Early in 1862, chaplain James Marks pondered how to help the soldiers of the 63rd Pennsylvania Regiment. Bitterness after the defeat at Bull Run gripped the army. Homesickness and boredom were rife, and cold, wet weather depressed generals and privates alike. Marks made up his mind to lift the soldiers out of their unhappiness and bring their thoughts to a higher, religious plane. Purchasing a tent to hold worshipers, he began a revival season that lasted until the spring. Hundreds of men soon were “born again.”

A “Tide of Irreligion”

In the early stages of the war, revivals like the one Marks led were not the rule but the exception. Religion did not seem to have left home with the soldiers.

Day-to-day army life was so boring that men were often tempted to “make some foolishness,” as one soldier typified it. Profanity, gambling, drunkenness, sexual licentiousness, and petty thievery confronted those who wanted to practice their faith. Christians complained that no Sabbath was observed; despite the efforts of a few generals like George McClellan and Oliver O. Howard, ordinary routines went on as if Sunday meant nothing at all. 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.”

The situation changed, however, as the war became more serious and prolonged. After the decisive campaigns at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga in 1863, revivals became a regular feature of Union army life. By that time, tested northern veterans saw the gravity of the military task confronting them. Many sought support in religion.

For instance, in winter quarters at Ringgold, Georgia, before Sherman’s attack on Atlanta, scores of Union soldiers were baptized in the Chickamauga Creek, near the site of a recent battle. An army missionary from the American Tract Society remarked that the soldiers were being united in “one baptism of blood.” They had drunk together from the “cup of suffering,” and some going off to fight would soon gain entrance into “the church invisible.”

In the Army of the Potomac, a great religious excitement appeared during the winter of 1863–64. Numerous brigades erected churches and chapel tents for prayer meetings. General McAllister said he had never witnessed a better religious feeling among the men. And a reporter for a religious magazine thought the piety of the Union army would win the whole nation to Christ!

The “Great Revival”

Revivals in the Confederate armies may have been even more intense than among the northern troops. Like their northern counterparts, southerners became noticeably more religious as the war progressed.

Beginning in the fall of 1863, an event later called the “Great Revival” was in full progress throughout the Army of Northern Virginia. Before the revival was interrupted by Grant’s attack in May 1864, approximately seven thousand soldiers—10 percent of Lee’s force—were reportedly converted.

Among the troops defending Georgia that same winter, protracted prayer meetings and numerous conversions took place. Private Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee Regiment told about ten soldiers who died while they knelt at the mourners’ bench. An old tree, which had caught fire from the sparks of a campfire, suddenly came crashing down and crushed the men. Watkins professed no concern at their deaths but was glad their souls had joined “the army of the hosts of heaven.”

Even Confederate commanders came forward in this period to accept the Christian faith. General John Bell Hood, crippled by multiple battlefield wounds, was baptized in the fall of 1864. Henry Lay, Episcopal bishop of Arkansas, described the scene: Hood, “unable to kneel … supported himself on his crutch and staff, and with bowed head received the benediction.” With precious little left, southern soldiers sought spiritual strength from their religious experience.

How Many Were Converted?

Finally, when all the guns fell silent, and the defeated Confederates were dispersed, the northern soldiers who had defended the Union gathered for a last, grand encampment in Washington. Chaplains, agents of the Christian Commission, and ordinary Christian soldiers recognized this as a providential opportunity to minister to an immense gathering of men. They zealously plunged into the task of saving souls.

A Christian Commission representative compared the final revivals in the Union army camp to the passage of Israel into the Promised Land: “That pillar of fire which had ever gone before us, guiding in a way that we knew not, a way encompassed by difficulties and dangers, but made glorious by the favor of God, seemed now to rest upon every tabernacle and to shine upon every heart. Only a few short weeks did these scenes continue, the order came, the regiments passed away, each to its parent State.… And with it closed that work, … which had, in the name of Christ, brought healing to many a fainting body, and life to many a perishing soul.”

How many soldiers were converted during the Civil War? 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.

Onward Christian Soldiers

The soldiers involved in the revivals felt a personal and intensely spiritual experience. Yet the revivals had a social dimension. They encouraged soldiers to abandon such behaviors as card playing or swearing and to adopt the habits of strict Sabbath observance, prayer, and Bible reading.

A disciplined religious life, moreover, was considered useful for a soldier. Since the assurance of eternal salvation removed the fear of death, religious soldiers were presumed to exhibit more heroism than their unconverted comrades. As an anonymous black soldier of the 1st South Carolina (U.S.) Regiment said, “Let me lib wid de musket in one hand an’ de Bible in de oder,-dat … I may know I hab de bressed Jesus in my hand, an’ hab no fear.”

The battlefield was “the valley of the shadow of death” to everyone who crossed it, but Christians felt they gained some mastery over its dangers by surrendering their claims to being in control. Stray bullets and cannonballs often struck down even the most wary, convincing pious men that God’s inscrutable providence alone protected their bodies and souls. William Russell of the 26th Virginia Regiment recorded this prayer in his diary: “Oh Lord, if we should go into battle, be thou our shield & hiding place. If it is consistent with thy will, that any of us should be killed, may we have a happy admittance into thy Kingdom above.”

After the Civil War

The army revivals probably made a more lasting effect on Christianity in the South than in the North.

At the close of the war, the North’s religious aspirations for America rose to a peak. The very success the Union enjoyed encouraged northerners to new labors: converting immigrants entering their cities, alleviating oppressive social conditions through a Social Gospel, and bringing the gospel to “benighted heathen” overseas.

At this time, however, traditional doctrines seemed to be under attack. Liberal theologians were thought to be cutting away at Christian orthodoxy and rejecting the idea of a changeless faith. Amid the materialism and secularism of the Gilded Age, many ordinary Christians in the North fitfully sought reassurance that their beliefs were still true.

Christ in the Camp

In the South, on the other hand, little seemed to be left except religion. For many years after Appomattox, southern Christians spoke of the spiritual benefits they had gained through adversity. Temporal prosperity made men and women arrogant and seduced them into believing they did not need God. The South’s hardship, on the other hand, taught forbearance and Christian humility.

A passage in William Faulkner’s novel The Unvanquished poignantly captures the mood of southern churches following the war. Faulkner describes Brother Fortinbride, a lay preacher and former soldier. “Victory without God is mockery and delusion,” Faulkner’s character says, “but … defeat with God is not defeat” at all. Religious victory in the midst of temporal defeat was the South’s hope in a depressing time.

Baptist minister J. William Jones served as a chaplain to soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia. In his 1887 book Christ in the Camp, he described how the post-war growth of the southern churches began during the army revivals. Jones told about a soldier he had baptized in the army and met again after the war. Though from an affluent family, the soldier had lost everything—his money, his property, even his right arm in battle. When Jones saw him, he was working as a farmer, eking out a meager living. Still, the man wanted no pity: “ ‘Oh, Brother Jones, that is all right. I thank God that I have one arm left and an opportunity to use it for the support of those I love.’ ”

To Jones, this soldier represented the best about the army revivals. Those who had been converted looked beyond their misfortunes and with a simple faith set to work rebuilding their lives.

Dr. Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr. teaches church history in the School for Ministries of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. He is author of A Shield and Hiding Place: The Religious Life of the Civil War Armies (Mercer University Press, 1987).