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During the war itself, religion continued to play a prominent role. Revivals were commonplace, sweeping both the Union and Confederate armies. Ministers on both sides suggested that death on the battlefield would mean immediate admission to heaven.

Some historians suggest that the war reshaped popular conceptions of an afterlife, as people and the church struggled to cope with unimaginable losses. In all, between 600,000 and 700,000 soldiers died in the Civil War—almost as many deaths as in all U.S. wars combined—and another 500,000 were wounded. Those 1.1 million casualties were from a total population of about 25 million at the outset of the war, 18 million in the North and 6.5 million in the South. Comparable losses today, proportional to the current U.S. population, would mean 10 million killed or wounded.

Dunker Church, Antietam, Md., 1862
Library of Congress Civil War Photography Collection

 Dunker Church, Antietam, Md., 1862

Popular notions of heaven changed from a vague and distant place where the dead were with God to a more concrete, detailed place that looked like home. Before the war, less than one book a year on average was published about heaven. In the decade after, more than 100 such books appeared.

More broadly, however, people in both the North and South were convinced that God was on their side. More than the most powerful armaments or the best tactics and strategy, military victory depended upon God’s will and was given to those whom God favored.

As the war continued, Lincoln talked increasingly about God’s purpose in human history. Initially, he had committed the nation to war to preserve the Union. Abolition of slavery was a secondary concern. But by 1863, those causes reversed and the abolition of slavery became Lincoln and the war’s primary purpose.

Although he was the only president never to have joined a church, Lincoln is considered by many to be the central spiritual figure of both the Civil War and U.S history. When someone once assured him that God was on the Union’s side, Lincoln responded that his hopes ran in the other direction, that he preferred that the Union might be on God’s side.

By the end of the war, Lincoln had become a theologically brooding man with a deep sense of personal responsibility for the conflict and an abiding belief that its resolution lay in God’s hands.

In his second inaugural address, delivered little more than a month before he was assassinated, Lincoln noted that people on both sides of the conflict “. . . read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.

“The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

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DIVINITY Online Edition :: Winter 2004 Volume 3 Number 2 Duke Divinity School