Teed on Miller, 'In God's Presence: Chaplains, Missionaries, and Religious Space during the American Civil War'

Benjamin L. Miller
Paul Teed

Benjamin L. Miller. In God's Presence: Chaplains, Missionaries, and Religious Space during the American Civil War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2019. 264 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2766-0.

Reviewed by Paul Teed (Saginaw Valley State University) Published on H-CivWar (July, 2019) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53728

Over recent decades historians of the Civil War have begun to recover the critical role that religion played in the causes, conduct, and results of the conflict. In the introduction to his book In God’s Presence: Chaplains, Missionaries, and Religious Space during the American Civil War, Benjamin L. Miller argues that many of these recent works are largely descriptive in nature and lack a grounding in the theoretical literature produced by scholars in religious studies and the philosophy of religion. By contrast, Miller seeks to employ the concept of religious space to analyze how clergy and missionaries on both sides attempted to provide soldiers with spiritual guidance and meaning amidst a long and brutal conflict. Defining sacred space as “a place where one confers with the divine, a physical site that offers spiritual guidance and fulfillment” (p. 2), one of his main contentions is that spiritual leaders, whether regimental chaplains or missionaries sent to the field by organizations like the US Christian Commission, became embodiments of sacred space and “generated religious meaning merely by their presence” (p. 3). In a fluid and at times horrifically chaotic wartime situation where permanent religious structures and the mediating roles of women were absent, he sees these religious leaders as creative improvisors, countering the “profane” influences of camp life and the traumatic experiences of combat with spiritual companionship, comforting words, hastily organized prayer meetings, and hymn singing, as well as more traditional services and sermons. Prioritizing the needs of men over sectarian differences, Miller asserts, chaplains and missionaries also demonstrated a remarkable level of “pragmatic ecumenism” which continued into the postwar period (p. 149). 

The religious culture of the United States was, as Miller at times acknowledges, quite well adapted to respond to the rough environment and constant physical mobility that Civil War soldiers endured. The great tent meeting revivals of the post-Revolutionary period, the wildly successful system of Methodist itineracy, and relaxed standards of ordination in the most successful evangelical denominations were designed specifically to meet the needs of an increasingly mobile population in an expanding republic. Thus, the chaplains and missionaries in Miller’s book were, in many respects, well prepared to minister outside the formal walls of churches and to use all tools at their disposal to reach their men. Yet even so, he finds that chaplains faced challenges that did not exist in peacetime, including unsympathetic officers who insisted on drilling or paying their men on Sunday rather than encouraging them to attend religious services. In addition, ministering to highly mobile cavalry units or to artillery regiments scattered across wide areas of the front required a new, more fluid conception of religious space that included improvised outdoor preaching or hastily constructed altars or bethels. What made these improvised meetings or temporary structures sacred, Miller argues, was the presence of the clergy and their successful mediation of spiritual authority. 

The recollections of Union and Confederate chaplains, which make up a significant segment of Miller’s sources, not surprisingly describe the military camp as a kind of battleground in which the sacred and the profane struggled for control over the minds and souls of the men. What made the battle particularly intense to such men was the relatively contained physical space of the camp such that righteousness and sin might be practiced in very close proximity by men who would fight shoulder to shoulder in the next battle. Creative solutions for sacralizing camp spaces included substituting “scripture cards” for playing cards and creating small groups of Christian soldiers who would encourage one another to pray rather than consume alcohol, or to read pious literature instead of cavorting with camp followers (p. 9). Miller finds that religious leaders sometimes complained that their war against vice was complicated by immoral officers who not only set a poor example but also refused to limit the amount of alcohol or tobacco distributed among the soldiers. Ironically, however, overzealous officers could be a hindrance as well, as many soldiers resented pious commanders who interfered too much in their personal lives or compelled them to pray, sing hymns, or observe the Sabbath. Either way, since chaplains of different denominations experienced the crusade against vice in similar ways, they formed associations across denominational lines and worked with civilians to create spaces in camp that were free of moral temptation. 

Miller’s distinction between the sacred and profane elements of camp life is somewhat overdrawn, as such concepts are highly subjective and fluid in lived experience. The memoirs of chaplains and the reports of organizations like the US Christian Commission are hardly impartial descriptions of camp conditions and require a more critical reading than Miller provides. Civil War armies were certainly not immune to vice, but soldiers’ attitudes toward the morality of card playing, alcohol consumption, tobacco use, and the reading of secular literature varied considerably and did not always constitute vice in some objective sense. Civil War regiments were often internally divided along political, ethno-cultural, and class lines as well as over the soldiers’ attitudes toward the prewar reform movements. In these units, conflict over issues like gambling or alcohol consumption was less a contest between “sacred” and “profane” than a conflict over how to define such concepts. Regimental chaplains and evangelical organizations like the US Christian Commission sought a certain degree of control over the religious and moral lives of Civil War soldiers, a control that many soldiers (who were not necessarily guilty of vice) resented and resisted. Miller correctly characterizes wartime religious leaders’ belief that they were waging a conflict “within the military camp over sacred and profane space and time” (p. 85), but he does not explore the underlying nature of that conflict in any depth. His insistence on a sharp distinction between sacred and profane space, in other words, at times conceals a more complex reality. 

Miller is more successful in demonstrating the ways in which clergy and missionaries attempted to sacralize places where soldiers experienced their most intense emotional distress and physical suffering: battlefields, field hospitals, and prisons. As members of the Union’s Irish Brigade prepared to go into action at Gettysburg, for example, their celebrated chaplain, Father William Corby, offered absolution so that his men could engage in combat in “a state of grace.” Corby also heard confessions from his soldiers while under fire at Antietam and offered his men an outdoor mass just before the Battle of the Wilderness. Not content to wait until battles had ended, US Christian Commission missionaries actively assisted the wounded and dying men of both armies on the battlefield itself, providing physical comfort and encouraging them to consider the state of their souls before death. A similar dynamic occurred in hospitals where, Miller argues, chaplains and missionaries “served as integral members of the hospital staff” (p. 107). Although limited by a lack of dedicated religious space and periodic opposition from surgeons who resented their intrusion into the hospital routine, male religious leaders worked with female hospital workers to provide spiritual comfort and to discourage immoral habits among the male patients. Religious singing, regular prayer meetings, and Bible study were critical dimensions of their efforts to create a sacred space within the larger structure of the military hospital. 

In perhaps the most analytically significant section of the book, Miller argues that hospitals and prisons were critical sites for the emergence of American civil religion. The environment of wartime suffering and sacrifice meant that the devotional aspects of traditional religious holidays and rituals could blend easily into celebrations of national redemption and patriotic heroism on both sides. Union prisoners in Macon, Georgia, for example, insisted upon praying for Abraham Lincoln and the United States government despite the repeated objections of Confederate authorities. These same soldiers were deeply moved by their chaplain’s conduct of a Fourth of July service in which religious devotions were complemented by “speeches, toasts, and the singing of national songs” (p. 145). In hospitals, clergy contributed both their presence and their approval of aspects of civil ritual, including the new holiday of Thanksgiving and the celebration of George Washington’s birthday as well as special services to mourn the death of Abraham Lincoln at the end of the war. Although Miller argues that a similar development occurred in the Confederacy, this time surrounding the emerging cult of Robert E. Lee, a more extended look at the role of hospitals and prisons in the emergence of the Southern “Lost Cause” tradition would have made this section of the book even more significant. 

Overall, In God’s Presence makes an important contribution to the religious history of the American Civil War. The evidence it offers of wartime ecumenism and the creative sacralization of wartime spaces is very compelling. But there are some curious omissions as well. Given Miller’s emphasis on religious space, for example, it is surprising that he does not spend more time on the seizure (or even destruction) of Southern churches by Union forces, a common though controversial element of occupation policy. Did chaplains or missionaries approve of such actions, and, if so, what does this reveal about their views of “enemy” religion and its legitimacy? There are also examples of Union occupation forces intervening directly in Southern churches where white Confederate pastors refused to take the oath of allegiance to the United States, sometimes deposing them and installing Union chaplains, occasionally African Americans, in their place. In these instances, the distinction between what constituted sacred and profane space was less a matter of personal morality and more an expression of political allegiance, and it indicates the persistence or even intensification of prewar sectional religious conflict. Yet even if a more comprehensive analysis of religious spaces awaits future study, Miller’s work has illuminated an aspect of the religious history of the Civil War that has hitherto eluded historians. 

Citation: Paul Teed. Review of Miller, Benjamin L., In God's Presence: Chaplains, Missionaries, and Religious Space during the American Civil War. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53728

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