which she treated as temporary, and its simultaneous energizing of secular interests. The essayists in Religion and the American Civil War offer their own slants on that issue. As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese reminds us in her study of southern women, war's horrors and defeats could test religious belief to its limits, and beyond. Phillip Paludan's synoptic essay rightly asks questions about the transmutation of wartime crusading into the later Social Gospel.

For one group above all this was a war of liberation that strengthened rather than undermined faith. African Americans, slave and free, are largely marginal figures in these studies. Yet their religion not only steeled them in their struggle for recognition and freedom, but gave ultimate meaning to their Day of Jubilee. The postwar proliferation of independent black churches proffers a measure of the spiritual self-confidence of the newly emancipated. They have functioned both as the spine of black society over the generations since 1865, and as essential nodes in the complex nervous system of African American culture. Their proliferation in the American landscape may well be the greatest and longest lasting religious legacy of the nation's Holy War.

Richard Carwardine is Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield in England. He is the author of Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (Yale Univ. Press).

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