Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War

Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War

“We don’t know what is before us today. Our trust is in God.”

–Sergeant John Johnston, Army of Tennessee, CSA, April 2, 1865


Guest post by Traci Nichols-Belt and Gordon T. Belt

Wherever the Civil War raged, religion flourished. This is the theme of our book, Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War, which examines the significant impact of religion on every rank within the Army of Tennessee, CSA, from generals to chaplains to common soldiers.

Using primary source material, Onward Southern Soldiers tells the story of the Civil War through the words of the men who served in the Army of Tennessee, and reveals the centrality of religion to Southern life.

Religion laid the foundation upon which Southern nationalism was built, unified people from different backgrounds and classes, and provided a spiritual reason for the yeoman farmer to fight in a war driven by the issue of slavery. Evidence of this can be found throughout political speeches and military orders, as well as Sunday sermons and soldiers’ diaries which are thoroughly researched and documented in Onward Southern Soldiers. Politicians, generals, bishops, chaplains and common soldiers alike constantly spoke of their faith, their existence in the will of God, the sacred nature of the Confederate defensive war, their total dependence on God, and the certainty that God would deliver complete victory to His Southern people.

A flood of religious writings inundated the Confederate army. Ministers utilized sermons, tracts and religious newspapers in order to promote a rebellion against perceived tyranny and injustice for the proposed purpose of securing religious freedom. Religious newspapers contained fiery speech designed to fan into flames the passions of the soldiers.

The Right Reverend Stephen Elliott. Courtesy of the University Archives and Special Collections, the University of the South.

Through this inundation of religious material circulated throughout the Confederate army, ministers reinforced and even extended the official Confederate message that God was on the side of the Confederacy.

From the church house to the statehouse, the clergy led the way into secession and war. Ministers established a religious doctrine which created an image of the Christian soldier who far more resembled an Old Testament warrior than a New Testament disciple. Southern ministers drew a connection between protecting home and protecting the altar of Christ. As with the Southern gentleman ideal of the antebellum period, God and honor were undeniably and eternally joined together. In this view, one could not live as a Christian and not protect one’s family and one’s home. Bishop Stephen Elliot, senior bishop of the Confederacy, declared:

“If this were a mere struggle for political power, a question of sovereignty and of dominion, then should I be loath to mingle the Church of Christ with it in any form or manner, but such is not the nature of this conflict. It is no such war as nations wage against each other for a balance of power, or for the adjustment of a boundary. We are resisting a crusade—a crusade of license against law—of infidelity against the altars of the living God—of fanaticism against a great spiritual trust committed to our care. We are warring with hordes of unprincipled foreigners, ignorant and brutal men, who, having cast off at home all the restraints of order and of belief, have signalized their march over our devoted country by burning the Churches of Christ by defiling the altars upon which the sacrifice of the death of our Savior is commemorated, by violating our women, by raising the banner of servile insurrection, by fanning into fury the demoniac passions of the ignorant and the vile.”

An example of how faith sustained the common soldier can be found in the writings of Private E. H. Ross of the Eighth Texas Cavalry of the Army of Tennessee. On June 28, 1862, just fifteen days prior to his death just outside of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Private Ross sent a letter to his family back home in Texas. He wrote:

“Tell father and mother not to forget me. Tell them and all the good people of Texas to pray for me and the Southeran Arma [sic] and to pray in earnest and in faith beleaving [sic] that they will receave [sic] what every they ask for or els [sic] I believe we will get whipped after all.”

The Army of Tennessee saw many defeats at the hand of the Union army. Confederates needed religion in their most trying hour, and they clung to their faith even after all appeared to be lost. When all was lost, as good disciples, they accepted the blame for their defeats, acknowledging their sins, which they believed alone, destroyed their cause, and they continued to bless God, who, as so many soldiers had written in their diaries, always does that which is right.

George S. Nichols was just sixteen years of age when the Civil War began in 1861. He was a member of the First Tennessee Regiment, CSA, and was a participant in the Battle of Shiloh, where he lost his left eye while engaged with Union forces. Ambrotypes like this first came into use in the early 1850s. Because of their fragility, ambrotypes were held in folding cases. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Private J.W. Harmon of the Army of Tennessee, CSA summed up these feelings in the beginning of his memoirs. He wrote, “An all wise Providence saw fit that things should be changed from what was so earnestly designed, and we have bowed with reverence to His will.” Through the gravest of circumstances, for four long and bloody years, God had proven to these ordinary men serving in the Army of Tennessee that He was truly their “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

About the Authors:

Traci Nichols-Belt is an ordained and licensed minister and holds a master’s degree in history from Middle Tennessee State University and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Anderson University. Traci wrote two National Register nominations for the Johnsonville Historic District in New Johnsonville, Tennessee, and the Historical AME Church and Cemeteries in Alexandria, Tennessee. She also authored the article, “Chaplains in the Army of Tennessee, CSA: Warring Disciples Carrying the Gospel,” published in the Winter 2004 issue of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly. Additionally, she wrote a review of Sam Davis Elliot’s book, Doctor Quintard Chaplain CSA and Second Bishop of Tennessee for the Spring 2004 issue of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly.

Gordon T. Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, and public historian. He currently works as the library manager for the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and has written several articles for the First Amendment Center website on legislative issues and history. Gordon holds a master’s degree in history from Middle Tennessee State University and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is the current president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists, and is the founding editor and publisher of The Posterity Project, an award-winning blog devoted to issues related to archives, history, and social media advocacy for cultural heritage organizations in his home state of Tennessee.

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