The Rise of Religion in the Civil War
Lunchtime Lecture Series
Manassas Museum. August 25, 2008

On August 25, 2008 I had the privilege of speaking at the Manassas Museum as part of their 'Lunchtime Lectures.' Featuring excerpts from my book 'The Southern Cross,' this 40 minute presentation shared five stories relating to the positive role that religion played in the Civil War. Topics included the Great Revival, Stonewall Jackson and the establishment of chaplains in the army, Oliver Howard's efforts as a soldier and civil right's advocate, Jefferson Davis' multi-denominational cabinet, and Father William Corby, chaplain of the Irish Brigade and Notre Dame's savior. It closed with a special prayer that was found on the body of a deceased Confederate soldier. The transcripts and slides of my lecture are below:

Good afternoon folks. It is an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to speak to you this afternoon. I would like to thank each and every one of you for coming. I would also like to thank the entire staff here at the Manassas Museum for their invitation and hospitality. Today's presentation is titled "The Great Revival." I've specialized in the study of Christianity in the War Between the States for the last 5 years or so and my goal today is to share some uplifting and positive stories that took place during one of the most tragic times in our nation's history.

My talk today will be featuring excerpts from studies I've done for The Jackson Society as well as my devotional 'The Southern Cross: 50 inspirational stories about faith under fire.' These stories will feature the common soldier, two officers, a politician, and a priest. All had a significant contribution to the rise of religion in the Civil War. I promise not to go too long and I will be happy to take any questions you may have. I will also be signing discounted copies of this book today in the gallery.

Let's begin by briefly looking at the subject of faith and its impact during one of the darkest periods in American history. Religion in America during the 19th-Century, more specifically, Protestantism, was a major brick in the foundation of the nation. Religion played a vital role politically, socially, and of course spiritually. Therefore it is no surprise that faith remained a welcome companion to both soldiers in the field and citizens on the home front. It is my opinion that Christianity was also a major factor during the reconciliation and reconstruction years that followed the war.

To this day, casualties from the Civil War (620,000+) still exceed our country's losses in all other military conflicts. From 1861 to 1865, both sides suffered tremendous fatalities (almost 2% of the population was lost) and the subsequent damage to the country's infrastructure cost millions to rebuild. Perhaps if either army could have foreseen the tragedy that would befall them, a compromise may have been offered in place of musket fire.

Still, one cannot deny the fact that one of the positive repercussions of the War Between the States was the number of soldiers that were baptized in the field. Many troops became 'born-again' during the later years of the war as things became more desperate and hopeless. The romance and pageantry that had once attracted volunteers by the thousands at the beginning of the conflict wore away as the blood-soaked killing fields spread like a cancer across the country. From firesides of the Eastern Campaign here in Virginia to the army campsites of Tennessee, soldiers came to Christ by the thousands.

However, according to some accounts, religion did not accompany many soldiers at the start of the war. The magazine Christianity Today recalled the trials and tribulations with living a Godly life while on campaign. It stated: "Day-to-day army life was so boring that men were often tempted to 'make some foolishness,' as one soldier typified it. Christians complained that no Sabbath was observed. General Robert McAllister, an officer who was working closely with the United States Christian Commission, complained that a 'tide of irreligion' had rolled over his army 'like a mighty wave.'" Frankly you had thousands of young men who had never left home, unsupervised, and "off their leashes" so to speak.

Fortunately, as the war progressed, a movement referred to as "The Great Revival" took place in the South. Beginning in the fall of 1863, this event was in full progress throughout the Army of Northern Virginia. Approximately 7,000 rebel soldiers in Robert E. Lee's force were converted before the revival was interrupted by General U.S. Grant's attack in May of 1864.

Dr. Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr., author of 'A Shield and Hiding Place: The Religious Life of the Civil War Armies,' reports that "The best estimates of conversions in the Union forces place the figure between 100,000 and 200,000 men-about 5-10 percent of all individuals engaged in the conflict. In the smaller Confederate armies, at least 100,000 were converted. Since these numbers include only 'conversions' and do not represent the number of soldiers actually swept up in the revivals-a yet more substantial figure-the impact of revivals during the Civil War surely was tremendous."

Throughout the war the church was repeatedly called upon to meet many new challenges that came with a divided nation. Protecting the sanctity of religious practices remained a top priority for those who were extremely concerned about the repercussions of the wartime climate. First and foremost was the inevitable splitting of the denominations following the South's secession. And although there appeared to be no immediate hostilities harbored by Christian leaders on either side, the fact remained that the political split in the country - also split the church. This had a profound affect on virtually every aspect of their operations.

For example, up until the outbreak of the Civil War, the American Bible Society, based in New York, handled the production and distribution of most Protestant-based materials including Bibles and tracts. After the conflict began, an entirely new system had to be formed in order to meet the needs of the Southern congregations. Many of these dilemmas were addressed in the minutes of the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly.

One major point addressed the need to establish a new chapter of the Bible Society to shoulder the task of producing and distributing religious materials in the Confederate States. Privatized organizations representing a multitude of denominations stepped forward printing and distributing gospel tracts in the field. Another concern pertained to the issue of camp worship and the negative affects of military operations on the Sabbath.

Perhaps most surprising, most armies during the War Between the States did not commonly deploy with embedded clergy. Many Christian commanders in the field recognized the need for spiritual strengthening and that a healthy soul meant healthy troops. One of the most outspoken on this crisis was a man near and dear to my heart and of course the Manassas area, Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson.

"Old Jack" (later christened 'Stonewall') was one of the South's most pious believers and the first high-ranking officer to personally lobby for chaplains, arguing that a soldier's mental state of mind directly affected his ability to perform on the battlefield. Jackson also regularly put forth an effort to introduce this philosophy to the rest of the southern army. After realizing a lack of participation in the war effort by the church, Jackson sent a letter to the Southern Presbyterian General Assembly, petitioning them for support.

In it he stated, "Each branch of the Christian Church should send into the army some of its most prominent ministers who are distinguished for their piety, talents and zeal; and such ministers should labor to produce concert of action among chaplains and Christians in the army. These ministers should give special attention to preaching to regiments which are without chaplains, and induce them to take steps to get chaplains, to let the regiments name the denominations from which they desire chaplains selected, and then to see that suitable chaplains are secured." He added, "A bad selection of a chaplain may prove a curse instead of a blessing."

Despite the lack of readily available clergymen in the early Confederate Army, Jackson appointed a personal minister to his staff and maintained daily prayer rituals whether in camp or on the march. Whenever possible, a strict schedule of morning and evening worship on the Sabbath, as well as Wednesday prayer meetings, was adhered to at all costs. One of our local Fredericksburg preachers, the chaplain Reverend Beverly Tucker Lacy routinely led the services, which were often attended by General Lee and his staff.

As the courageous reputation of the "Stonewall Brigade" continued to grow, so did its quest for salvation. Jackson's own passion for sharing the Word and steadfast faith ultimately inspired his men to rise to the occasion and his beliefs became infectious throughout the ranks. By putting his trust in God, he was able to inspire those under him to achieve victory in the face of defeat. With total confidence, he routinely bragged of their bravery saying, "Who could not conquer with such troops as these?"

In addition, Reverend Lacy's energizing speeches quickly became a popular event for saved and unsaved soldiers alike, who attended his sermons by the thousands. Jackson recalled one particular event that summarized the success of their ministry. He wrote, "It was a noble sight to see there those, who led our armies to victory and upon whom the eyes of the nation are turned with admiration and gratitude, melted in tears at the story of the cross and the exhibition of the love of God to the repenting and return sinner."

Thanks to the good general's efforts and example, the Confederate Army soon began assigning chaplains to accompany its flocks into the field. Some of these shepherds even went so far as to participate in the fight, but most were stationed at camp for weekly rituals and ceremonies before and after the battle.

As expected, there were predominantly Protestant preachers in the South. The Catholic contingency was larger in the North's ranks, mostly due to the large population of immigrants. Regardless of the off-balance numbers of Protestants and Catholics, denominations were not important in the eyes of Jackson or his peers.

He specifically addressed this issue by stating that, "Denominational distinctions should be kept out of view, and not touched upon. And, as a general rule, I do not think a chaplain who would preach denominational sermons should be in the army. His congregation is his regiment, and it is composed of various denominations. I would like to see no question asked in the army of what denomination a chaplain belongs to; but let the question be, Does he preach the Gospel?"

Fortunately, clergy soon after became an integral part of military life that grew into a mandatory asset for an army, especially on deployment. Even today, the chaplains are still out in the field, providing our troops with spiritual nourishment. I have been contacted by several military clergymen over the years, most are interested in using my religious bio on Thomas Jackson and the Bible Study curriculum that was developed with it. All of them cite Stonewall as a major influence on how they conduct themselves. Several have written their doctoral thesis on Jackson's piety.

Another little known fact about Stonewall's legacy was that he and his wife helped to establish the first African-American Sunday School in Lexington. To this day the controversial subject of Jackson's contradictory role in the religious education of both free and slave blacks is debated by historians abroad. My very good friend and the man who wrote the Foreword to 'The Southern Cross' Richard Williams Jr. has written a critically acclaimed book on the subject titled 'Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man's Friend.' I recommend it highly. The research is extraordinary and you can judge Jackson's motivations for yourself.

Now contrary to some popular beliefs down here in the South, there were in fact, influential believers in the blue uniform. Perhaps the only Union commander with an equally infectious faith as that of Jackson was none other than "The Christian General" Oliver Howard. If I ever write a book on a Yankee, this is the guy I'll do.

General Howard could just as easily been attending camp service in a gray uniform - if not for politics, a strong opinion against slavery, and a sense of duty toward preserving the Union. Even in battle Howard was as much a moral crusader as a warrior, insisting that his troops attend prayer and temperance meetings. A recent PBS documentary summed up the life of Oliver Howard perfectly when it said, "Throughout his long military career, Oliver Howard gained victory by the force of his moral convictions, as often as by force of arms."

In 1857, Howard was a full-time soldier who was deployed to Florida for the Seminole Wars. It was there that he experienced a conversion to evangelical Christianity and considered resigning from the army to become a minister. His religious proclivities would later earn him the nickname "the Christian general." On the outbreak of the Civil War, Howard, an opponent of slavery, resigned his regular army commission and became colonel of the Third Maine Volunteers in the Union Army. Much like Jackson, Howard made spiritual strengthening a daily part of his troop's regiments.

Unfortunately, Howard's motivational efforts did not always transpire on the battlefield in the same manner that it did for Jackson's brigades. At the Battle of Fair Oaks (June1862) he was wounded twice in the right arm. The second wound shattered his bone near the elbow. It was amputated, and Howard spent two months recovering from his wounds before coming back. He was also given the Medal of Honor as a result of his own gallantry.

According to an August 1864 issue of Harper's Weekly: "General Howard has lost his right arm in his country's service. It used to be a joke between him and Kearney, who had lost his left arm, that, as a matter of economy, they might purchase their gloves together. One of Howard's most significant moments (in the field) came at Gettysburg, where he assumed command of Reynolds troops after he was killed."

After the war, he was appointed head of the Freedman's Bureau, which was designed to protect and assist the newly freed slaves. In this position, Howard quickly earned the contempt of white Southerners and many Northerners for his unapologetic support of black suffrage and his efforts to distribute land to African-Americans. He was also fearlessly candid about expressing his belief that the majority of white Southerners would be happy to see slavery restored.

He even championed freedom and equality for former slaves in his private life, by working to make his elite Washington, D.C., church racially integrated and by helping to found an all-black college in the District of Columbia, which was soon named Howard University in his honor. Oliver Howard was essentially a civil rights activist, before there was a civil right's movement. Perhaps no other war veteran rallied for the assimilation of freed blacks more than he.

In addition, Howard was active in Indian engagements and subsequent relations in the West and is remembered as a man of his word and of strong moral convictions. As was quite common, many of the surviving commanders of the Civil War became "celebrities" in the public eye, and they often signed autographs. Howard routinely signed his "The Lord Is My Shepard."

Much like Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was in the South, Oliver "O" Howard is to be credited for his evangelistic efforts on behalf of the North, in addition to his activism on behalf of all minorities living in the U.S. at the time. He was a man of God who ultimately became a man of the people - ALL people - regardless of the color of their skin. Yes Oliver O' was indeed a damn Yankee, but he was a damn good one too.

Next up is a gentleman you'll all recognize. Every road here in the Old Dominion is named after him. Of course this is the one and only Jefferson Davis. Now J.D. here is one of those guys who many people recall incorrectly. And a little known fact that I will share with you today, showcases a major contribution he had to religion and politics, not only in the Confederate States of America, but also later in the reunited government of the US. Despite popular belief, he did not 'officially' volunteer for the position of president in the Confederate States.

He had a successful track record as a politician prior to the war and was nominated and later appointed. In fact, there is a story on his History Channel bio that tells of a messenger riding up to the front yard of Davis' residence and informing him that he was just made president of the seceded states. He did not necessarily want the job at first, but he took it as he was a man of duty. He had been what most historians today consider to be one of the greatest Secretaries of Defense in the history of America. At the time the position was called the Secretary of War. It was there where Davis established many of the roots of the Department of Defense that we have today.

He revolutionized the Navy, initiated competitive weapons development and defense contracting. He also developed new tactics to go with the new weapons and was a tremendous taskmaster. Unfortunately, he would not have the same success as the Confederacy's Commander and Chief.

Davis was a poor protestant, a man of humble origins, who began his formal education at a small, one-room, log cabin school in the back woods of Mississippi. (similar to his counterpart U.S. President Abraham Lincoln from Illinois.) Two years later, his family moved and he entered the Catholic school of Saint Thomas at St. Rose Priory, which was operated by the Dominican Order of Kentucky.

At the time, Davis was the only Protestant student in the entire institution, but his own acceptance, as well as an introduction to a different denomination, made a lasting impression on the Episcopalian. Later, as a West Point graduate, Davis prided himself on the military skills he had gained in the Mexican-American War as a colonel in a volunteer regiment and as U.S. Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. After rising to the highest chair in the newly established Confederate government, Davis made a concerted effort to bridge the spiritual and social gaps between citizens of different faiths.

During the 19th Century, Catholics and Jews were often held in contempt and discriminated against by the country's Protestant majority. President Davis did not share this sentiment and following his appointment to power, he set a precedent when he assembled the first administration in American history that integrated Protestants, Catholics and Jews. This included his Secretary of State/ Secretary of War/Attorney General: Judah P. Benjamin (Jewish) and Secretary of the Navy: Stephen R. Mallory (Catholic).

Davis' unorthodox and courageous decision went against all previous political practices and ultimately sent shockwaves through all of the county's governing bodies, as not even his contemporary, Abraham Lincoln, had appointed anyone other than Protestants to a high office.

In his article 'Jefferson Davis, Religion and the Politics of Recognition,' D. Jason Berggren stated that, "Davis practiced the politics of recognition by appointing individuals identified with persecuted religious minorities. In this regard, contrary to conventional wisdom, Jefferson Davis was a remarkable president, a president ahead of his time." In the end, Davis was simply a disciple who respected other Christian-Judea faiths and gave them legitimacy in the community that he governed. He once said, "Never be haughty to the humble; never be humble to the haughty." Haughty of course meaning arrogant.

This kind of humbleness and acceptance of fellow believers of different theologies bred a fellowship that spread among the southern states. It took guts for Davis to do that and our politicians today seem more bent on dividing the country's believers instead of bringing them all to the table. His choice was very risky and very unpopular, but it was the right thing to do.

Now I will caveat that statement by adding that there was an undeniable hypocrisy that still existed within the Confederate government by rallying in the pursuit of freedom and independence for the white population, while simultaneously supporting the institution of slavery.

That said, when examining the role that faith played in both free and enslaved societies, it is reaffirming to know that there were still positive changes that later benefited all creeds and colors.

So although he ultimately 'lost' the war and the country, Jefferson Davis' courage to bridge the gap between faiths did have a positive impact on all administrations that followed him even to this day. Keeping with that theme of different denominations, let's look at the last individual that I will be speaking about today.

Everyone I've talked about so far has been a Protestant, but I want to finish today's talk looking at a Catholic who truly personified the term 'prayer warrior.'

According to Catholic doctrine, one of the most important duties that a priest administers is the act of "Last Rites," which is a form of absolution that is given to a dying person. In time of war, this provides a problem as men obviously fall on the battlefield without having a priest nearby. In order to compensate for this absence, Catholic chaplains would perform a universal form of this prior to the battle. Much like their Protestant peers, the Catholics would gather together on the eve of (or hours before) an anticipated engagement, but their ceremony would include a "Last Rites" ritual that would prematurely absolve them in the event that they were killed.

This Mass was extremely important to brigades that were made up of immigrants such as the Irish and German contingencies. Perhaps the most famous of these was "The Irish Brigade," who deployed with Father William Corby.

On The American Civil War web site, they describe his invaluable service: "For many Civil War soldiers, both North and South, religion served to provide hope and meaning given what they endured during this bloody, violent conflict. When possible, men of the church would take an active role in lending such to the troops both during times of idleness and of combat." They add, "The Reverend Father William Corby, chaplain to the Union's Irish Brigade among others, extended general absolution to all soldiers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. He was also known to administer Last Rites to the dying on the field while under fire.

Prior to the conflict in the Wheatfield on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, he offered general absolution to the Irish Brigade. Despite the loss of 506 of their men during that day's battle, one soldier stated that, because of Father Corby, "He felt as strong as a lion after that and felt no fear although his comrade was shot down beside him." Not the only example of heroism by people of the clergy, Chaplain William Hoge ignored the Union Blockade to bring Bibles to Southern soldiers."

Father Corby was born in Detroit on October 2, 1833 to Daniel, a native of King's County, Ireland and Elizabeth, a citizen of Canada. Daniel became a prominent real estate dealer and one of the wealthiest landed proprietors in the country. He helped to found many Detroit parishes and aided in the building of many churches. His son William was educated in the common schools until he was sixteen and then joined his father's business for four years. Realizing that William had a calling to the priesthood and a desire to go to college, Daniel sent him and his two younger brothers to the ten year old university of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The Congregation of the Holy Cross staffed the school then, as now.

After graduation, Corby returned to the school as a faculty member. During the Civil War, he volunteered his services as a chaplain in the Union Army at the request of Father Sorin, who was the Superior-General of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Corby resigned his professorship at Notre Dame and was assigned as chaplain to the 88th New York Volunteer Infantry in the famed Irish Brigade of Thomas Francis Meagher. It has been written that he boarded the train with a song on his lips - singing, "I'll hang my harp on a willow tree. I'm off to the wars again: A peaceful home has no charm for me. The battlefield no pain."

For the next three years, Father Corby ministered to the troops with great enthusiasm. This made him popular with the men. According to the Catholic Cultural Society, "Chaplains, like officers, won the common soldiers' respect with their bravery under fire. Father Corby's willingness to share the hardships of the men with a light-hearted attitude and his calm heroism in bringing spiritual and physical comfort to men in the thick of the fighting won him the esteem and the friendship of the men he served. Frequently under fire, Corby moved among casualties on the field, giving assistance to the wounded and absolution to the dying. For days after the battles, he inhabited the field hospitals to bring comfort to men in pain."

Known for their glorious (and ultimately disastrous) charge at Fredericksburg, the Irish Brigade also made a gallant stand at Gettysburg, where their priest has been forever memorialized in a modest statue that stands near the Pennsylvania Monument. The CCS recalls this as the defining moment for BOTH the brigade and their chaplain: "Before the Brigade engaged the Confederate soldiers at a wheat field just south of Gettysburg, Father William Corby, in a singular event that lives in the history of the Civil War, addressed the troops.

Placing his purple stole around his neck, Corby climbed atop a large boulder and offered absolution to the entire unit, a ceremony never before performed in America. Kohl, editor of Corby's memoirs, tells us that Father Corby sternly reminded the soldiers of their duties, warning that the Church would deny Christian burial to any who wavered and did not uphold the flag. The members of the Brigade were admonished to confess their sins in the correct manner at their earliest opportunity."

After repenting in the eyes of their Lord, the Irish Brigade plunged forward into battle and were met with a massive volley of fire from the Confederate forces. At the end of the day, 198 of the men whom Father Corby had blessed had been killed. A tragedy? Yes. But it was dulled by the fact that the departed heroes had been absolved and blessed prior to the engagement.

This surely made the family and friends of the dead, a little less sad, believing that their loved ones received the promise of salvation. Father Corby's presence was invaluable and a great comfort to all who attended his services. He is perhaps, the most famous and revered Catholic priest of the entire Civil War.

Following the war, Father Corby returned to Notre Dame in 1865 where he was made vice president. Within a year, Corby was named president. At the end of his term at Notre Dame 1872, Father Corby was sent to Sacred Heart College. He returned to Notre Dame as president in 1877 where he became known as the "Second Founder of Notre Dame" for his successful effort to rebuild the campus following a fire. Later he became Assistant General for the worldwide order.

Father Corby wrote a book of his recollections, entitled "Memoirs of Chaplain Life." He stated, "Oh, you of a younger generation, think of what it cost our forefathers to save our glorious inheritance of union and liberty! If you let it slip from your hands you will deserve to be branded as ungrateful cowards and undutiful sons. But, no! You will not fail to cherish the prize-- it is too sacred a trust-- too dearly purchased."

He died in 1897, and as he was being buried, surviving veterans of the Grand Army Of The Republic are said to have sang this song: "Answering the call of roll on high. Dropping from the ranks as they make reply. Filling up the army of the by and by." Today Father Corby remains the most revered and remembered priest of the Civil War.

In closing today, and in honor of the museum's newest exhibit on the life of the Civil War soldier, I would like to share a quote from a wonderful and thought provoking prayer that is rumored to have been found on the body of a dead Confederate Soldier.

It personifies in my opinion the essence of how important of a role faith played in the life and death of our boys in blue and in gray. It says:

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve,
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked God for health, that I might do greater things,
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.

I asked for riches, that I might be happy,
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men,
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life,
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for - but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am among men, most richly blessed. (Amen)

Thank you all very much.
Are there any questions?




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