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What Drove the Terrible War?

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Union general officers Francis Barlow, Winfield Scott Hancock (seated), John Gibbon, and David B. Barney, 1863; photograph by Mathew Brady

People in both North and South became more religious as the war went on and on, the toll of death and destruction mounted, and God’s will for His almost chosen peoples became more inscrutable. Soldiers facing death or maiming experienced religious conversions; many revivals occurred in the armies, especially in the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis was baptized in May 1862 and joined St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. Two years later Bishop (and Lieutenant General) Leonidas Polk baptized Joseph E. Johnston, John Bell Hood, and several other Confederate generals in the Army of Tennessee.

Abraham Lincoln also became more religious under the stresses of war. He occasionally attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, but he never joined a church. He did meditate more profoundly on the will of God in this war, however, than almost anyone else. Unlike most Northerners and Southerners, he did not claim that God was on his side. “It is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party,” Lincoln mused in an undated private memorandum sometime in 1864. He could have “saved or destroyed the Union” without war, but He had not. And “he could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

In his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, with the war near its victorious conclusion, Lincoln expanded this idea. “Both [parties] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other…. The prayers of both could not be answered,” he said. “The Almighty has His own purposes,” Lincoln continued:

Let us suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came…. Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”13

At such moments, Lincoln would have agreed with Gary Gallagher. Human intention did not fully drive the process of emancipation. In the end, it was, somehow, God’s will.

  1. 13

    Basler, Collected Works of Lincoln, Vol. 8, p. 333. 

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