Christianity and the Civil War: A Gallery of Fighters of Faith
Robert E. Lee
The ultimate general and the ultimate gentleman
Robert E. Lee’s piety, morality, and compassion were apparent to all who crossed his path. As one historian has written, “Robert Lee was one of the small company of great men in whom there is no inconsistency to be explained, no enigma to be solved. What he seemed, he was—a wholly human gentleman, the essential elements of whose positive character were two and only two, simplicity and spirituality.”
A “low church” Episcopalian all his life, Lee received religious training at home. He observed that his mother, who influenced him greatly, was “singularly pious from love to Almighty God and love of virtue.” His father, “Light Horse Harry” Lee, had won fame in the Revolutionary War.
At West Point, Lee accomplished a still-legendary feat: he graduated with the highest cadet rank and without a single demerit.
After graduation, Lee married Mary Custis, whose piety rivaled his mother’s. They had seven children (all three sons served with high rank in the Confederate Army), and Lee was confirmed with two of his daughters in Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia, in 1853.
Lee served gallantly in the Mexican War and later became superintendent of West Point. After John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, he led the Marines that stormed and retook the garrison.
In 1861, as civil war broke out, Lee was offered chief command of the Union forces. He refused the offer, resigned his commission, and soon became a general for the Confederacy.
Though Lee once described the master-slave relationship as “the best that can exist between the black and white races,” he advocated gradual emancipation of slaves. When he received slaves from his father-in-law’s will, in fact, he released them. But Lee would not succumb to the northern abolitionists’ determination to force the issue.
Throughout the war, Lee faced overwhelming Union forces. At first criticized as “Granny Lee” in the South, he soon displayed his military brilliance. At times during the war, his casualties were only about one-third of those in opposing units.
Lee daily read the Bible and prayed, and these lifelong practices were not greatly altered during the war. Unlike his Union counterpart, General Grant, he was noted for self-denial and self-control. He disliked tobacco, hated whiskey, and drank wine only in small quantities on rare occasions.
Lee conferred often with chaplains and attended their services frequently. Following victory, he offered prayers of thanksgiving to God. After the Seven Days’ Battles that saved Richmond in 1862, Lee said he was “profoundly grateful to the Giver of all victory for the signal success with which he has blessed our arms.…”
More than once Lee was prevailed upon to lead the funeral service for dead soldiers. He often wrote to the widows of friends who had lost their lives in the war. “But what a cruel thing is war,” he said, “to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.”
Following the Confederates’ defeat, Lee said, “I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South its dearest rights. But I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and I have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.” Lee applied for restoration of his U.S. citizenship, but the application was mislaid. Astoundingly, it was not found and granted until the 1970s.
Lee became president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee) in Lexington, Virginia. He attended Grace Church there, though sometimes he dozed in services, and he led the church’s vestry (board). His son described his religion as “practical” and “everyday.”
President Franklin Roosevelt once declared, “We recognize Robert E. Lee as one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.” But Lee described himself as “nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation.”
Both in faith and in battle, he would not be moved.
Thomas Jonathan Jackson was as thorough a Christian as he was a soldier. One writer decribed him: “He lives by the New Testament and fights by the Old.”
Orphaned at age 6, Jackson grew up poor and uneducated in foster homes. He entered West Point near the bottom of his class, but he graduated seventeenth. The second lieutenant then served in the Mexican-American War.
Following the war, while Jackson was in the occupation force, his superior challenged him to study Christianity. He did, all the while struggling with intestinal problems. He wrote his sister that his digestive problems “were decreed by Heaven’s sovereign, as a punishment for my offenses against his Holy Laws and have probably been the instrument of turning me from the path of eternal death, to that of everlasting life.” He was baptized at age 25.
Five years later, his young wife and unborn child died, which devastated him but ultimately strengthened his faith. He remarried, and his second wife, Mary Anna Morrison, lived until 1915.
Though baptized an Episcopalian, Jackson became a Presbyterian, and he was a noted tither to his home church. The Jackson family held prayers at seven A.M., and even servants were required to attend. Jackson never waited for anyone, not even his wife, to begin prayers. Following breakfast, Jackson would leave for his teaching duties at Virginia Military Institute (where his students called him “Tom Fool Jackson”). Jackson would return home for Bible study, which he did using a commentary.
Jackson believed that slavery was ordained of God. Strict but kind with his own slaves, he asked his wife to teach two slave boys to read. He even organized a Sabbath school for African-Americans in Lexington and taught a class for five or six years. “My Heavenly Father has condescended to use me as an instrument in getting up a large Sabbath school for the negroes here,” he wrote. “He has greatly blessed it.”
In April 1861, Jackson prayed with his wife and his cadets, and then left for Richmond to assume his command. At the Battle of Manassas in July 1861, he took a green infantry brigade and turned the tide of the battle. During the fighting, Brigadier General Barnard E. Bee instructed his men: “There stands Jackson like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians!”
The name stuck, and “Stonewall” Jackson soon became Lee’s right arm in battle. He daringly moved large numbers of men quickly (some say too recklessly). In one sixty-day period, his troops marched over six hundred miles and fought five major battles and numerous skirmishes.
His military prowess earned him the fear of northerners, who regarded him as “a species of demon,” “a fallen angel,” and “a cold-blooded rascal.” But Jackson never forgot where his abilities came from. After Lee commended his performance at Chancellorsville, Stonewall replied: “General Lee is very kind, but he should give the praise to God.”
On the battlefield, Stonewall Jackson maintained his devotional life. According to historian John W. Schildt, “His men saw him stumbling and falling over trees and rocks. They almost thought he had too much to drink. That was not the problem. He was praying with his eyes closed while he walked.”
Following every victory, Jackson ordered his chaplains to hold thanksgiving services. He was known to ride through the camps distributing tracts to his soldiers, and he often took part in his troops’ religious meetings. Wrote Henry Kyd Douglas in I Rode with Stonewall: “And when he had reached the place of prayer, lo, the camp was there. Bowed heads, bent knees, hats off, silence! Stonewall Jackson was kneeling to the Lord of Hosts, in prayer for his people!” Sundays were generally a day of rest. “Deacon Jackson,” as his men sometimes called him, hated doing battle on Sunday.
Jackson was rigid and stern, and he fought intensely with his subordinates. Some thought he was insane. But despite the way some writers have portrayed him, Jackson was not a fanatic. It’s simply that, in one historian’s words, his “primary interests” were “Biblical theology and Christian discipleship.”
Because of this, he could declare: “My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time of my death.” After being accidently shot by his own forces, he died on Sunday, May 10, 1863. “I always wanted to die on a Sunday,” he said.
The chief of artillery who was Robert E. Lee’s pastor
Three years after graduating from West Point, William Pendleton decided to enter the Episcopal ministry, and he was ordained at age 29. In 1853, he became the rector of Grace Church in Lexington, Virginia, where he served until his death thirty years later.
When war broke out, Pendleton reentered the military and quickly became the Confederate chief of artillery. In his first battle, Pendleton commanded four guns, which he dubbed “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” He gave the command, “While we kill their bodies, may the Lord have mercy on their sinful souls—FIRE!”
Pendleton served all the way from the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) until Appomattox. During the war, he preached often to his troops.
After the war, he returned to Grace Church in Lexington. He looked much like Robert E. Lee, and he counted Lee as his close personal friend. Lee served on the vestry of Pendleton’s church.
Pendleton spent the remainder of his life helping the poor. Searching for meaning in defeat, he compared the northern occupation forces to the Romans who persecuted the first-century Christians.
The bishop who fought “the battle of the Lord.”
In his final year at West Point, Leonidas Polk read an evangelical tract and converted to Christ. His conversion and baptism touched off the first revival in West Point’s history.
Receiving his military commission in 1827, Polk resigned it six months later in order to enter Virginia Theological Seminary. He later became the first Episcopal bishop of Louisiana.
In 1861, Polk accepted a commission as a major general in the Confederate Army. Though on leave from his duties as bishop, “the bishop-general” was criticized in the North for serving jointly as churchman and warrior. Southerners saw it differently. “Like Gideon and David,” the Memphis Appeal proclaimed, “he is marshaling his legions to fight the battle of the Lord.”
This he did, pushing back Ulysses S. Grant at Belmont and helping lead Confederate forces at Chickamauga. During the battle of Perryville, Confederate General Cheatham advanced, shouting, “Give ’em hell, boys!” General Polk, conscious of the fact he was also an Episcopal bishop, joined in: “Give it to ’em, boys; give ’em what General Cheatham says!”
In Battles for Atlanta, Ronald H. Bailey reports that “On his way to battle at Resaca, General John Bell Hood confided his wish to be baptized. About midnight, [Leonidas] Polk went to Hood’s headquarters. There, while the one-legged Hood, unable to kneel, leaned on his crutches in the dim candlelight, the portly bishop dipped his hands into a horse bucket of consecrated water and performed the rite of baptism. Then he buckled on his sword and returned to Resaca.”
In June 1864 a cannonball struck down the most beloved general in the Army of the Tennessee.
Oliver O. Howard
“Old Prayer Book” fought for the North—and then for freed slaves.
General Oliver Otis Howard was a New England abolitionist who never drank, smoked, or swore. His troops called him “Old Prayer Book.”
Howard’s brigade was routed at the First Battle of Bull Run. He blamed the Union Army’s horrific defeat on its decision to attack on a Sabbath.
Howard, who was widely known as “the Christian soldier,” also fought at Antietam, and he was routed by Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville. After losing his right arm at the battle of Seven Pines, he mustered humor to say to General Kearny, who had lost his left arm, “I am sorry, General, but you must not mind it; … we can buy our gloves together!”
On a Sabbath rest during Sherman’s march to Atlanta, General Howard, as he occasionally did, spoke during chapel services. According to a missionary of the Christian Commission, “the General spoke of the Saviour, his love for Him and his peace in His service, as freely and simply as he could have spoken in his own family circle.”
Following the war, Howard led the Freedmen’s Bureau, a government effort to assist former slaves. He helped to found a university for blacks in 1867. Named in his honor, Howard University stands today, in The New York Times’s words, as “the largest and most prestigious black research university in America.” The general also stirred controversy when he tried to integrate a church.
Howard served as chairman of the board of the American Tract Society and as superintendent of West Point. In 1869 he presented Bibles to all incoming West Point cadets, a practice that continues today.
George B. McClellan
On his orders, the Sabbath was observed throughout the Union Army.
George McClellan took command of the Armies of the United States in November 1861. The ambitious “Young Napoleon” was 35 and a newly converted Christian.
The Union had just suffered a great defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run. Some people said the Union was defeated because Federal troops attacked on Sunday morning, dishonoring the Sabbath. McClellan agreed, and he ordered that the Sabbath be observed throughout the Union Army, with services held whenever military demands did not absolutely prevent worship and rest.
However, devotion to God and popularity with his troops were not enough to make McClellan one of history’s great commanders. He was overcautious; he continually overestimated the Confederates’ strength, and he was slow to attack. Four months after becoming commander-in-chief, he was demoted by Lincoln; eight months after that, he was ordered to yield his army to General Burnside, go home, and wait for orders. They never came.
In 1864, McClellan ran against Lincoln as the Democratic candidate for president. Early on, it looked like he might win, but Union military victories boosted support for Lincoln, and McClellan carried only three states. Later, he served as governor of New Jersey.
The passionate Catholic wouldn’t fight on Sundays.
General Rosecrans led his troops with the motto “[God] never fails those who truly trust.” The New York Times, however, was not impressed with his dependence on divine guidance. The paper characterized him as depressive and indecisive in battle.
Following the battle at Murfreesboro, Rosecrans refused to pursue the defeated Confederate force, led by General Braxton Bragg, because he wanted his army to rest on the Sabbath.
Though known for drinking and swearing heavily, “Old Rosy” increased the number of chaplains in his company. And he often engaged his staff in religious discussions, in one period keeping them up until 4 A.M. for ten nights in a row. He attended Mass every day.
After maneuvering brilliantly in the 1863 Tullahoma Campaign in Tennessee, Rosecrans’s forces suffered brutal losses at Chickamauga, “the River of Death.” Some 35,000 men fell on both sides in two days’ fighting, and the heavy losses effectively ended Rosecrans’s military career.
Dr. Jeffery Warren Scott is pastor of Broadman Baptist Church in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Mary Ann Jeffreys is editorial coordinator of Christian History.
Copyright © 1992 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.