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Was God On The Side Of The North? By Dr. Richard Lee Montgomery

Dr. Richard Lee Montgomery

This question needs to be asked because we can easily hear someone say that because the North won the war it can only mean that God was on their side. I mean isn’t that the normal way to think. Certainly their were many in the North who felt that God was on their side but then, there were many in the South who felt the same way. In fact, many ministers on both sides went so far as to proclaim that God had ordained the war and that they were themselves God's “chosen people.” Listen to these statements from both sides on this issue:

Lincoln responded “To a minister who said he ‘hoped the Lord was on our side,’ he replied that it ‘gave him no concern whether the Lord was on our side or not,’ and then added, ‘for I know the Lord is always on the side of right,’” 1

Delivered in Boston, March 5, 1865, on the
occasion of the Fall of Charleston, Gilbert Haven says this in a sermon: “How they point to our only success — God and duty. Our armies in the field, our legislation in Congress, our principles at home, our God in all of these, through them all, above them all — these are our salvation. Only by adhering to the right shall we triumph — the whole right.” 2

In a sermon given by Edwin Bonaparte Webb, after the capture of Richmond, he says, “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side when men rose up against us, then they had swallowed us up quick when their wrath was kindled against us.” 3

Then there was the opinion on the side of the South. With the
South's triumph in the war's first major battle at First Manassas on Sunday, July 21, 1861, you could hear sermons preached that day about God's providence, leading them to victory. In Richmond, Virginia, at St. John's (Episcopal) Church, William C. Butler declared: “God has given us of the South today a fresh and golden opportunity—and so a most solemn command—to realize that form of government in which the just, constitutional rights of each and all are guaranteed to each and all. … He has placed us in the front rank of the most marked epochs of the world's history. He has placed in our hands a commission which we can faithfully execute only by holy, individual self-consecration to all of God's plans.” 4
Now, here is what is interesting about this particular church, for on March 23, 1775, a meeting of the Colony delegates at the Second Virginia Convention in Richmond, saw and heard Patrick Henry deliver his famous “Give me Liberty or give me Death” speech. So what was said in this famous speech?  Closer to the end of his speech Patrick Henry gives the climax in his speech, “They tell us, sir, that we are weak—unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house. Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of Hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat, but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged, their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come!! I repeat it, sir, let it come!!! 

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace,—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? what would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it. Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me,' cried he, with both his arms extended aloft, his brows knit, every feature marked with the resolute purpose of his soul, and his voice swelled to its boldest note of exclamation — give me liberty, or give me death!!!” 5

What we need to understand here, is that we see the same spirit and the same tenacity and the same spiritual convictions to fight for freedom and the South’s Independence, from the same kind of tyrannical government, as our Founding Fathers did – from the
British Crown. And that’s what we see when the Southerner States seceded from the United States. Robert Barnwell Rhett, from South Carolina and called the “Father of Secession” basically said the same thing as Patrick Henry, concerning liberty, “Under such a Government, there must, of course, be many and endless ‘irrepressible conflicts,’ between the two great sections of the Union. The same faithlessness which has abolished the Constitution of the United States, will not fail to carry out the sectional purposes for which it has been abolished. There must be conflict; and the weaker section of the Union can only find peace and liberty, in an independence of the North.” 6

While sermons were used to express their sectional loyalties, North and South, songs were also mighty tools. Perhaps Henry Frederic Reddall says it best, when giving us the balanced picture of the patriotic songs that were sung. He says, “The sound of ‘John Brown's Body’ and Mrs. Howe's noble ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ echoed on every hilltop and in every valley where our soldiers marched and battled in the civil war; while ‘Dixie,’ ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag,’ and ‘Maryland, My Maryland,’ resounded back defiant strains from the southern camps. Thus music and song, appealing as they do strongly to the deep emotions of strong men, as well as of gentle women and little children, have a serious use in the most momentous struggles, and sometimes produce grave
changes in the destinies of nations and continents.” 7

As a prominent American abolitionist, social activist, poet and the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Julia Ward Howe used the music from the song “John Brown's Body,” written around 1856 by William Steffe to write her famous lyrics in November 1861 and
was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1862. Thus, we have the famous “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was in this song that Howe applied the judgment of the “day of the Lord” to the destruction of the Southern armies by the North. This became their rally song of the Union Army, believing that God would lead them to victory.

In Mary Rosetta Parkman’s short biography of Julia Ward Howe, entitled “Heroines of Service,” with the chapter “The Singer of a
Nation’s Song,” she describes the influence of the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the United States of America like this: “And so the ‘nation’s song’ was born. How did it come to pass that the people knew it as their own? When it appeared in the ‘Atlantic Monthly’ it c
alled forth little comment; the days gave small chance for the poetry of words. But some poets in the real world of deeds had seen it the people who were fighting on the nation's battle-fields. And again and again it was sung and chanted as a prayer before battle and a trumpet-call to action.” 8
Then there was the South's renowned anthem – “Dixie.” One theory credit's Ohio-born Daniel Decatur Emmett with the song's composition, while many other people have claimed to have composed this song,  even during Emmett's lifetime. This songs background tells us that it premiered in the “black-face minstrel shows” 9 of the 1850's and quickly grew famous across the United States. But as we know, “Dixie” is best known as the song adopted by the Confederacy and
for this very reason, Emmett was ostracized in the North for writing a song associated with the South. Another theory of the origin of the name “Dixie” is that the old $10 Louisiana notes were known as “dixies” and the Louisiana region became known in slang as Dixie Land. This term was later expanded to include the rest of the South. But what's important here is that this catchy tune soon turned into one of the most popular patriotic songs in the Confederacy. It became their rally song, built on the idea that God was going to lead them to victory.

In the book “Our War Songs: North and South,” published by S. Brainards' Sons in 1887, we are told, “This song was known long before the war, but when the struggle began it was the means of expressing Southern sentiments exclusively. It became purely a sectional song, though prior to the war the tune was heard quite frequently throughout the North. The song was written by General Albert Pike, a native of Massachusetts, but a General in the Southern army. Many a time ‘Dixie Land' was heard in the still of the evening as it came from the Southern camps, but usually it was answered by Northern bands playing ‘Yankee Doodle.’” 10

Now at this point, we must ponder on a thought. If God were on the side of the North, there needs to be an explanation for how God showed Himself on both sides of the war with revivals braking out in the camps of both the Yankees and the Confederates. The assumption naturally flows that God blesses the victors with victory and demonstrates disdain to the enemy with a loss. But God, in His great mercy, drew thousands of men and women close to Him on both sides of the camp – Yankees and Confederates, regenerating their souls for salvation as only Jesus Christ can do. 

Dr. John William Jones gives this report of only the Army of
Northern Virginia, found in his book “Christ in the Camp”: “FROM the minutes of our Chaplains Association (now in my possession, by the kind courtesy of the accomplished secretary and chaplain, Rev. L. C. [Lachlan Cumming] Vass), the estimate of other chaplains and missionaries
in position to know, and a very careful compilation of facts and figures from files of religious newspapers, and hundreds of letters and narratives from chaplains, missionaries, and colporters, I make the following estimate of the number of men in the Army of Northern Virginia who professed faith in Christ during the four years of its existence. During the fall and winter of 1862-63, and spring of 1863, there were at least 1,500 professions. From August, 1863, to the 1st of January, 1864, at least 5,000 found peace in believing. From January, 1864, to the opening of the Wilderness campaign, at least 2,000 more were added to this number. And from May, 1864, to April, 1865, it is a low estimate to put the number of converts at 4,000.

Add to these figures at least 2,500 who, during the war, found Jesus in the hospitals, at home, or in Northern prisons (for Christ was in the prisons, and there were some precious revivals at Point Lookout, Fort Delaware, Elmira, Johnson's Island, and other points), and we have a grand total of at least 15,000 soldiers of Lee's army who professed faith in Jesus during the four years of the war.” 11

William Wallace Bennett, who served as Superintendent of the
Soldier's Tract Association, as well as a Confederate chaplain, wrote and published “A Narrative of the Great Revival” in 1877. He gives us this narrative: “One year after these labors were commenced, Mr. [Alfred Ernest] Dickinson said in his annual report: ‘We have collected $24,000, with which 40 tracts hare been published, 6,187,000 pages of which
have been distributed, besides 6,095 Testaments, 13,845 copies of the little volume called Camp Hymns, and a large number of religious books. Our policy has been to seek the cooperation of chaplains and other pious men in the army, and, as far as possible, to work through them. How pleasant to think of the thousands who, far from their loved ones, are, every hour in the day, in the loneliness and gloom of the hospital, and in the bustle and mirth of the camp, reading some of these millions of pages which have been distributed, and thus been led to turn unto the Lord.’

In his report for 1863, in the midst of the war, he says: ‘Modern history presents no example of armies so nearly converted into Churches as the armies of Southern defence. On the crest of this flood of war, which threatens to engulf our freedom, rides a pure Christianity; the gospel of the grace of God shines through the smoke of battle with the light that leads to heaven; and the camp becomes a school of Christ. From the very first day of the unhappy contest to the present time, religious influences have been spreading among the soldiers, until now, in camp and hospital, throughout every portion of the army, revivals display their precious, saving power.” 12

Another narrative of revival in the Southern Army was this: “As the revival progressed, there was scarcely any situation in which our soldiers could be placed where they did not find God ready and willing to pour out his Spirit in  answer to earnest prayer. An awakened soldier was converted on a march,—when a minister inquired whether he had yet given himself to Christ, he said, ‘Yes, I have found him! Why, sir, when we set off on that march I felt such a weight on my soul that I could scarcely drag myself along, but after a while God heard my prayers, and then the burden was gone, and I felt as if marching was no trouble at all.” 13

The number of Union soldiers who fought was 2,850,000. 14 The number of Confederate soldiers who fought was 1,082,119. 15 The Union forces outnumbered the Confederates, more than two to one. Now, here’s my point. It has been “estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 men were converted in the Union Army, while in the Confederate Army, which was much smaller, almost 100,000 were converted.” 16

However, there is this report, we need to read, extracted from Bennett’s book, “A Narrative of the Great Revival.” It says, “Up to January, 1865, it was estimated that nearly one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers had been converted during the progress, of the war, and it was believed that fully one-third of all the soldiers in the field were praying men and members of some branch of the Christian Church. A large proportion of the higher officers were men of faith and prayer, and many others, though not professedly religious, were moral and respectful to all the religious services and confessed the value of the revival in promoting the efficiency of the array.” 17

Also, in his book, “Both Prayed to the Same God: Religion and
Faith in the American Civil War,” Robert J. Miller continues to give us a glimpse of the spiritual revival taking root in the Northern troops: “For the larger, more culturally diverse Union troops, revivalism was more gradual and steady, perhaps less ‘explosive’ than the South. While the reality and proximity of death did motivate them, revivalism seemed more connected to the overall progress they were making in the war, giving them the encouragement needed to continue the war efforts. ‘The revivals gained force as the war's tempo accelerated and the soldiers felt themselves carried toward victory, and they thus tapped into the greater reservoir of emotions that the conflicted inspired.’”

A paragraph later, “As with the South, scattered revivals among Union troops began sporadically in 1862, grew rapidly throughout
1863, and reached a high in the winter of 1863-1864. Northern soldiers who had earlier dealt with "a tide of irreligion" (in the words of [Union] Gen. Robert McAllister), now seemed to adopted a more reflective and religious attitude, seeking further strengthening (spiritually and materially for the battles ahead. The religious enthusiasm of the Army of the Potomac led them to build many chapels and hold frequent prayer meetings. Black troops in the Atlantic coast garrisons also experienced a surge of spiritual fervor.” 18
At the Battle of Chattanooga in the Fall and Winter of 1863, the
Union Army was deluged by a strong Confederate force. And it was during this period that revival ensued and was called the “Great Revival.” What’s interesting here is that the best documented records came from General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. It’s also important to know, that revival took place in both the Northern and Southern Armies.

As already stated, this “Great Revival” occurred among General Robert E. Lee's forces in the fall of 1863 and winter of 1864. “Some scholars have estimated that as many as 10 percent of Lee's troops were converted.” 19 According to Dr. J. William Jones, he reported that nearly every Confederate brigade was affected by revival. Night after night troops participated in prayer meetings and listened to sermons on the Gospel message. Meetings would end with soldiers coming forward to receive Christ or to pray. 

When a pond or river was nearby, the soldiers would frequently step forward for baptisms,  regardless of how cold the weather was.
Chaplain Jones wrote: “My own brigade (Smith's, formerly Early's Virginia) was fortunately camped near Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church and a Methodist church in the lower part of Orange county, and Rev, J. P. Garland, of the Forty-ninth Virginia, Rev. Mr. [George] Slaughter, of the Fifty-eighth Virginia, and myself united in holding
meetings in both of these houses. We were fortunate in having at different times Rev. Dr. J. A. [John Albert] Broadus, Rev. F. M. Barker (the gifted, eloquent and lamented preacher who took in my tent the cold which resulted in his death), Rev. L. J. Haley and others to help us, and the work went graciously on until interrupted, but not stopped, by the ‘Bristoe campaign.’ There were 250 professions of conversion, and a revival among Christians, of the highest value.” 20

During this Southern revival, Chaplain Dr. Jones also reports how ‘reading clubs’ formed: “I have an old memorandum-book filled with names of soldiers from every State of the Confederacy who had applied to me for Bibles and Testaments, and some of the scenes I witnessed in my work of Bible and tract distribution are as fresh in my memory as if they had occurred on yesterday. I had a pair of large ‘saddle-bags’ which I used to pack with tracts and religious newspapers, and with Bibles and Testaments when I had them, and besides this I would strap packages behind my saddle and on the pommel. Thus equipped I would sally forth, and as I drew near the camp some one would raise the cry, ‘Yonder comes the Bible and tract man,’ and such crowds would rush out to meet me, that frequently I would sit on my horse and distribute my supply before I could even get into the camp. But if I had Bibles or Testaments to distribute, the poor fellows would crowd around and beg for them as earnestly as if they were golden guineas for free distribution. Yes, the word of God seemed to these brave men ‘more precious than gold – yea than much fine gold.’ ‘The men were accustomed to form ‘reading clubs,’ not to read the light literature of the day, but to read God's word, and not unfrequently have I seen groups of twenty-five or thirty gather around some good reader, who for several hours would read with clear voice selected portions of the Scriptures.” 21
To come to a conclusion, let’s come back to the question, “Was God on the side of the North?” God’s mercy was shown or demonstrated towards both armies.

#1 Both the North and the South – had their rally songs – that proved to do just that – unify their different convictions. 

#2 Both the North and the South – offered up their prayers before God – believing God would lead them to victory. 

#3 And both the North and the South – experienced revivals – which then spurred the soldiers on to fight for victory – and for the preachers to preach – that God was leading their particular side. 

Robert J. Miller entitled his book with perhaps the best possible description of an answer to this presentation’s question, “Was God On the Side of the North.” Both Prayed to the Same God and God demonstrated His mercy both the Northern and the Southern Armies.


1  John Carroll Power, Abraham Lincoln: His Life, Public Services, Death and Great Funeral Cortege (Springfield: H. W. Rokker, Printer and Binder,1882), 217.

2  Gilbert Haven, National Sermons: Sermons, Speeches and Letters on Slavery and It's War (Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1869), 528.

3  Edwin B. Webb, Memorial Sermons: The Capture of Richmond (Boston: Press of George C. Rand & Avery, 3 Cornhill, 1865), 13.

4  Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, Charles Reagan Wilson, Religion and the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1998), 322-323.

5  William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry, Life, Correspondence and Speeches, Volume 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), 265-266.

6  Robert Barnwell Rhett, The Address of the people of South Carolina, assembled in Convention, to the people of the Slaveholding States of the United States (Charleston: Evans & Cogswell, Printers to the Convention, 1860). 10.

7  Henry Frederic Reddall, Songs That Never Die (New York: W. J. Holland, 1894), 75.

8  Mary R. Parkman, Heroines Of Service (New York: The Century Co., 1921), 145.

9  Minstrel Shows: a medieval wandering musician who performed songs or recited poetry with instrumental accompaniment. Here, in this setting, it refers to a troupe of performers in black- face who create a stereotyped caricature of a black person. 

10  S. Brainards' Sons, Our War Songs: North and South (Cleveland: S. Brainards' Sons, 1887), 11.

11  J. William Jones, Christ In the Camp Or Religion In Lee’s Army (Richmond: B. F. Johnson & Company, 1887), 390.

12  William W. Bennett, A Narrative of the Great Revival: Which Prevailed in the Southern Armies During the Late Civil War (Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, 1877), 73-74.

13  Ibid., 153.

14  Francis Newton Thorpe, The History of North America, Volume 15 (Philadelphia: George Barrie & Sons, 1903), 507.

15  Ibid., 507.

16  Michael G. Yount, A. B. Simpson: His Message and Impact on the Third Great Awakening (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2016), 25.

17  William W. Bennett, A Narrative of the Great Revival: Which Prevailed in the Southern Armies During the Late Civil War (Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, 1877), 413.

18  Robert J. Miller, Both Prayed to the Same God: Religion and Faith in the American Civil War (Lexington Books, 2007), 123.

19 Lisa Tendrich Frank, The World of the Civil War: A Daily Life Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (ABC-CLIO, 2015), 601. 

20  J. William Jones, Christ In The Camp Or Religion In Lee's Army (Richmond, Va.: B. F. Johnson & Co.), 319.

21 Ibid., 155.


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