- A Visitation of God: Northern Civilians Interpret the Civil War
How did Americans make sense of the Civil War and its revolutionary influence on society, including an unprecedented scale of death and destruction and the ending of slavery? Many leaned heavily on their faith for answers, shows Sean A. Scott in his impressively researched first book.
Scott grounds his work in a carefully chosen place and people. He examines the "Civil War west," which he defines as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa (5). There he finds an eclectic [End Page 110] mix of foreign immigrants and transplants from the South and Northeast collectively bound together by a shared belief in evangelical Protestantism. While not the only religion in the region, it was the most popular and far-reaching, offering powerful "bonds of community and fellowship" (6). These "religious Northerners," Scott argues, merged a conviction in God's sovereignty with a profound conviction in America's status as a divinely favored nation to produce a supreme self-confidence over the meaning and outcome of the war and a lasting source of comfort.
More precisely, they assumed that God favored them in the sectional controversy and willed the war to happen as a means of chastening the nation for its history of sinfulness and destroying the peculiar institution. Their blatant mixing of the spiritual with the political, however, contained unforeseen consequences. By branding God as pro-Union, aggressively seeking to Christianize the Yankee ranks, and relying on the national government instead of the church as the primary vehicle for establishing peace on earth, evangelical Protestants ultimately "trivialized religion by making it the handmaiden of politics" (266). They won the war but lost part of their souls in the process.
Scott's work joins a growing literature on religion and the Civil War. Like recent monographs by Harry Stout, Mark Noll, Robert Miller, and George Rable, it shows that Americans widely depended on Christianity to interpret the war, infuse it with moral meaning, and find strength and consolation when it claimed loved ones. Scott breaks new ground, though, concentrating on the role of private piety in the lives of women and men on the home front. He is among the first to reveal just how strongly religion structured the daily lives of civilians in the Civil War west and framed their politics, relief efforts, family dynamics, and gender relationships.
Specifically, Scott argues that previous scholars have underplayed the "personal and individualistic aspect of faith" when analyzing the reasons behind the wartime activities of religious northerners. When mothers and daughters struggled to explain the death of a family member or rushed to collect supplies, there was more behind their actions than a belief in popular ideas about domesticity. Rather, "devout women emphasized the value of prayer, the importance of spiritual growth, and the necessity of relying completely on God when suffering through trials" (72). Similarly, Scott finds that historians have also misunderstood the importance of religion in the motivations and actions of men living in the Civil War North. Rather than ceding the moral formation of their children to their wives, fathers played a central role in the development of behavioral standards in their families. They extended this duty to the battlefield, peppering letters [End Page 111] to family and friends fighting for the Union with ethical advice and admonitions culled straight from the Bible. As Scott writes, "The emphasis on maintaining religious devotion and preserving moral virtue as a demonstration of both physical and spiritual maturity remained a constant theme that Christian fathers stressed for soldiers of all ages and ranks" (140).
Scott structures his book as a religious narrative that rises and falls with the events of the war itself. In doing so, he offers a fine model of how to balance spiritual and military histories. Frequently he uses turning points in the conflict to highlight key developments in the sacred thought of religious northerners, as when he compares President Lincoln's evolving understanding of the relationship between divine...