In God's Presence
Chaplains, Missionaries, and Religious Space during the American Civil War
Benjamin L. Miller
When thousands of young men in the North and South marched off to fight in the Civil War, another army of men accompanied them to care for these soldiers spiritual needs. In God’s Presence explores how these two cohorts of men, Northern and Southern and mostly Christian, navigated the challenges of the Civil War on battlefields and in military camps, hospitals, and prisons.
In wartime, military clergy—chaplains and missionaries—initially attempted to replicate the idyllic world of the antebellum church. Instead they found themselves constructing a new religious world—one in which static spaces customarily invested with religious meaning, such as houses and churches, gave way to dynamic sacred spaces defined by clergy to suit changing wartime circumstances. At the same time, the religious beliefs that soldiers brought from home differed from the religious practices that allowed them to endure during wartime. With reference to Civil War soldiers’ diaries, letters, and memoirs, this book asks how clergy shaped these practices; how they might have differed from camp to battlefield, hospital, or prison; and how this experience affected postbellum religious belief and practice.
“By examining the work of chaplains in the camps, on the battlefield, in the hospitals, where Catholic nuns often tended both physical and spiritual wounds, and in the prisons, Miller offers some interesting insights into the spiritual life of the troops, and religious and cultural belief and practice in mid-nineteenth century America.”
—New York Military Affairs Symposium Review
“The author’s methodical and well-documented approach—that of defining boundaries between sacred and profane in the religious work of America’s most deadly war—is indeed a welcome contribution to an often-ignored subject.”
—Civil War Book ReviewSee all reviews...
“Miller’s work has illuminated an aspect of the religious history of the Civil War that has hitherto eluded historians.”
“An excellent addition to the literature on the Civil War, this volume goes beyond battles, maneuvers, and generalship to provide a better understanding of the conflict.”
“We have long known that the violence and destruction of war can challenge even the most steadfast faith. The men who entered Civil War armies did so in a period of religious dynamism in American life, and Benjamin Miller’s study lets us appreciate the spiritual lives of Civil War soldiers in new ways. Miller explains the vibrant and chaotic religious worlds that soldiers created in the midst of war, when the boundaries between sacred and profane blurred. He shows us the changes that the war brought and the limits of those changes for the postwar world. A rich and innovative study that merits attention.”
—Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Fred C. Frey Professor of History, Louisiana State University
“Benjamin Miller’s well-researched volume joins a gratifying surge in serious scholarship on religion and the Civil War. After long and inexplicable neglect of this subject, historians like Miller have shown how thoroughly—but also how complexly—religion factored into that conflict. The special merit of this book is to explain why chaplains generally and the United States Christian Commission specifically played such an important part in the lives of the soldiers on the front lines.”
—Mark Noll, author of The Civil War as a Theological Crisis
“Benjamin Miller provides a trustworthy guide to the work of chaplains during the Civil War. Employing a spatial analysis of their interactions with soldiers, he assesses their contested efforts to create physical spaces for Christian practice amid the tedium of camp and the terror of battle. Particularly illuminating is his discussion of hospitals as religious spaces and incubators of postwar civil religion.”
—David R. Bains, professor of religion, Samford UniversitySee fewer reviews...
Religion and war have always been at the center of the human condition, with warfare often leading to heightened religiosity. The Civil War cannot be fully explained without understanding religions role in the conflict. In God’s Presence advances this understanding by offering critical insight into the course and consequences of America’s epochal fratricidal war.