The Forgotten Legacy of the American Iliad-Beneath the Southern Cross

The South, however, was blessed by many more Christian generals. Besides the three carved upon the Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain, some of the most prominent Christian generals serving the Confederate cause were, Jeb Stuart, John B. Gordon, Patrick Cleburne, W. N. Pendleton, D. H. Hill, T. R. Cobb, Kirby Smith, Braxton Bragg, M. P. Lowrey, and Leonidas Polk. In addition, a number of prominent Confederate generals were converted during the war: Ewell, Pender, Hood, R. H. Anderson, Rodes, Paxton, and Baylor. Confederate cavalry leader, Nathan B. Forrest, encouraged the spiritual feeding of his troops and confirmed the Christianity he practiced after the war.

In addition, the South was blessed with an unusual number of gifted pastors, theologians, and chaplains: Robert L. Dabney, James H. Thornwell, Daniel Baker, Benjamin Morgan Palmer, John L. Giradeau, J. William Jones, William W. Bennett, J. A. Broadus, Moses. D. Hoge, Joseph C. Stiles, A. E. Dickinson, J. L. Burrows, Abram Joseph Ryan, Beverly T. Lacy, E. M. Bounds, (famous author of several books on prayer), and hundreds of others.

During the course of the war, Confederate conversions occurred at an increasing pace. These conversions were generally accompanied by persevering faith and altered life styles that had an enormous impact on Southern society and culture far beyond the years of war and Reconstruction. Many soldiers were converted by the sermons of chaplains, evangelists, and missionaries. Others were converted by letters from home, or the tracts, Bibles, testaments, and literature of colporteurs, but far more were the result of individual or small group interactions over time. These occurred in camp, on the battlefield, and in the hospitals, typically only one or two at a time as the result of individual or small group relationships. There were many different paths to effective evangelism, but the most effective evangelism, supported by many tiers of prayer and sacrificial effort, was soldier to soldier. Yet In the end, it was an astonishing work of God’s sovereign grace accomplished by the Holy Spirit and little understood by modern secular historians.

According to former Confederate Chaplain W. W. Bennett, author of The Great Revival in the Southern Armies, published in 1877, there had been 150,000 new conversions in the Confederate Armies by January 1865. There were huge numbers in the Army of Northern Virginia, but nearly 20,000 conversions occurred in the Army of Tennessee, while it was at Dalton, Georgia, during the winter of 1863-4. Some Confederate Chaplains estimated that over 25 percent of the men in the Army were converted during the war. These numbers were added to the many soldiers who were “praying church-members” before the war. Many Confederate veterans entered the ministry after the war, having a huge spiritual and religious impact over many decades.

Though little remembered or acknowledged today—probably because it conflicts with the politicized myth that the “Civil War” was fought by a righteous Union to end slavery in the South—the Great Revival in the Southern Armies, with its staggering numbers and far more enduring impact, may rank as a spiritual milestone of more sweeping significance than the First (1730-1750) and the Second (1790-1850) Great Awakenings.

Religious revival was not confined to the Confederate Armies, but in the North it fell on generally less fertile soil. It was more evident in the western half of the Union but was of a lesser scale and more confined to the lower ranks. Neither did it have the political and high-ranking military support it had in the South. The South was generally more faithfully attuned to the cardinal doctrines of Christianity, while many Northern churches were being influenced by Unitarianism, Universalism, and Biblical skepticism. There are fewer records of religious revival in the Union Army.

Yet many instances and examples of Christian faith and commitment in the North can be seen in the actions of individuals and churches. For example, Christian individuals and churches in Chicago were active in trying to relieve the suffering of Confederate prisoners of war at Camp Douglas. Their efforts, however, were eventually prohibited by Federal authorities in Washington. The records of the U.S. Sanitary Commission contain numerous instances of compassionate Christian commitment and actions. Even in the very un-Christian burning of Columbia, South Carolina, by Sherman’s troops, individual Union soldiers stepped forth to protect Southern homes, women, and children.

Union General George B. McClellan, for awhile the highest ranking field commander in the Union Army, became a committed Christian about the time he married, but his insistence on conducting the war according to Just War Doctrine and his preference for a negotiated peace were not embraced by Lincoln or Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. This may have been a much stronger underlying reason for his disfavor with Lincoln and Stanton than most secular historians are willing to admit. The Union hero of Little Round Top, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, was also an unwavering Christian, and it showed in his every action. There were others, such as Major General Don Carlos Buell, whose conduct strongly suggested an underlying Christian commitment. These officers, however, were a brave minority who risked the displeasure of Lincoln and Stanton.

The Great Revival in the Southern Armies left a strong Christian legacy to the Southern people. That legacy has been eroded by modern secularism, but it still exists and forms an important Southern cultural distinctive that spills over into almost every aspect of Southern society, both black and white. The South, Southern history, and leaders like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and John B. Gordon cannot be understood outside the framework of their Christian worldview.

For more information and detail on the Great Revival in the Southern Armies, I strongly recommend two astonishing histories: W.W. Bennett, The Great Revival in the Southern Armies (1877) and J. William Jones, Christ in the Camp (1887). Both are being re-published by Sprinkle Publications in Harrisonburg, Virginia. These volumes contain many touching and encouraging anecdotes of Southern Christianity in the camps, on the battlefields, in the hospitals, at the gravesides, and on the home front of what Ludwell H. Johnson has called “the American Iliad.”

Generally, their defeat did not embitter Southerners against God. They understood that though God’s providence is often inscrutable, it always works for the good of his people. Stonewall Jackson’s favorite verse was Romans 8:28:

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

In May 1865, while a prisoner in chains, former Confederate President Davis reminded the Southern people that:

“The principle for which we contended is bound to reassert itself, though it may be at another time and in another form.”

In a December 1868 article, “The Duty of the Hour,” Rev. Robert L Dabney counseled the Southern people that:

“It is only the atheist who adopts success as a criterion of right. It is not a new thing in the history of men that God appoints to the brave and true the stern task of contending, and falling, in a righteous quarrel.”

On the death of Jefferson Davis, December 11, 1889, his former pastor in Richmond during the war, Dr. Charles Minnigerode, gave this tribute to him, which seems an appropriate end to this treatise:

“He loved the truth; he served God and country. Let us go and do likewise.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR   –  Mike Scruggs, Author and Columnist

a.k.a. Leonard M. Scruggs-Mike Scruggs is the author of two books: The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths; and Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, and over 600 articles on military history, national security, intelligent design, genealogical genetics, immigration, current political affairs, Islam, and the Middle East.

He holds a BS degree from the University of Georgia and an MBA from Stanford University. A former USAF intelligence officer and Air Commando, he is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air Medal. He is a retired First Vice President for a major national financial services firm and former Chairman of the Board of a classical Christian school.

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