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Kelley Lecturer Explains Tragedy of Civil War Battlefield Religious Fervor

October 30, 2000
Contact: Bill Giduz 704/894-2244 or bigiduz@davidson.edu

By Emily Drew '04

All across the batlegrounds, Civil War soldiers huddled around campfires praying for salvation. They sat together in fields reading comforting verses from Psalms and the New Testament, growing together in faith as they prepared to kill together in duty.

This was the 137-year old picture painted by Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson for a large crowd in Chambers Gallery on October 26. Speaking as the history department's annual Ken Kelley Lecturer, McPherson discussed the religious aspects the Civil War in a lecture entitled, "Onward Christian Soldiers: Religion in Civil War Armies."
John McPherson
Professor James McPherson

McPherson, a professor of history at Princeton University, cited soldiers' letters and journal entries throughout his talk, personalizing an aspect of history often overshadowed by the study of troop movements, battle strategies, and politics. Faced with the fear of death in battle, many soldiers turned to God and faith in order to cope with their stress. In their letters and records, men frequently expressed a feeling of safety because of their belief in God's protection.

However, as McPherson pointed out, "Bullets fell on the just and unjust alike." Christian men often acknowledged this fact, and many adopted a sense of "optimistic fatalism." One soldier wrote, "No harm can come near me without his special permission."

This man, like many others, believed that if he were to die, the event would be a part of God's complete plan.
Daniel Hodge
Prof. McPherson was introduced by Kelley Honors Student Daniel Hodge '01.

Though it was a common aspect of both Northern and the Southern armies, religion fervor was not enough to bridge their differences. Rather than bringing the two sides together to seek peace, religion gave them strength to pursue their military ends. Their faith convinced them that their army's will was God's will. "Because our cause is just, I am willing," wrote a soldier.

This belief, along with prayer and faith, carried Christian survivors through the bloody battles.

At the same time, the commandment "Thou shalt not kill," did loom in some questioning minds. War directly contradicted Christian commandments to love and seek peace. But their countries needed men to kill the enemy rather than love him, and turning their other cheek would have been a sign of dishonor. Soldiers convinced themselves that they were doing God's will by fighting for their side, and believed that military service was their Christian duty. "Ironically," said McPherson, "their faith drove them to be more efficient killers."

After the lecture, McPherson took questions from the audience on subjects such as Lincoln's view on Reconstruction, post-war mission work in the South, African-American motivation for fighting in the war, and the religious convictions of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant.
Kelley Family
Mrs. Nettie Mae Kelley, mother of the late Ken Kelley '68, and her daughter (l) Karen Stotts, speak with (r) Daniel Aldridge, assistant professor of history.

McPherson is one of the country's best known Civil War and Reconstruction historians. His masterpiece, Battle Cry for Freedom: The Civil War Era, won the Pulitzer Prize in history, the Christopher Award, and the "Best Book Award" of the American Military Institute.

He has published numerous other books and articles on the Civil War, including The Struggle for Equality, which won the Anisfield-Wolf Prize, Marching Toward Freedom, Images of the Civil War, and What They Fought For, 1861-1865. One of his most recent books, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, won the Lincoln Prize for 1998.

McPherson received his bachelor's degree from Gustavus Adolphus College and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. He has received 9 major fellowships including the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, the Danforth Fellowship, the Proctor and Gamble Faculty Fellowship, and the Guggenheim Fellowship.

He is currently working on a book about the battle of Antietam.

Kelley Lecture
Audience members listen to Mcpherson's lecture in Chambers Gallery.

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