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God's Presence With Our Army at Manassas by Stephen Elliott

God's Presence With Our Army at Manassas! A sermon, Preached In Christ Church, Savannah, On Sunday, July 28, 1861
By
Stephen Elliott
Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia.

A Sermon

Exodus—Chap. 15, vv. 1. 2.
Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation: he is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation; my Father’s God, and I will exalt him.

No words could express more entirely our feelings upon this day of National Thanksgiving for an almost unparalleled victory, than these opening verses of the song which Moses and the children of Israel sang when God had delivered them from the cruel hands of Pharaoh. They embody all the ideas which are most appropriate to an occasion like this, and indicate all the acts which we should be glad to perform out of gratitude for so glorious a triumph. They place God in the foreground of the picture, and ascribe all the glory to him, “I will sing unto the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” They arrange in proper order our past and our present relations to that supreme Ruler of the Universe, “The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation.” They announce the willing gratitude of hearts overflowing with thanksgiving for an unspeakable mercy, “He is my God and I will prepare him an habitation; my father’s God, and I will exalt him;” and together they form the key-note of the song of exultation which was poured out over the discomfited Egyptians. And these words are signally the words for this occasion, because God himself, through the Spirit which guides the Church, placed them in our mouths at the very moment when our victorious hosts were driving before them their vanquished enemies. Sunday last was the day of battle and of victory, and from all the Episcopal Churches of the Confederate States were read—as if God was speaking to us from the very altar of the sanctuary and cheering us on with words of prophecy—the chapters of Exodus which contain a detailed account of the preparations of the haughty Pharoah, which describe the hardening of his heart as shown by that insolent question, “Why have we done this, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” and which wind up with this magnificent hymn of exultant praise, which Moses and the children of Israel sang, and which Miriam and the women answered with timbrels and with dances. At the very moment when these chapters were reading in the Churches of the living God, parallel scenes were enacting upon the banks of the Potomac, and God was singing for us, before man knew the result, our song of triumph and of praise. It is the crowning token of his love—the most wonderful of all the manifestations of his divine presence with us. Let us repeat, to-day, with our imperfect echo, God’s own song of victory and thanksgiving.

And it will be none the less welcome, my beloved people, because it is interrupted by grief and broken by tears. Was our thanksgiving one of unalloyed joy, there would be no sacrifice in its oblation, and it might lack the faith which, in God’s view, alone consecrates any offering. The most sublime thanksgiving which man offers to God, is that sacrifice of praise which accompanies, in the Christian church, the commemoration of the death of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. That is the model of all thanksgiving, and it is red with the blood of him who came from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah, travelling in the greatness of his strength, and it has been, for centuries, bedewed with the tears of repentance. And so with the sacrifices of praise which we lay to-day upon the altar of the Church. It will be sanctified by the heavy grief which weighs upon all our hearts, and will ascend into the presence of God consecrated by the tears which have been wrung from the souls of sisters sorrowing for the loved companions of their youth, of wives mourning over the desolation of their homes, of parents refusing to be comforted because they have been bereaved of their children. In our deep sorrow we kiss the rod, and humbly receive his mercies as he thinks best to dispense them. It is the sorest trial of the heart when it is asked for its first born, and the most vivid imagination of the prophet could conceive no stronger picture of a nation’s sacrifice than that her young men were dead in her streets. Thanksgiving and grief are not incongruous, for all the highest gratitude of man is associated with him who was the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and is developed through acts of repentance and humiliation which demand from us the streaming eye and the smitten heart.

A little more than a month since, and the people of the Confederate States humbled themselves before God and mingled together, as became a nation who had received mercies which were altogether undeserved, thanksgiving and humiliation. We then prayed, as a nation, that God would accept our confessions, would hear our supplications, and would continue towards us His merciful favor and protection. We truly believed that our cause was his cause; that we were defending a condition of society which He had established as one of the links in the chain of his Providence, and that we should be successful, not because of any merits or righteousness of our own—for God knows that we have sins enough to bring upon us any chastisement—but because we were instruments in his hands for the fulfillment of an important part of the economy of his grace. We maintained that this conflict was not one of the ordinary and ever recurring struggles for independence, but that it wore many of the features of a sacred war, involving in its issues not human rights only, but sound religion, and the maintenance of the truth in philosophy, in morals and in government. It has been forced upon us most unwillingly and we had been compelled to break many long cherished associations and to crush many of our noblest feelings, ere we would engage in it. As it went on, we had perceived, more and more clearly, its necessity and its righteousness, and such wonderful  manifestations of God’s presence with us had accompanied it, that we felt satisfied he was acting as our counsellor and leader. If any doubt remained upon the mind of any man—if any faithlessness still lingered around the heart and the spirit—God has now so signally displayed himself to our wondering eyes, that the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night was not more plain to the children of Israel. Putting man altogether aside, truly may we sing to-day the song of Moses—“He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse And his rider hath He thrown into the sea.”

The more in detail that we receive the accounts of this victory; the more that the smoke clears away from the scene of slaughter and of triumph, the more clearly do we perceive that this is God’s victory. There are circumstances connected with it which mark His immediate interposition and which indicate a spiritual meaning too plain to be misunderstood. God has a purpose in every thing he does and He permits his children, when the event is over, when the blow has fallen, to read that purpose and to learn from it lessons which shall discipline the heart and regulate the conduct. Man learns but little so long as he is rushing forward in the pursuit of objects which fill in his eye and absorb his soul. It is only when some great stroke has descended upon him from God’s hand, that he is sufficiently sobered to consider his ways and to understand the dealings of the Lord. Such a stroke has come, like a bolt from Heaven, from the hand of the Almighty, filling the one army and the one nation with defeat and humiliation, and the other army and the other nation with sorrow and lamentation. He has smittin our enemies in their most tender and sensitive point, their invincible power, and he has taken from us the pride of our victoy by giving it to us wrapped up in the funeral shroud of the brave and of the young.

For three long and weary months had the North Been gathering and marshalling its hosts for our defeat And subjugation. The most experienced warrior of Our land had been engaged, night and day, in organizing an army which should ensure victory and which should make a triumphant and uninterrupted march over the ruins of our social life. The most veteran troops which our late army afforded were collected from distant fortresses, and all our historical and farfamed batteries were concentrated under officers who had given them their names upon hard fought fields and amid the blood and dust of terrific conflicts. Every appliance which mechanical ingenuity could suggest and which a lavish expenditure could supply, was brought to bear upon the perfection of this armament. Regiments picked from every State; foreign troops who has seen every kind of European and even Asiatic warfare; volunteers selected from the hardy, enduring, active mechanics of our large cities, were brought together and clustered around the veterans of the army, so that they might receive from them, as quickly as possible, the discipline and steadiness which they needed for operations in the field. The whole North resounded with the preparation of this mighty host, and Europe was bid to suspend her judgment and her action until this army should make its forward movement, and see whether there would be any further need for her anxiety and her intervention. The newspapers from Washington to Maine on the one hand, and to Minnesota on the other, held, with one or two honorable exceptions, one unchanging tone of exultation, boasting of the power, the strength and the invincibility of the North, and saying, in the very language of Pharoah: “We will pursue, we will overtake, we will divide the spoil; our hands shall destroy them.” Not a word about God and His justice and power that we could hear; not a moment’s distrust of themselves and reliance upon God! When their Churches were entered, it was to desecrate their altars with star-spangled banners, and to spread over the very common table, the symbol, not of Christ’s sacrifice, but of their national pride. When the pulpits spoke, they spoke not the words of humiliation and of peace, but the war-cry of destruction issued from them, as if madness had taken hold of this Christian people. All this stimulated the government at Washington and swelled the pride of the great chieftain who had never known defeat and whom WELLINGTON had called the greatest Captain of the age. His reputation gave him power to hold that host in hand until his preparations had been fully made, so that he chose his time and his occasion for the commencement of his long announced campaign And they were well chosen to give his movements their very best effect. He waited until the meeting of the Northern Congress had called together at Washington all the great leaders of his party; until he could have the most illustrious eyes of his chosen people fastened upon his every movement; until expectation had been excited to its utmost stretch, and the nation was standing upon tip-toe to witness his strategical skill and his successive triumphs. When these dramatic effects had been all arranged, and in the very midst of the exultation which had been occasioned by the victory at Laurel hill, the order was issued to advance upon the rebel crew which pretended to impede the way of the imperial march to Richmond. And great was the parade of that movement! Division after division was poured out of Washington with all the pomp and circumstance of war. Every thing was accumulated to produce a brilliant and imposing array. Flaunting banners, exultant music, officers surrounded by brilliant staffs, dashing columns of cavalry, heavy masses of infantry, parks of artillery of unrivalled fame, all inspired an assurance of victory which knew no doubt and would conceive of no defeat. The loyal city turned out “en masse” to witness this unusual display and to cheer on the army to triumph and to glory. Grave senators accompanied these gallant warriors upon their first day’s march and returned to dream only of victory and of conquest. Even women forgat their delicacy and went forth to witness what they were told would be another battle of the spurs. And when the sun went down upon that haughty host, there was probably not a single man in that immense army, who did not anticipate a complete and easy triumph. And well might they have done it, for they were marching with picked veterans upon untried soldiers; with vastly superior numbers of well armed troops upon youths who had never seen a battle-field and who had picked up their weapons here and there as they could soonest find them; with batteries of the most efficient light and heavy artillery, upon troops whose experience had been confined to a holiday parade in the streets and squares of a city. What was to hinder a complete and decisive victory? Is it possible that those beardless boys can stand the well directed fire of those terrific batteries, which have so often scattered, under like circumstances, the veterans of other armies? Is it within the bounds of possibility that those young men, trained up in the lap of luxury and known at home, many of them, only as the idlers of fashion, can turn back, even with their undoubted valour, the onset of those stalwart men, who, having labored all their days with the hammer and the axe and every tool of iron, amid furnances and forges, have made their muscles like brass and their sinews as cords of steel? Can it be that those backwoodsmen, who have rushed so gallantly to the way with no preparation save the few weeks drilling of a disorderly camp, can roll the tide of battle back upon that haughty host whose movements were but yesterday the admiration of the Capital, satisfying even the critical eye of SCOTT? ’Tis true those boys and youths and countrymen are led by the flower of the old army, who had disdainfully cast aside the trappings of a government which was calling upon them to subjugate their countrymen and overthrow the constitution of their country; ’tis true that they are inspired by a holy determination to die upon their ground or else march on to victory; ’tis true, as PERICLES said of the Athenians, “they place not so great a confidence in the preparatives and artifices of war as in the native warmth of their souls impelling them to action”; ’tis true, above all, that a nation’s prayers are with them in the battle instead of a nation’s boastings, but nevertheless the odds are fearful, and even the most confident tremble as the armies meet in deadly conflict. The eyes of two nations are on them and the hearts of two people are throbbing responsive to every stroke. From morning until evening that deadful battle raged, and all we yet know is, that our brave boys have made, upon the fatal field of Manassas, the name of Oglethorpe still more immortal; that our statesman hero has illustrated for all time his own beloved Georgia; that victory has perched upon our banners, and that defeat, shameful, overwhelming, almost inexplicable, has humbled to the dust the insolent myrmidons of a despotic democracy. God was evidently there, strengthening the hearts of our struggling soldiers and bringing the haughty down to the dust. Could the eyes of our fainting, dying children, have been opened that day to see spiritual things, I feel sure that they would have seen horses and chariots of fire riding upon the storm of battle, and making those that were for them, more than those that were against them “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy and for thy truth sake.” It is but seldom, in the annals of war, that so signal a victory has been granted to the arm of valor and the prayer of faith. We should have been satisfied with even a doubtful field; more than satisfied with a decided repulse. How loud then should be our thanksgiving, how deep our gratitude, when God has granted us a triumph which must resound through the civilized world, and give us a name at once among the nations of the earth; when he has permitted us totally to demoralize that insolent army; to drive them back in shame and confusion of face upon their strongholds, to strip them of their batteries which they boasted to be invincible, to despoil them of all the stores which they had been so painfully gathering for so long a time to—snatch from them the prestige of power which their partizan writers had given them abroad. And this victory has been given to us by God just at the moment when it was most important to us. There are circumstances in all conflicts which make certain battles decisive, decisive not because they end the struggle, but decisive because of the effects produced upon the human mind. Man, with all his greatness, is very infirm in his judgments and is apt to measure a cause more by its success than by its principles. The one requires to be examined and decided about, the other is a thing of sight and sense; the one is modified by our feelings and prejudices, the other carries man by storm. Besides, it is hard to separate success from God’s favor, and the superstitious mind—and by far the larger part of the world is superstitious instead of religious—almost invariably connects the finger of the Almighty with man’s triumphs. Such effects it was most important should be produced at this crisis of our affairs. Hitherto our successes had been ascribbed to numbers, as at Sumter—to treachery, as in Texas—to the inexperience of officers, as at Bethel. In this fight we were acknowledged to be inferior, both in numbers and in arms. The enemy was led by officers of high reputation, under the experienced eye of the great Captain himself, and there was no room for any other fraud than such as stands connected with the legitimate stratagems of war. The eye of the civilized world was upon this battle—of statesmen, to understand how to conduct their negotiations—of bankers, how to regulate their loans—of merchants, in what channels to float their commerce—of timid and doubting men, how to decide their politics. Much depended upon it for ourselves. For strange to say, imperceptibly to ourselves, our confidence in ourselves had been seriously impaired by the imbecile dependence upon the North for all the material comforts of life unto which we had permitted ourselves to fall. Even while we were guiding the Union by our statesmanship and illustrating it by our valor—even while we were giving it its Presidents, its Generals, its Admirals—even while we were furnishing it by our welldirected and well-managed labor with its great staple of exchange, we were permitting the North to take all the credit of advancement to itself, to absorb, into its great centres of commerce, wealth, literature, science, fashion, and to call it all its own, no matter whence it came or whose brain or pocket produced it, and to persuade even ourselves that we were a helpless race, who were dependent upon it for all we were and all we might hope to be. They provided the historians, and so the battle-fields of the North were the only ones which were known to the world; they did all the criticism, and so the science and the literature of the South were buried under the mass of charlatans and poetasters and scribblers who claimed to be heard because of their birth-place, and who were willing to buy a fame which they could not otherwise produce; they furnished Europe with all her information of our affairs, and so we were as much unknown as if we had been mere dependencies, or if known, known only as uncivilized frontiersmen who were hewing down the forests and preparing the way for the educated North to come in and refine us. All the sins of the nation were heaped upon us; we were the pirates, the slave-traders, the filibusters, the repudiators, the demagogues. All the vulgar bullying of the European powers which has been disgracing our country for the last thirty years, was laid—the bastard bantling—at our doors, and not only Europe and the North, but we ourselves, were getting fast to be persuaded that there was no wisdom, no leaning, no virtue, no power in the South. In this battle, then, we were upon trial; trial not only by the world, but trial by and for ourselves. A defeat would have riveted upon us all this false opinion and false character, and it would have required many fields of blood to break the chains of prejudice and calumny, and would have produced upon ourselves an effect which might have hung, fo long years, as a crushing weight upon all our efforts. Honor then to the noble spirits who have achieved this victory for us! Others may die upon the battle-field, but none can die so gloriously as they! Others may rise up and be baptized for the dead, but none can ever supplant her first martyrs in the admiration of their countrymen. Whatever illustrious deeds may be done in the future—whatever glorious victories may inspire hereafter new songs of thanksgiving and of praise, none can ever eclipse the fame of these deeds and of this victory. They will ever be the first who cast themselves before the insulted form of their mother and received in their young hearts the wounds that were intended for her; they will ever be the first who gave their blood to wash out before the world the stains that had been slanderously cast upon her honor and her virtue; they will ever be the first who have offered up upon the altar of justice and of truth, a hecatomb of victims to soothe her insulted spirit. Boys many of them were in years, but lions in heart! They have died young, but they have lived long enough to gain an enviable place in history, to entwine their names with the independence and glory of the South. But, above all, honor to the noble spirit who led them to the battle-field; who, having taught them by his virtue, his integrity, his unspotted character, how to live, was now about to teach them how to die! Before he left his home, he wrapped the Confederate flag around him and said that it should be his winding sheet, and all through that bloody day he courted the fulfilment of his prophecy. Wherever the storm of war was fiercest, there was he; wherever death was busiest in his bloody work, there raged he, the very impersonation of a hero. Even that cruel tyrant seemed loth to take away so grand a soul, and it was not until victory was about to perch upon his crest and snatch him from his grasp, that he struck the fatal blow! And when his gallant boys surrounded him, even while his tongue was faltering in death, he uttered words that will be as memorable as the battle-field—“I am killed, but don’t give up the fight.” Like NELSON, he died in the very arms of victory, and his blood, like the dragon’s teeth which were sown by CADMUS, sprang up armed men who hurled back the cruel invaders! Mourn for such a life and such a death as his was! We cannot mourn, and even his widowed mother should say with the noble ORMOND, “I would rather have my dead son, than any living son in Christendom.”

The effects of this victory will be, for the present, more moral than material. For the moment, it will only exasperate the North and spur the leaders on from wounded vanity to redouble their exertions. But it will be as a leaven working among the people, and teaching them, slowly but surely, how  hopeless is the task of subjugation which they have taken in hand. When the first excitement is over, and the shrewd citizens of the North begin to look to the end of all this, and to see before them inevitable failure, they will take the matter into their own hands and call to a terrible account all who have deceived them and led them into their present distress. So long as they were made to believe that their armies could rapidly overrun the South and bring back to their allegiance their most profitable customers, they were ready and willing to hale on the war, but when they shall discover that all their efforts must be unavailing, that an enormous debt will have to be incurred that they themselves must pay, that there is no hope of succor from any of the sources whence they anticipated help, and that nothing is before them but a series of bloody fields to end in discomfiture and disgrace, then may we look for a change of counsels and the rainbow of peace. This victory is the first step towards such a result, and through its blood and carnage may we see a glimmering of hope for returning reason among those who have suffered themselves to be deluded into the belief that the South would fall an easy prey into their hands. In Europe its effect will be more decided, and it will give a shock to Northern interests in that quarter from which they will find it hard to recover. It may not lead to the immediate acknowledgement of our independence—European governments are not hasty in their action, because what they do they intend to adhere to and carry out—but it will give us a status abroad which will be of immeasurable advantage to the Confederate States. Monarchies and Empires do not understand trifling, but when such a blow as this is struck, it at once commands attention and wins respect. However much our enemies may desire to conceal the severity of this blow, and however much we may fear that justice will not be done us abroad, both parties may rest assured that the Ministers and Consuls of foreign governments will keep their statesmen accurately informed of every movement in this important game. The commercial interests at stake are too enormous to be trifled with, and every honorable effort will be used by both England and France to throw their weight into the scale of commercial freedom.  And nothing will give such power to their movements or such strength to their reasoning as blows upon our enemy like that just dealt at Manassas.

Its effect upon ourselves is what I most fear. If we continue humble and give the glory to God, we shall go on from victory to victory, until our independence shall be acknowledged and our homes be left to us in peace. But if we suffer ourselves to be elated and to ascribe our success to ourselves—if our heart be lifted up and we forget the Lord our God and say in our heart, “My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this victory,” then shall our peril be imminent, for the Lord hateth the proud and smiteth those who would rob him of his glory. The victory is, we firmly believe, an answer to prayer, and while we would detract nothing from the skill of our leaders or the bravery of our troops, which are the secondary causes of success, we can yet see enough in its circumstances to satisfy us of the presence of God. Let us not lose this vast advantage, but crushing the pride of human nature, let us lay all the glory at the feet of Jesus and acknowledge him to be our Saviour and mighty deliverer,

The triumphant song of Moses was accompanied by a determination to show forth his gratitude to God by a thank-offering. The Lord had always been the strength and the song of the children of Israel, but now he had become their salvation. He had bared his mighty arm in the face of the nations and had delivered them from bondage and from destruction. This was a new relationship which had been established between them, and he determined to acknowledge it by preparing an habitation for God. “The Lord is my strength and my song and he is become my salvation: he is my God and I will prepare him an habitation; my Father’s God and I will exalt him.” Moses and the children of Israel were not satisfied with an empty-handed thanksgiving. They were determined that God should perceive that they valued His protection and truly rejoiced in His presence and their earliest resolution was to keep him with them by building an habitation for him in midst of them. They courted His presence. They did every thing they could do to keep Him near to them in the national struggle which had been ushered in by the glorious victory over Pharoah. Theirs was not a day of thanksgiving and then a cold dismissal of their God until such time as they should need his services again, but they determined, in the exhuberance of their joy, to make it a thanksgiving forever; to bring God into their camp and keep him there forever. What an ally! the Lord of Lord and King of Kings! He who holdeth in his hands the hearts of all men! He who can ride upon the whirlwind and direct the storm! He who can send forth hosts innumerable, horses and chariots of fire to do his bidding! He who can give courage to the fainting spirit and strike fear into the man of war! He who can distract the counsels of the wise and bring to naught the experience of the aged! How would our hearts leap with joy should we hear that the banner of St. George or the blood-stained tri-color of France had been unfurled and was preparing to wave, in alliance with ours, above our battle-fields! What an assurance of success would it give us! What a triumphant march to victory would it seem to shape out before us! And shall we not endeavor to keep on our side an ally as much greater than these, as the Lord is greater than his servant? Look all the way back through our young history—for although young, it has been full of marvelous incidents—and see how His power has shielded us, his wisdom directed us, His spirit harmonized us, His sword smitten our enemies. To preserve the favor of such an ally we should prepare, not one, but a thousand habitations, if necessary; we should exhalt Him, we should glorify Him, we should magnify His glorious name! Honor should be done to him daily; the song of praise and thanksgiving should be forever sounded before him. Man should lead the chorus of rejoicing, “I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea,” and woman should echo back the song of triumph with timbrels and with dances “Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” The Church of Christ, my beloved hearers, is his habitation upon earth, and we call upon you this day to prepare it for the presence of the Lord. It is always your duty and now it should be your delight. In this crisis of our national history, there is no element of society which is so important as the Church. It wields the most powerful instruments for good or for evil at a moment like this. It carries the prayers of the people to the mercy seat of Christ, and brings back blessings upon its wings—it guides the sentiments of the people in the channels of duty and of devotion—it works upon conscience, upon heart, upon spirit—it sends the soldier to the battle inspired with more than animal courage, and it ministers comfort to those who remain behind to endure the terrible anxiety of suspense, and to bear the misery of the heart’s desolation. Prepare, then, habitations for the Lord that he may be induced to dwell among us; give him, for your own and for your country’s sake, a glorious and exulting welcome. Exalt him, whose is “the earth and all that therein is, the compass of the world and they that dwell therein.” Say unto your homes, unto your temples, unto your hearts. “Life up your heads, O ye Gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in.” 

Since this Sermon was written, the body servant of Colonel Bartow has returned and has delivered to his family the Prayer Book which had belonged to his Father, and which, although quite a large one, he had carried with him through the campaign. It was marked at the Collect for the Sunday after Ascension, which he was using when summoned to the battle-field. I subjoin the Collect, as indicative of the feeling with which he went into the conflict:

"O God, the King of Glory, who hast exalted thine only son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto thy kingdom in Heaven: We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless; but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us and to exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God world without end. Amen."

Stephen Elliott, A Sermon, Preached In Christ Church, Savannah, On Sunday, July 28th, Being The Day Recommended By The Congress Of The Confederate States To Be Observed As A  Day Of Thanksgiving, In Commemoration Of The Victory At Manassas Junction, On Sunday The 21st (Savannah: W. Thorne Williams, 1861), 5-22.

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