In the minds of many Southerners, the capture of New Orleans on April 25, 1862, by Union forces was more than simply a troubling military loss. It also raised the disturbing possibility that divine punishment was being inflicted on a spiritually wayward and sinful Confederacy.
The loss of the South’s most important port and largest city had followed on the heels of the loss of Tennessee’s Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February and the ignominious retreat from Shiloh in early April. These setbacks, after the virtually uninterrupted Southern successes of 1861, caused many across the Confederacy to wonder, in the words of the South Carolina diarist Pauline DeCaradeuc Heyward, if “these reversals and terrible humiliations … come from Him to humble our hearts and remind us of our total helplessness without His aid.”
Such thinking was in fact typical of mid-19th-century America. With varying degrees of sophistication and conviction, Americans believed that the fates of individuals and nations unfolded in accordance with an unshakeable divine plan; all events, large and small, reflected God’s will and were expressions of his favor, testing or judgment. Of course, some, like the Confederate Edward Porter Alexander, would say of the conflict that “Providence did not care a pin about it.” But most Northerners and Southerners struggled throughout the Civil War to discern the purposes and intentions of their God.
While countless Union soldiers and northern civilians depended on theological narratives to sustain them, a providential view of history particularly influenced how Southerners reacted to and interpreted the events of the war. After all, the preamble to the Confederate constitution, unlike the federal one it replaced, explicitly invoked “the favor and guidance of Almighty God.” They were, Southerners believed, a people chosen by God to manifest His will on earth. “We are working out a great thought of God,” declared the South Carolina Episcopal theologian James Warley Miles, “namely the higher development of Humanity in its capacity for Constitutional Liberty.”
Miles held, though, that divine mandate extended beyond simply the Confederate interpretation of states’ rights, and that Southerners were bound by the Bible to seek more than merely “a selfish independence.” The Confederacy must “exhibit to the world that supremest effort of humanity” in creating and defending a society built upon obedience to biblical prescriptions regarding slavery, a society “sanctified by the divine spirit of Christianity.” In short, as the Episcopal Church in Virginia stated soon after the war began, Southerners were fighting “a Revolution, ecclesiastical as well as civil.” This would be a revolution that aimed to establish nothing less than, in the words of one Georgia woman, “the final and universal spread of Gospel civilization.”
This “Gospel civilization,” many believed, didn’t just permit slavery — it required it. Christians across the Confederacy were convinced that they were called not only to perpetuate slavery but also to “perfect” it. And they understood the Bible to provide clear moral guidelines on how to properly practice it. The Old Testament patriarchs owned slaves, Jewish law clearly assumed its permissibility and the Apostle Paul’s New Testament letters repeatedly compelled slaves to be obedient and loyal to their masters. Above all, as Southerners never tired of pointing out to their abolitionist foes, the Gospels fail to record any condemnation of the practice by Jesus Christ.
There is consequently a fascinating, if unsettling, paradox in the efforts of slaveholders to fulfill what they considered divinely imposed duties toward their slaves. Southern Christians believed that the Bible imposed on masters a host of obligations to their slaves. Most fundamentally, masters were to view slaves as fully members of their own households and as fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord. Therefore, as the South Carolina Methodist Conference declared before the war, masters sinned against their slaves by “excessive labor, extreme punishment, withholding necessary food and clothing, neglect in sickness or old age, and the like.”
Moreover, masters were not to let economic considerations govern treatment of their slaves. Religious leaders implored slaveholders to acknowledge that marriage and the family were divinely ordained and that, as a result, they must not separate husbands from wives or parents from children, even when it was financially advantageous to do so. (Almost no legislative action, however, resulted from these pleas; only the force of conscience would determine whether these biblical prescriptions were honored.) Many Southern Protestants advocated the repeal of laws banning slave literacy, so that slaves could read the Bible as a means to securing their eternal salvation. Before the war these practices were primarily justified as biblical mandates. Not coincidentally, though, they were also held out as a means to secure happier, more productive slaves, and to defang
But beginning in the spring of 1862 and continuing even past the end of the war, the theological significance of “Christian slavery” changed. Southern pastors and theologians combined a providential view of history with their understanding of what was biblically required of slaveholders to conclude that widespread failure to engage in “Christian slavery” was a main cause of divine favor’s being withdrawn from God’s own chosen people. In other words, they blamed the fall of New Orleans on the excesses of slave owners — though never on slavery itself.
To be sure, these were not the only sins thought to bring down retribution on the Confederacy. “Blasphemy, Sabbath-breaking, selfishness,” the Lutheran Church of South Carolina warned, also brought God’s punishment in the form of battlefield setbacks, along with “avarice, hardness of heart, unbelief, and many other evils.” This was of course a well-thumbed catalog of sins preachers in both the North and the South had railed against for decades. But as the fighting wore on and Confederate fortunes darkened, Southerners grew increasingly afraid it was their treatment of slaves that caused God to turn against them.
For example, even while he was convinced God ultimately would vindicate the Confederacy, the influential Baptist minister Isaac Taylor Tichenor spoke for many Southerners when he addressed the Alabama General Assembly in 1863. “We have failed to discharge our duties to our slaves,” he charged. “Marriage is a divine institution, and yet marriage exists among our slaves dependent upon the will of the master,” leaving God’s command perversely “subject to the passion, avarice, or caprice of their owners.”
Similarly, the theologian and college president John Leadley Dagg saw Confederate setbacks as “fatherly chastisements, designed for our profit.” Nevertheless, he was insistent during the war that the failure to protect slave marriages “is only part of the general evil. We have not labored, in every possible way, to promote the welfare, for time and eternity of our slave population, as of dependent and helpless immortals whom God has placed in our power and in our mercy.” In September 1862 Bishop Stephen Elliott warned Southerners that the “great revolution through which we are passing certainly turns upon the point of slavery, and our future destiny is bound up with it. As we deal with it, so shall we prosper or suffer.”
A year after the war ended Dagg would insist that the Confederacy’s defeat was due to white Southerners’ failure to take proper care of their black charges. The war was “a scourge of God,” according to Bishop John McGill of Richmond, Va., inflicted on the Confederacy for its failure to respect slave marriages and protect slave families.
Not all Southerners agreed. Some, like the South Carolinian Louis Blanding, simply dismissed all efforts to explain God’s purposes in allowing the destruction of the South as “vague scholastic playthings, fit for the keen of edge discussion and of no earthly account.” Others, like the Tennessee diarist Eliza Fain, were mystified why God would permit the end of slavery when the Bible so clearly justifies it; still, she concluded, “we cannot know now, but he does and this is all we deserve to know.”
Many Southerners, though, came to embrace the interpretation of their history suggested by Elliott and made explicit by the Reverend J.C. Mitchell. “Read the annals of other nations,” the Alabaman admonished, “and see what destroyed them. It was not foreign force, but internal evil.” After the war, then, for countless chastened white Southern Christians, the evil that provoked the Lord to destroy their nation was the myriad wrongs committed against the slaves they had kept. Vanishingly few asked whether their true sin might be claiming to own those whom the Bible called their brothers and sisters in Christ.
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Sources: Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “Yankee Saints and Southern Sinners”; Paul Finkelman, “Defending Slavery: A Brief History with Documents”; Eugene D. Genovese, “A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South”; George C. Rable, “God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War”; Mitchell Snay, “Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South.”
Thom Bassett teaches in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I. He is writing a novel about William Tecumseh Sherman.