The Churches and the War
In seeking to keep the Union together, and at the same time do what was right by the slaves, the innocent victims as well as the cause of the huge convulsive struggle, Lincoln was fully aware that the Civil War was not merely, as he would argue, an essentially constitutional contest with religious overtones but also a religious struggle with constitutional overtones. The enthusiasts on both sides were empowered by primarily moral and religious motives, rather than economic and political ones. In the South, there were standard and much quoted texts on negro inferiority, patriarchal and Mosaic acceptance of servitude, and of course St Paul on obedience to masters. In the events which led up to the war, both North and South hurled texts at each other. Revivalism and the evangelical movement generally played into the hands of extremists on both sides. When the war actually came, the Presbyterians, from North and South, tried to hold together by suppressing all discussion of the issue; but they split in the end. The Congregrationalists, because of their atomized structure, remained theoretically united but in fact were divided in exactly the same way as the others. Only the Lutherans, the Episcopalians, and the Catholics successfully avoided public debates and voting splits; but the evidence shows that they too were fundamentally divided on a basic issue of Christian principle.
Moreover, having split, the Christian churches promptly went to battle on both sides. Leonidas Polk, Bishop of Louisiana, entered the Confederate army as a major-general and announced: It is for constitutional liberty, which seems to have fled to us for refuge, for our hearthstones and our altars that we fight.’ Thomas March, Bishop of Rhode Island, preached to the militia on the other side: ‘It is a holy and righteous cause in which you enlist … God is with us … the Lord of Hosts is on our side.’ The Southern Presbyterian Church resolved in 1864: ‘We hesitate not to affirm that it is the peculiar mission of the Southern Church to conserve the institution of slavery, and to make it a blessing both to master and slave.’ It insisted that it was ‘unscriptural and fanatical’ to accept the dogma that slavery was inherently sinful: it was ‘one of the most pernicious heresies of modern times.’
To judge by the hundreds of sermons and specially composed church prayers which have survived on both sides, ministers were among the most fanatical of the combatants from beginning to end. The churches played a major role in dividing the nation, and it may be that the splits in the churches made a final split in the nation possible. In the North, such a charge was often willingly accepted. Granville Moddy, a Northern Methodist, boasted in 1861: ‘We are charged with having brought about the present contest. I believe it is true we did bring it about, and I glory in it, for it is a wreath of glory round our brow.’ Southern clergymen did not make the same boast but of all the various elements in the South they did the most to make a secessionist state of mind possible. Southern clergymen were particularly responsible for prolonging the increasingly futile struggle. Both sides claimed vast numbers of ‘conversions’ among their troops and a tremendous increase in churchgoing and ‘prayerfulness’ as a result of the fighting.’
The clerical interpretation of the war’s progress was equally dogmatic and contradictory. The Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney blamed what he called the ‘calculated malice’ of the Northern Presbyterians and called on God for ‘a retributive providence’ which would demolish the North. Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most ferocious of the Northern clerical drum-beaters, predicted that the Southern leaders would be ‘whirled aloft and plunged downward for ever and ever in an endless retribution.’ The New Haven theologian Theodore Thornton Munger declared, during the ‘March through Georgia,‘ that the Confederacy had been ‘in league with Hell,’ and the South was now ‘suffering for its sins’ as a matter of ‘divine logic.’ He also worked out that General McClellan’s much criticized vacillations were an example of God’s masterful cunning since they made a quick Northern victory impossible and so insured that the South would be much more heavily punished in the end.
As against all these raucous certainties, there were the doubts, the puzzlings, and the agonizing efforts of Abraham Lincoln to rationalize God’s purposes. To anyone who reads his letters and speeches, and the records of his private conversations, it is hard not to believe that, whatever his religious state of mind before the war again, he acquired faith of a kind before it ended. His evident and total sincerity shines through all his words as the war took its terrible toll. He certainly felt the spirit of guidance. ‘I am satisfied,’ he wrote, ‘that when the Almighty wants me to do or not to do a particular thing, he finds a way of letting me know it.’ He thus waited, as the Cabinet papers show, for providential guidance at certain critical points of the war. He never claimed to be the personal agent of God’s will, as everybody else seemed to be doing. But he wrote: ‘If it were not for my firm belief in an overriding providence it would be difficult for me, in the midst of such complications of affairs, to keep my reason in its seat. But I am confident that the Almighty has his plans and will work them out; and … they will be the wisest and the best for us.’ When asked if God was on the side of the North, he replied: ‘I am not at all concerned about that, for I know the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.’ As he put it, ‘I am not bound to win but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to the light I have.’
Early in the war, a delegation of Baltimore blacks presented him with a finely bound Bible, in appreciation of his work for the negroes. He took to reading it more and more as the war proceeded, especially the Prophets and the Psalms. An old friend, Joshua Speed, found him reading it and said: ‘I am glad to see you so profitably engaged.’ Lincoln: ‘Yes. I am profitably engaged.’ Speed: ‘Well, I see you have recovered from your skepticism [about religion and the progress of the war]. I am sorry to say that I have not.’ Lincoln: ‘You are wrong, Speed. Take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and a better man.’ As he told the Baltimore blacks: This Great Book … is the best gift God gave to man.’ After reading the Bible, Lincoln argued within himself as to what was the best course to pursue, often calling in an old friend like Leonard Swett, to rehearse pros and cons before a sympathetic listener.
Thus arguing within himself, Lincoln incarnated the national, republican, and democratic morality which the American religious experience had brought into existence-probably more completely and accurately than a man committed to a specific church. He caught exactly the same mood as President Washington in his Farewell Message to Congress, and that is one reason why his conduct in the events leading up to the war, and during the war itself, seems, in retrospect-and seemed so to many at the time-so unerringly to accord with the national spirit. Unlike Governor Winthrop and the first colonists, Lincoln did not see the republic as the Elect Nation because that implied it was always right, and the fact that the Civil War had occurred at all indicated that America was fallible. But, if fallible, it was also anxious to do right. The Americas, as he put it, were ‘the Almost Chosen People’ and the war was part of God’s scheme, a great testing of the nation by an ordeal of blood, showing the way to charity and thus to rebirth.
In this spirit Lincoln approached the problem of emancipating the slaves. The moment had to be well chosen not merely to keep the border states in the war, and fighting, but because in a sense it marked a change in the object for which the war was being fought. Lincoln had entered it, as he said repeatedly, to preserve the Union. But by the early summer of 1862 he was convinced that, by divine providence, the Union was safe, and it was his duty to change the object of the war: to wash away the sin of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, and make all the people of the United States, black as well as white, free. Providence had guided him to this point; now providence would guide him further and suggest the precise time when the announcement should be made, so as to bring victory nearer.
Lincoln had weighed all the practical arguments on either side some time before he became convinced, for reasons which had little to do with political factors, that the slaves should be declared free, and laid his decision before the Cabinet on July 22. He told his colleagues he had resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice but ‘to lay the subject-matter of a proclamation before them.’ Their response was pragmatic. Edwin M. Stanton (1814-69), Secretary of War, and Edward Bates (1793-1869), Attorney-General, urged ‘immediate promulgation’ for maximum effect. Chase thought it would unsettle the government’s financial position. Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair (1813-83) said it would cost them the fall elections. Lincoln was unperturbed. The decision was taken: all that was now required was guidance over the timing. ‘We mustn’t issue it until after a victory,’ he said, many times. That victory came, as he knew it would, on September 17, with Antietam. Five days later, on September 22, the Emancipation Proclamation, the most revolutionary document in United States history since the Declaration of Independence, was made public, effective from January 1, 1863. Despite an initially mixed reception, the ultimate impact of this move on the progress of the war was entirely favorable-as Lincoln, listening to the heedings of providence, knew it would be.
Political considerations-holding the Union together, putting his case before world opinion, in which emancipation played a key part, satisfying his own mind that the war was just and being justly pursued-were not the only considerations for Lincoln, or even the chief ones. The overriding necessity, once the fighting began, was to win, and that Lincoln found the most difficult of all. His problem was not providing the men and the supplies, or the money to pay for them. The money was spent on a prodigious scale, and soon exceeded $2 million a day. At the outset of the conflict, the US public debt, which had risen slowly since President Jackson wiped it out, was a little under $70 million. By January 11, 1866, when the end of the insurrection was officially proclaimed, it stood at $2,773 million. But Congress was willing to vote heavy taxes including, for the first time, a tax on personal incomes of from 3 to 5 percent (it was phased out in 1872). All the same, payments in specie had to be suspended at the end of December 1861, and in February 1862 Lincoln signed an Act making Treasury notes legal tender. This was followed by the issue of greenbacks, so called on account of their color, both simple paper and interest-bearing.
The fluctuations in the value of government paper against gold were at times frenzied, depending on the military news, and some serious mistakes were made. In attempts to reduce inflation, Treasury Secretary Chase went in person to the Wall Street markets and sold gold, and he got Congress to pass an Act prohibiting contracts in gold on pain of fines and imprisonment. This crude and brazen attempt to interfere with the market proved disastrous. Chase was forced to resign, and his successor, William P. Fessenden (1806-69), quickly persuaded Congress to withdraw it. But on the whole inflation was kept under control and some of the wartime measures-the transformation of 1,400 state banks of issue into a much smaller number of national banks, 1863-4, for instance-were highly beneficial and became permanent.