Religion and the American Civil War.
Religion and the American Civil War provides a masterful venue for analyzing the role of religion, both structured and unorganized, on the cause, conduct, and outcome of this internecine conflict. It is appropriate that a war that pitted "brother against brother" should be evaluated using the criteria of brotherhood and belief. The essays in this collection approach religion and the Civil War from a multitude of perspectives ranging from the spiritual malaise that followed Stonewall Jackson's death at Chancellorsville (May 1863) to the chronic shortage of Catholic chaplains throughout the conflict.
The editors prudently divided this large topic into manageable, well-organized units: overview, ideas, people, places, and comparisons. While section lengths vary considerably, they all receive well-balanced and adequate coverage. The strengths and weaknesses of this book, however, hinge on the sixteen individual essays not on structural organization. Each essay is well-written, carefully researched, and makes an important contribution to the historiography of the American Civil War.
Kurt Berends's "Wholesome Reading Purifies and Elevates the Man: The Religious Military Press in the Confederacy" and David Stowell's "Stonewall Jackson and the Providence of God" present compelling arguments and advance novel ideas on religious life during the war. Both essayists consider issues regarding gender and religion and emphasize the importance of a "muscular Christianity" during this life and death struggle. Berends argues that "Christians made the best soldiers because they were attentive to all of their obligations" (153). In essence, religious tracts--sufficiently pious and masculine -- were an essential war commodity to maintain the religious enthusiasm of the troops. Stowell's important contribution is pointing out that the death of General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson provided the Confederacy with a virile hero and martyr -- an essential element of masculine Christianity. These two essays are the strongest in the book.
Another important strength of Religion and the American Civil War is the weaving of a comprehensive analysis with a variety of historical perspectives. Those interested in the role of ethnicity and religion will find Randall Miller's "Catholic Religion, Irish Ethnicity, and the Civil War" an important source for unlocking the attitudes of Catholics who were directed by church officials to "follow their section" (263) in the conflict. Those who are searching for an engendered Civil War will welcome Elizabeth Fox Genovese's "Days of Judgment, Days of Wrath: The Civil War and the Religious Imagination of Women Writers" and Drew Faust's "Without Pilot or Compass: Elite Women and Religion in the Civil War South." Both essays advance the idea of feminized religion while highlighting the blurred boundaries of womanhood during the war.
The responses of the clergy to wartime developments are considered from northern, southern, and comparative perspectives. In "The Coming of the Lord: The Northern Protestant Clergy and the Civil War Crisis," George Fredrickson argues that most northern clergy were reluctant abolitionists who came around to the cause only after secession and bloodshed. Paul Harvey's "Yankee Faith and Southern Redemption: White, Southern Baptist Ministers, 1850-1890" presents the southern clergyman as "fighting chaplains" who sanctified the Confederate cause. Bertram Wyatt-Brown's "Church, Honor, and Secession" provides an in-depth and astute comparison of Christian clergy in the North and South in 1860-61. Wyatt-Brown's argument portrays clerics on the eve of the Civil War as quintessential mugwumps who were feverishly searching for a middle ground on the issue of slavery.
The religious sensibilities of Presidents Jefferson Davis (Confederacy) and Abraham Lincoln (Union) are examined in two essays. Ronald White's "Lincoln's Sermon on the Mount: The Second Inaugural Address" is a careful analysis of Lincoln's religious motivations in this powerful discourse. On March 4, 1865, Lincoln called for unity, healing, and reconciliation on both sides of the civil divide. Harry Stout and Christopher Grasso argue in their essay "Civil War, Religion, and Communication: The Case of Richmond" that Jefferson Davis' religious views were expressed in proclamations of public fasts. In developing their argument they point out that "Abraham Lincoln would proclaim three national fasts throughout the war while, in the same time period, Jefferson Davis would proclaim ten" (320). Each of these thematic essays are free-standing analyses that provide a refreshing overview of religion and warfare.
A reader looking for synthesis will not be disappointed since four essays provide overarching consideration of major themes. Philip Paludan's "Religion and the American Civil War" is the opening essay of the text and provides a clear context for inserting religion into this bloody conflict. Mark Noll's "The Bible and Slavery" posits that Protestant America (North and South) read the same Bible quite differently. Both ardent abolitionists and rabid secessionists could find comfort in the Holy Book. In "Religion in the Collapse of the American Union," Eugene Genovese provides the key religious dilemma of the war: "how much longer could Northerners and Southerners be expected to share the same political union when they could no longer worship together in the same Christian churches" (79). Denominational conflict started much earlier than military combat and had a profound effect on the conduct of the war.
One subject that comes up several times in these essays is the Lost Cause ideology that developed in the Confederacy midway through the war. This "version of Christianity sacralized the South's defeat, elevated her lost sons to martyrdom, and, above all else, confirmed the righteousness of the cause." (154)
Reid Mitchell's "Christian Soldiers?: Perfecting the Confederacy" provides a brilliant overview of the growth of the movement in the Confederacy after 1863. On many levels this topic needs further scrutiny to determine how it influenced military strategy in the closing years of the war and how the South approached religion during Reconstruction.
The final essays in the volume -- "Religion and the Results of the Civil War" by Samuel Hill and "Religion and the American Civil War in Comparative Perspective" by Charles Wilson -- discuss religion and the Civil War from a retrospective and comparative perspective. Both essays provide an excellent overview for the interface of religion and warfare.
Religion and the American Civil War is a fine addition to the field of religious history and fills a major void in the historiography of the Civil War. The editors succeeded in covering a massive topic in a logical and coherent manner. The coterie of contributors provide a refreshing and solid analysis of religion and the American Civil War.
JAMES CARROLL IS Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Political Science, and International Studies at Iona College.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2000|
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