The Battle is the Lord’s
Southern armies had suffered serious reverses at Vicksburg, Tullahoma, and Gettsyburg in July of 1863, and these in turn had a decided impact upon the will to win of the Confederate civilians. The loss of control over more of her territory had no particular consequence for the South, or should not have, except insofar as territory was symbolic of a country’s ability to maintain its sovereignty over all of its claimed domain. Unfortunately for the South, her people claimed that lost territory was more important than in truth it was; accordingly, its loss had a greater negative impact on the country than it should have had, and fear and foreboding stealthily crept in to take over the corners of Confederate hearts and minds, left vacant as morale and will withered away.
As other people have done in times of disaster and stress, many Confederates turned to religion for guidance. Evangelical Christianity had taught them that God operated in human affairs and had assured them that He was on their side — the side, they claimed, of liberty. Thus piety had lent moral strength to the armies, who, like the patriots of 1776, fought not for slavery but against slavery and for liberty. Religion also sustained and magnified the will of the people to see this struggle through to the end.
When victory eluded one’s grasp, however, religion showed another face, and Christians both North and South came to wonder whether the war was a punishment or perhaps a trial to test their worthiness. In either case, the could appease God; but if the course of the war was still unfavorable, it would be a sign that God’s will was not what Confederates had hoped it was. Events such as Vicksburg, Tullahoma, and Gettysburg forced Confederates to reexamine the war and their own consciences, for in July 1863 it was not difficult to conclude that alternative decisions — Union and peace, for example — had attractive features that a long war with an uncertain outcome did not have. And if the South was fighting for liberty, and the means used to fight that war seemed to subvert liberty, why bother to fight at all?
Thus defeatism crept slowly into the hearts of large numbers of Confederates. As they pondered the mysterious ways of the Lord, some of them looked North and saw the massive resources available to the Union cause and wondered whether they had not been temping fate when they entered the contest. More efficient use of southern resources and the proper strategies could compensate for northern abundance; nevertheless, many Confederates doubtless compared themselves to David taking on Goliath.
This parallel was instructive and comforting, for it would seem to prove that God did not always side with the strongest battalions; rather, He espoused the cause of those who, like David, served the Lord. And, as we have already noted, Confederates liked to believe that they walked rightly with the Lord. The language of Jefferson Davis’s early proclamations asking his fellow southerners to celebrate days of humiliation and prayer suggests widespread presumption that the Heavenly Father unquestionably supported the Confederacy. President Davis noted that “it hath pleased Almighty God, the Sovereign Disposer of events, to protect and defend the Confederate States hitherto in their conflict with their enemies, and to be unto them a shield.” The Georgia legislature agreed with Davis’s automatic assumption that God and the Confederacy walked side by side. Its resolution of November 1862 called upon the people “to unite at the throne of grace to invoke the continuation of His Divine Presence and protecting Providence” and to acknowledge the practical demonstration of “the presence of Almighty God, and His protecting Providence in the many hard fought battles, and glorious victories over our common enemies.” The positions of the president and the legislature had considerable logic in 1861 and 1862, when, although the Confederacy had suffered some defeats, it had also won victories and Confederate armies still had undiminished strength.
But by the middle of the war one reasonably could question the assumption that God wore gray. Although assuredly He still daily entered into human affairs, the North Carolina Christian Advocate found no proof “that God had always been on our side, or that he operates actively, in this controversy at all.” The Advocate suggested that God may even have left both sides “to the control of Satan” because of their failure to appreciate “the great blessing He conferred on us under the first revolution.” In reply, another religious paper restated the basic suppositions: God never withdraws from a conflict but always chooses one side or the other; the only exception would be “when, in the origin and progress of the war, each party to the conflict is equally guilty.” Fortunately for the South, such a situation did not exist in this instance, for the Fayetteville Presbyterian concluded that “if God is not for us the Confederacy is in much worse condition than we had ever imagined it to be.” But the Georgia legislature also believed that God continually entered human history and, moved by “our national calamity and distress,” urged the people “to humble themselves before God, and with penitence for our past sins, national, social and individual; and with an honest, earnest desire to obey His laws; implore through the merits of our Savior, His forgiveness, and plead for wisdom to guide us.
These quotations indicate the mental struggle that Confederates underwent as they tried to reconcile their hopes and their religion with the costs and prospects of the war. By mid-1863 the casualty lists had grown far longer than anyone on either side had dreamed possible, and victory seemed much more distant than it had the summer before.
Events had not gone nearly so well as faithful Confederates thought they should have, and these troubled rebels were determined to understand why that had happened. Religiously oriented southerners, which included most of them, believed that they could turn to their Bibles for answers. David had killed the giant Goliath, but the Lord had chosen David. Throughout, the Old Testament drove home the lesson that when Israel remained faithful to God, she prospered; when calamity came upon her, she suffered proper punishment for sin. The prophets repeatedly had emphasized this lesson; they also promised that when God’s people returned to their proper allegiance, He would bless them again. So if God’s support of the Confederacy seemed not so certain as it once was, the Bible pointed both to the reason and the remedy. Like Israel, Confederates had gone astray; but like the chosen people of old, all would be well if they returned to the fold with rekindled faith in Him.
James W. Silver pointed to these basic suppositions in his study Confederate Morale and Church Propaganda. “In the middle of the nineteenth century,” he wrote, “it was generally conceded that the great influences in life were of a religious nature. The primary purpose of existence with most people was eternal salvation. Therefore, it was deemed essential that the individual should conduct his everyday affairs in harmony with the wishes of a just and stern God… Because of the limited industrial resources of the South, the success of the Confederacy depended on the degree of intestinal fortitude developed by the man on the street and on the farm. He needed to identify himself as a member of God’s chosen people and his country as a fulfillment of the destiny of history.”
These assumptions could only lead to the conclusion that, if the Confederacy was losing the war, people were not conducting their “affairs in harmony with the wishes of a just and stern God.”
In an earlier day of victory, the Daily Lynchburg Virginian had noted the moral of all this. Early successes had made obvious the work of “the hand of the Great Ruler of the Universe.” “Who can question these manifestations,” the editor exulted, “or doubt that the Lord of Hosts was with us?” The armies of Israel enjoyed success as long as they trusted in God, but when they forgot Him, then “bitter waters were given them to drink.” “Let us not arrogate to ourselves,” the editor continued, “the glory that is due to the Lord of Hosts. His hand is in all this.” But this optimistic statement was issued ten months before the Battle of Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg.
After the fortunes of the war had turned, events taught the identical lesson but with a different tone. Following Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, the same editor took his text from the book of Judges, saying that Joshua defeated the Midianites because of his loyalty to the Lord. “Perhaps,” this editor warned, “we are suffering chastisement for the same reason that it was once visited upon the once favored people; nor can we, with a true faith in the Divine Record, and an humble trust in that gracious Being who controls our destinies, doubt, that when ‘the altars of Baal’ shall be thrown down, and the people turned humbly to the source of all help, deliverance will come.”
History had taught its lessons. The southern clergy, says James W. Silver, and, we should add, the laity as well, had “developed an infallible formula. Every Confederate victory proved that God had shielded His chosen people and every defeat became the merited punishment of the same people for their sins.” And when faced with defeat, Confederates had not far to look to discover sins that could serve as a ready explanation, including “violation of the Sabbath, intemperance, demagoguery, corruption, luxury, impiety, murmuring, greed and avarice, lewdness, skepticism, ‘Epicurean expedience,’ private immorality, ill treatment of slaves, profanity, a proud and haughty spirit, speculation, bribery, boastfulness, and the ‘sin of all sins,’ covetousness.” God had smiled at First Manassas, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, but He had frowned at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Tullahoma. After these battles there flowed forth “an avalanche of sermons stressing the sins of the Confederate people.” “Apparently,” remarked Silver, “it never occurred to anyone that He might have been a disinterested or even a disgruntled spectator.”
Ironically, some of the clearest and most poignant statements of this particular religious mind-set came not from southern pens but from that of Abraham Lincoln. Possessed of a keen sense of the tragic ironies of life and of the problems involved in discerning God’s will, Lincoln much more eloquently articulated such thoughts than could most Americans of his time, including his Confederate counterpart. “From the beginning,” Lincoln told a group of visiting clergy shortly the victories of July 1863, “I saw that the issues of our great struggle depended on divine interposition and favor.” In an early memorandum of uncertain date, apparently written for his eyes only, Lincoln noted the inevitable, resultant religious tension that he later wrote into his Second Inaugural Address. “The will of God prevails,” Lincoln assumed, apparently in September 1862, and both sides claim “to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”
The following March Lincoln’s proclamation of a national day of fasting called upon the nation and its people “to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.” The war, proclaimed Lincoln, “may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins.” Despite His blessings, “we have forgotten God… It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.” And after the victories of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Tullahoma, Lincoln called upon the people “to render homage due to the Divine Majesty, for the wonderful things He had done in the Nation’s behalf, and invoke the influence of his Holy Spirit” to transform the rebels, guide the government, console the victims, “and finally to lead the whole nation, through the paths of repentance and submission to the Divine Will, back to the perfect enjoyment of Union and fraternal peace.” But Lincoln also understood that God’s purposes, whatever they might be, “are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise.”
Lincoln’s deeply moving ideas, and the moving idiom in which he wrote them, contends Cushing Strout, indicated the Union president’s “deepening sense of a providentially guided historical process that brings man to judgement through a great crisis in human affairs.” Lincoln felt that God was involved in the war for the Union, but he sought a deeper meaning in the conflict. He came to feel, says Strout, that he was “part of a drama whose script he did not himself write, but he was not yet of his own role in it or of the full meaning of the story.” As Lincoln moved toward his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, he also moved toward the fatalistic view that the war was a providential means of freeing the slaves.
That God acted in history to bring man to judgement was a belief that many southerners could easily accept, though they would have been surprised to know that this was also Lincoln’s view; that the war was the instrument of Providence to free the slaves, some southerners began to suspect toward the end of the war. After the war, however, many former Confederates accepted this notion also.
Others shared Lincoln’s fatalistic musings. In June 1864, after the bloody assault at Cold Harbor, southern editors copied with keen satisfaction an item they found in New York’s Spirit of the Times, which lamented that “we are almost led to believe that God not only is not with us, but against us… And why should He be with us, base, groveling, and corrupted as we are? We are not with Him! We are a godless, conscienceless, religionless people.”
Considering the divergences that had separated the churches, the religious thought of North and South displayed striking similarities; for each saw its own region as the legitimate “new Israel.” Each side operated from the same beliefs, seeing victory as a sign of God’s favor, defeat as a sign that the people had strayed from Him and thus had lost favor, and the war itself as a lesson to all. As Bertram Wyatt-Brown noted in his study of southern honor, “Resignation to God’s will, faith in the literal word of scripture, and a sense that the ‘fratricidal’ war was a divine visitation upon the land for the sins of all Americans were common opinions among the religious folk of the time.”
Many southerners expressed early in the conflict the idea that the war constituted a divine affliction shared by both sides. In his November 1861 inaugural address as governor of Georgia, Joseph E. Brown uttered his confidence in the future, thanked God for past victories, but declared that “the Ruler of the Universe has determined that the pride of both sections of the old Union shall be humbled and that they shalt be punished during this strife for national wickedness in high places, as well as for individual transgressions.”
But victory belonged to the righteous. After Confederate victories at Second Manassas and Richmond, Kentucky, in August 1862, Jefferson Davis proclaimed a day of prayer and thanksgiving, inviting his people “once more to his footstool, not now in the garb of fasting and sorrow, but with joy and gladness.” Clearly, then, “the Christian patriot… cannot overlook the hand of God in this war” and would surely “believe that God is for us and with us… not withstanding our manifold and grievous sins.” The “repentant, humble people, devoutly acknowledging the justice of the punishment He has brought upon them,” would find that their faith would make them invincible. The events of July 1863, however, forced Confederates to reassert some of their assumptions. The editor of the Memphis Daily Appeal (by then published in Atlanta) saw the fall of Vicksburg as “the heaviest blow of the war,” and with the news from Gettysburg he confessed that “it is difficult to discover any escape from the present unpleasant dilemma” unless all the people rose up to drive away the enemy — which, of course, they did not do.
But perhaps the people could appease God. A letter in the Milledgeville Confederate Union a month after Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Tullahoma stated the case simply: “We need the favor of God. Without it, we perish. God is angry with us for our sins. Hence the war itself, and hence the reverses of this summer.” President Davis led the way. On July 25 he announced “a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer,” appealing to the public “to take home to our hearts and consciences the lessons” taught by recent reverses. “Our successes on land and sea,” he warned, have “made us self-confident and forgetful,” and “love of lucre [has] eaten like a gangrene into the very heart of the land, converting too many among us into worshippers of gain and rendering them unmindful of their duty… to God.” Confederates must “receive in humble thankfulness the lesson which he has taught in our recent reverses.”
The following fall, after more defeats, but after more victories as well, the states issued proclamations of similar import. Governor Brown of Georgia led the way, declaring a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer and asking other states to do likewise, in the belief that if God saw “a whole nation on its knees, fasting, in deep humility, and penitential confessions,” He would “strike terror and dismay into the hearts of our enemies.” Other states followed Georgia’s example. The Alabama legislature recommended that southerners humble themselves, be penitent, “obey His laws, [and] implore through the merits of our Saviour, His forgiveness, and plead the wisdom to guide us.” The Mississippi legislature expressed confidence in the leadership of Jefferson Davis, its native son, and asked God, for the sake of Jesus Christ, to forgive sins, protect soldiers from disease and battle, and save the people, while the “people acknowledge our dependence on Him who holds the destinies of nations in His hand.” Florida also called for a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer for early December 1863.
These public prayers implied that the people could placate and supplicate the God of the Confederacy. Enough fasting, sufficient prayer, and ample confession of guilt would surely persuade Him to make His presence felt in a more positive way. One newspaper editor noted the truth of this notion in September 1862, for when events had turned against the South, Confederates had turned in humility and trust to God, beseeching Him to “turn away his wrath… And lo! What a change has been wrought in our fortunes,” for victory had come at Second Manassas and Richmond, Kentucky. “Never was there a greater deliverance vouchsafed to any people”; yet the day before the publication of these thanks to the God of the Confederacy — before the writer could have known of the event — General Lee had fought the Battle of Antietam and was even then retreating from Maryland.