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During the American Civil War, several significant spiritual revivals took place in both the northern and southern armies. This web page discusses religion during the Civil War, provides a few anecdotes about religious activities, and lists resources for further reading.
Before the Revivals
The early months of the American Civil War saw the assembly of armies that consisted of thousands of young men that had never before been away from home. Army chaplains complained that “seductive influences of sin” and “legions of devils” infested the camps. Among the sins were “spiritous liquors,” card playing, gambling, and profanity. Early in the war, one Confederate soldier said that “if the South is overthrown, the epitaph should be ‘died of whiskey.’”
Abraham Lincoln recognized the value of religion as a stabilizing force in the Union army, and did all within his power to provide for organized spiritual guidance to soldiers. On May 4, 1861, he ordered all regimental commanders to appoint chaplains for their units. The Chaplain was expected to be an ordained minister of a Christian denomination, and was to receive an officer's salary (initially $1,700 per year, later cut to $1,200). Lincoln also provided as much support as he could to the United States Christian Commission, an inter-denominational organization that was dedicated primarily to the spreading of the Gospel in the Union armies.
Unfortunately for the southern soldiers, Jefferson Davis and his administration put less value on the establishment of army chaplains and evangelistic activities within the army. There was no corresponding effort to assure that every regiment had a chaplain, and those that were appointed received a salary initially of $1,020 per year, which was soon reduced to $600. Although the salary was later increased to $960, few Confederate army chaplains were ever fully supported by the Confederate authorities. The Confederate government was more anxious to have “fighting men” than “preaching men.”
Southern Christian leaders, usually via their respective denominational organizations, made earnest efforts to provide the soldiers with Bibles, New Testaments, and religious tracts. Those chaplains and religious leaders that lived with the soldiers sent out a constant stream of letters to their home churches and church leadership, begging them to send “our best men--holy men” to assist in evangelizing and ministering to the troops. Although the South had few facilities for printing its own Bibles, southern Christian leaders put forward supreme efforts to acquire Bibles and tracts for their soldiers. British and even some northern Bible societies responded generously.
Northern soldiers were fortunate in that northern Christian leaders were better organized and more willing to ignore their denominational differences from the very start. With the support of both the Lincoln administration and the War Department, they organized the U.S. Christian Commission--a civilian "army" of men and women that lived in or near the army camps, passing out religious tracts and Testaments, organizing worship services, acting as nurses in the hospitals, and doing their best to spread the Gospel.
A Great Movement of the Holy Spirit
Although the Davis administration was not as supportive of organized religion as it could have been, many of the Confederate military leaders were superb. Of particular note are generals Robert E. Lee, T. J. "Stonewall" Jackson, and Leonidas Polk. Lee and Jackson did all within their power to encourage the spreading of the Gospel in the Army of Northern Virginia. Jackson himself encouraged the troops to keep the Sabbath holy and attend worship services. He would usually try to avoid battle on the Sabbath, or, if not possible to do so, would try to set aside a subsequent day of rest. Jackson was frequently seen in prayer--both before and during battle. He always acknowledged God as the author of his military victories
Similarly, Union General George B. McClellan decreed that the North’s “holy cause” justified divine services every Sunday morning that military necessity would allow. Union General Oliver O. Howard, commonly referred to as “the Christian General,” would himself preach to the troops when a regular chaplain or minister was not available. In the West, Union General William Rosecrans, a devout Catholic, made it a policy to never fight on Sundays. Even during the battle of Stone’s River, after fighting a desperate battle all day on Saturday, he rested his army on Sunday before re-engaging the enemy on Monday. God evidently honored Rosecran’s faithfulness, as the Confederate army retreated.
Although revivals took place throughout the war, it was during the late Fall of 1863 through the Spring and Summer of 1864 that what was subsequently called the “Great Revival” occurred. Although this event is best documented for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, it actually took place in both northern and southern armies in both the Virginia and the Tennessee theatres of the war.
According to J. William Jones, Confederate Chaplain and author of one of the best documentaries of the Great Revival, virtually every Confederate brigade was affected--and approximately ten percent of the soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia accepted Christ. Night after night troops participated in prayer meetings, worshipped, and listened to ministers proclaim the good news. Virtually every gathering ended with soldiers coming forward to accept Christ or receive prayer. When a pond or river was nearby, the soldiers would frequently step forward for baptisms--regardless of how cold the weather was.
During the revival, Jones told of how Confederate soldiers would form “reading clubs,” in which soldiers would pass around a well-worn Bible, sharing the Gospel. Always hungry for scarce Testaments and religious tracts, the soldiers would see Jones approaching camp and cry out “Yonder comes the Bible and Tract man!” and run up to him and beg for Bibles and Testaments “as if they were gold guineas for free distribution.” Jones would quickly exhaust his supply of reading material, and sadly have to turn away most of the men. “I have never seen more diligent Bible-readers than we had in the Army of Northern Virginia.”
U. S. Christian Commission records show that similar events were happening in the North’s principle eastern army, the Army of the Potomac, at the same time. Brigade chapels were so full that many men were frequently turned away. One Union general wrote that he had never seen “a better state of feeling in religious matters” in the Army of Potomac.
In the Fall and Winter of 1863, the Union army in Chattanooga, Tennessee had been besieged by a strong Confederate force, strongly entrenched in the mountains around the city. The Union soldiers were deeply affected by the revival, and many attributed their surprising victory over the Confederates as “a visible interposition of God.” Soon after their victory at Chattanooga, the Union troops were pursuing their enemy as they retreated towards Atlanta. The fires of revival continued for the Union troops in Ringgold, Georgia, where hundreds of men were baptized in Chickamauga Creek.
The Confederate’s Army of the Tennessee, retreating towards Atlanta, had also experienced the fires of the Great Revival. During their retreat from Dalton, Georgia, Rev. C. W. Miller tells of a Confederate brigade called together for worship in a field. They read the Bible aloud, sang a song of praise, and began to pray. While one of the soldiers was praying aloud, and his comrades were kneeling in silence, they all heard the distant report of artillery and were soon greeted with the burst of a 32-pound cannon shell overhead. More shells shrieked towards them, and shrapnel fell nearby, but the men continued their prayers as if there was no danger. Finally the chaplain pronounced the benediction and everyone calmly sought cover.
Surprisingly, the revivals continued with Sherman’s troops as they marched across Georgia and through the Carolinas. When the soldiers stopped for the night, they frequently assembled in local churches and worshipped.
The Fruit of the Spirit
It is estimated that over 100,000 Confederate and somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 Union troops accepted Christ during the Civil War--roughly ten percent of the men engaged. There are many accounts of the change that took place in the men, both during the war and afterwards, as a result of the many revivals and movement of the Holy Spirit.
One chaplain recounted the sight of changed hearts at Chinbarazo hospital in Richmond, Virginia: “No sight could be more touching than to stand near the chapel and see the wounded and the pale convalescents hobbling and creeping to the place of worship at the sound of the bell.”
A Floridian by the name of Major P. B. Bird, when mortally wounded in the trenches of Richmond near the end of the war, considered his relationship with the Lord and said “But for leaving my wife and children, I should not feel sad at the prospect of dying. There is no cloud between God and me now.”
Soldiers often talked of their mothers. During one prayer meeting, a young soldier cried aloud “O that my mother were here!” When asked why he wanted to see his mother, he replied “Because she has so long been praying for me, and now I have found the Saviour.” Another wounded Christian soldier asked a friend to “Tell my mother that I read my Testament and put all my trust in the Lord....I am not afraid to die.”
J. W. Jones, travelling through the South after the war, spied a crippled veteran working in a field, guiding a plow with his one good arm. Recognizing him as a man he had known in the war, he stopped to talk to him and provide some encouragement. This particular young man had left college and a promising career when the war broke out, had been wounded in battle, and was baptized by Jones during the war. Jones says “to see him thus, then, his hopes blighted, his fortune wrecked, and his body maimed for life, deeply touched my heart....I shall never forget how the noble fellow, straightening himself up, replied, with a proud smile: ‘Oh, Brother Jones, that is all right. I thank God that I have one arm left and an opportunity to use it for the support of those I love.’”
Such is the story of one changed heart. It is typical of many men that lived through our nation’s greatest conflict, and met the Lord Jesus Christ along the way.
For Further Reading
1. Christ in the Camp by J. William Jones, D. D.
2. A Shield and Hiding Place: The Religious Life of the Civil War Armiesby Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr.
3. The United States Christian Commission in the Civil War by Joseph O. Henry.
4. A Narrative of the Great Revival Which Prevailed in the Southern Armies During the Late Civil War by William W. Bennett.