Many soldiers in the Civil War invoked their maker. For the greatest conflict of American history, this was surely the time for prayer. Figures like Stonewall Jackson showed a reverence that any of us might find in the traditions of our kin or the horrors of the period. A biographer of J.E.B. Stuart once noted how General Jackson “saw the Lord’s handiwork in all of mankind’s affairs and prayed constantly to discern God’s will.”¹ On the other hand, the infantry commander who pushed his troops with frightening speed accepted many battles on the Sabbath, and said it was “a man’s duty to pray and fight.”² Some were quick to think of God to ensure their victory or spite their foe. This simply confounded another leader: Abraham Lincoln.
One can imagine, with respect and sympathy, the pain Lincoln suffered as citizen soldiers were butchered wholesale. In September 1862, the President of the United States joined his fellow Americans to mourn the countless dead at Sharpsburg.
Some of the fighting here happened around a small white church run by a pacifist sect of the German Baptist Brethren. The faithful of early America grew out of modest churches as readily as corn grew from fields. Their peaceful spirits ran as deep into history as the need for war. (Union troops mistook the landmark for a schoolhouse.)
John Bell Hood’s 2,300-man Confederate division passed this very church to expel Federals from the nearby cornfield, only to be shredded at close range by muskets and artillery. Sixty percent of Hood’s troops were killed or wounded.³ The division was part of General Jackson’s force. The commander’s reaction to the initial fighting was typical: “God has been very kind to us this day.”² Nevertheless, Stonewall never stopped thinking of ways to destroy the enemy, and John Hood would find more distress at Gettysburg.
Abraham Lincoln did not have to contend with a single battlefield, but a ravaged and ruptured nation. Just seven months earlier, he had added the death of his son Willie, a victim of typhoid, to his sorrows. The eulogy at Willie’s funeral talked of taking confidence in the deity who could see their trial from beginning to end. Perhaps the eulogy stayed with Lincoln as Robert E. Lee pushed into Maryland. In the same month as Sharsburg and bloody Antietam, Lincoln wrote the following in a letter:
In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. … 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.
These were not the last words on pain and providence, but certainly worthy in the confusing, ageless study of religion and war. If the Civil War was Lincoln’s crucible, it surely led down a path to hope. Our sixteenth president focused beyond the fields of dead to the greater glory of a unified nation. And these profound words are trumped by an even greater document launched a year later: the Emancipation Proclamation.
¹ “Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of J.E.B. Stuart” by Jeffry D. Wert
² Ken Burns: The Civil War (2002)
³ “Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam” by Stephen W. Sears
National Parks Service, Antietam National Military Site