In the preface to While God Is Marching On, Steven E. Woodworth, an associate professor of history at Texas Christian University, recalls that Ken and Ric Burns’ 1990 documentary on the Civil War quoted freely from the letters of Civil War soldiers without revealing the frequent expressions of religious faith that ran through them. Nor, Woodworth claims, have the Burns brothers been alone in leaving out this vital part of the soldiers’ lives: "Even in a field as widely studied as the Civil War, religion has been the subject of relatively few books." The omission is all the more remarkable since the Civil War broke out during a period of grassroots religious revivals—one beginning in 1857, the other in 1863–64—that influenced many of the men who served in the war. Woodworth’s book, based on extensive research of letters, diaries, and memoirs of Union and Confederate troops, is meant to fill that historiographical void—which it does admirably, if in some ways selectively.
What emerges from Woodworth’s study is evidence not only of widespread religious enthusiasm—one soldier described affairs in his division as "one great Methodist Camp Meeting"—but of a rich, and for the most part orthodox, understanding of Christian doctrine. These were young men who had been thoroughly Sunday–schooled or somehow made very familiar with the fundamentals of Christianity. One of the more poignant quotes, from the memoir of an Alabama soldier, could serve as a synopsis of Christian teaching on suffering and death. Badly wounded in the Battle of the Wilderness and left on the field when his army retreated, the soldier recalled that he lay on the ground that night, seemingly near death. Then he saw a star in the sky, which caused him to ask, "Who made the stars?" And he answered, "My Father, which art in heaven, made the stars, and I know Him as my Father."
Then I thought of the suffering of Christ and how he said, "In me ye shall have peace but in the world ye shall have tribulation. But fear not for I have overcome the world." The Christ himself was not exempt from tribulation. He bore his suffering with the fortitude of faith because it was the divine plan of God. As God’s child also I must bear what comes by the divine plan with the fortitude of faith, knowing that the very hairs of our heads are numbered and we are of the greatest value in the sight of our Heavenly Father.
This kind of forbearance, Woodworth notes, is not to be confused with fatalism. These soldiers acknowledged a personal God who loves and listens to people, not some indifferent force in the universe.
On the level of personal morality, soldiers from both sides of the war seemed to be in broad agreement. The letters frequently recount their struggles to avoid the sins of army life, especially gambling, cursing, and drinking. (Sexual impropriety is not directly mentioned in these letters but sometimes alluded to in soldiers’ promises to keep themselves "pure.") There were attempts to maintain an atmosphere of quiet on the Sabbath; some of the men recalled the peaceful Sunday mornings in their hometowns. Woodworth thinks that their Christianity helped restrain them when they entered conquered areas. Rape and murder of civilians was extremely rare, and many soldiers were reluctant to engage in looting and destruction of property. They had not forgotten "Thou shalt not steal," though as the war became more bitter they could be brought around by a semantic change: it was "foraging," not stealing.
But if soldiers appealed to God, whose side was He on? In his Second Inaugural Address Lincoln stated the problem with characteristic rigor: "Both [sides] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered." Indeed, Lincoln added, the prayers of neither side have been answered fully because "the Almighty has His own purposes." Perhaps, Lincoln suggested, the prolonged war was the price both sides had to pay for 250 years of slavery. Lincoln’s interpretation of suffering as divine retribution, a familiar theme in Protestant sermons since Puritan times, was his attempt to find meaning in the bloodshed.
A similar theme ran through many of the letters sent home, particularly those from Union soldiers. On the same day Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural a man from Wisconsin wrote, "An all–wise Providence will end the strife and misery, as soon as the purpose for which it was ordained is accomplished." Some, like Lincoln, saw the war as a chastening for the sins of both sides, though, surprisingly, few referred to the sin of slavery. ("Greed" was the one most often cited.) Most, however, were not quite as impartial in assigning blame. Union soldiers tended to regard the Southerners as rebels against "God’s own nation," therefore as rebels against Christianity itself. It was not uncommon for Union soldiers to refer to the North as "God’s country."
The Confederate soldiers had less of this crusading spirit—in part, Woodworth believes, because Southern Christianity had retreated into otherworldly "pietism" in the years before the war, in reaction to the abolitionist tendencies of Northern Protestantism. Unused to thinking in terms of providential design in the world, Southern soldiers writing about God and the war adopted a very naive form of triumphalism. "God is surely with us," one wrote, as Lee’s forces marched north, "[or] we never could have whipped them so bad." The problem with such reasoning, Woodworth (perhaps unnecessarily) reminds us, is that it fails to account for victories won by the enemy. No wonder the South’s ultimate defeat plunged many Southerners into religious cynicism, at least temporarily.
Though Woodworth does not disclose his own religious convictions, his perspective seems to be that of evangelical Protestantism. (I found it refreshing to see references to sin without quotation marks.) Nor is Woodworth hesitant to set the record straight on the rare occasions when the soldiers or their supporters depart from theological orthodoxy. One woman, presenting a Confederate flag to Southern troops, assured them that their bravery in battle would merit eternal reward. "That may have sounded nice," Woodworth cautions, "but it was not Christian theology." The correction may not be necessary, but no serious Christian is likely to challenge it.
Sometimes, though, Woodworth’s vigilant conservatism becomes more problematic. There are "Christians" in this book, and there are "almost–Christians," the latter term apparently reserved for those who could not claim to be "in Christ" even when they accepted the tenets of Christianity. The author even characterizes one soldier, who wrestles with the Christianity of his boyhood days and sometimes sounds a bit irreverent, as a "non–Christian," as if he were a Muslim or Hindu.
Behind these semantic niceties is what some readers will consider to be an overly suspicious attitude toward change and development in Christian doctrine. Early in his book, Woodworth quotes a journalist’s observation that slavery "pickled" Southern life, keeping out all influences that might threaten the status quo. Many readers could assume that he regards the "pickling" of a culture to be undesirable. But later in the book Woodworth forthrightly asserts that, "as it pertained to the foundational teaching of Christianity, such rigid stasis was entirely good, for at the heart of the Christian religion are certain basic truths and doctrines that do not change." A few pages later he notes that the Civil War period brought little change in the theological views of most Americans, but then adds:
The ideas of Darwin and Marx, the so–called German higher criticisms, and other strange winds of thought might already be blowing on foreign shores, but their tainted breath was scarcely to touch America for another generation.
These remarks raise some troubling questions. Is "stasis," which my dictionary defines as "a stoppage of the flow of some fluid in the body," something to be considered "entirely good"? And did Christianity learn absolutely nothing from the "strange winds" of European thought? Theological orthodoxy is one thing; it is quite another to embalm Christianity in the form of nineteenth–century American Protestantism.
This raises a related concern. Except for a couple of quotes from one Massachusetts soldier, none of the hundreds of excerpts in this book come from Roman Catholics. This is surprising, since more than 140,000 soldiers of Irish birth served in the Union armies (with perhaps 40,000 on the Confederate side), the vast majority of them Catholic. There were also large numbers of German Catholics from Wisconsin and neighboring states. Though many were either illiterate or not very religious, many others could write and were indeed devout—men such as Colonel Patrick Guiney of Massachusetts, who lost his eye and his health at Chancellorville and wrote to his wife, "God rules in Peace and War—in the circumstances and the catastrophe."
One trusts that the absence of Guiney and other Catholics from these pages is not because Woodworth numbers them among the "almost–Christians" or "non–Christians," but simply because of considerations of length; in the preface he notes, for example, that he used far less than half his source material. Still, if his purpose was, as he writes, to provide "an understanding of the vital religious component of the American tradition," it might have been helpful to give readers a greater sense of the variation, and even the conflict, within that tradition.
George McKenna is Professor of Political Science at City College of New York and author of The Drama of Democracy.