Religion and Providence's Affect on Morale
In the 55th, religion was one of the top concerns among the men, which led the regimental priests and officers to start holding a regimental prayer. Regimental prayers contributed to high morale by keeping the men in touch with their religious roots and to God. Prayer could also have given men hope that God would see them through the war so they could return home to their families. Joseph Hoyle wrote to his wife about how they were holding regimental prayers in the morning and at night, describing it as: “the whole regiment is drawn up in three sides of a square, each man then places his right hand under his left elbow and raises his hat with the left hand, the minister then stands in the open side of the square, and pronounces the prayer” (Item 686). Among Southern armies, religious revivals were common, but during campaigning season, religious activities were put on hold. The fall of 1863 brought back the tide of revivalism which hit its peak during the winter of 1863-1864 when “soldiers would stand in the pouring rain or in heavy snow without any shoes just to listen to lengthy sermons” (Girvan 2006, 88). As part of the revivals, Holy Communion would be performed for the troops where thousands of men would listen to preachers speak the word of God and follow along in the singing of hymns and the service would then conclude “with the blessing of the bread, which was actually pieces of hardtack, and the wine” (Girvan 2006, 89). Jeffery Girvan discusses the fact that revivals were not new to Confederate soldiers and that they were believed to have started in Stonewall Jackson’s corps (Girvan 2006, 88). Girvan also goes on to mention that the 55th had three separate prayer groups, along with their regimental prayers, and men like Joseph Hoyle, who had a keen interest in the spiritual well being of the regiment, tried to create more (Girvan 2006, 88-89). Due to these revivals it was common for men, including Joseph Hoyle, to thank God for having survived the day (Girvan 2006, 90).
It was not uncommon for men to write home to family members, friends and even local newspapers asking for prayers. In June 1862, the Raleigh newspaper, Spirit of the Age, published a letter written by Joseph Hoyle. In this letter, Joseph Hoyle wrote, “Friends, we beseech you, pray for us and our afflicted country till the Lord’s wrath be turned away and the dark clouds of war and oppression give place to the genial rays of liberty and peace” (Item 687). Many men took great comfort in knowing that loved ones were praying for them and for the cause. As with the regimental prayers, knowing that family members were praying for their safety boosted morale among most men because it kept them connected with their family and gave them another reason to fight. Joseph Hoyle prayed and read his bible on a regular basis and urged his wife to keep faith and continue praying for him. In a letter written on February 6, 1864, Joseph Hoyle told his wife: “Dear Sarah I hope you will not fail to pray in secret every day. O how much comfort it gives me to know I have a praying wife. Dear Sarah, if we can not hear each others voice, yet one, God can hear both our voices” (Item 688). At times, knowing someone was always praying for you could be enough for a man to continue on in the fight and to do everything he could to survive.
Another common theme in Joseph Hoyle’s letters was meeting again in the afterlife. With the thought of being able to meet their loved ones again in the afterlife, men on the front lines saw the Civil War as something more than just a worthless fight filled with meaningless death. As a devout Christian, Joseph Hoyle was comforted by the fact that he would meet his wife again if he died fighting for the Confederacy. This would have boosted his morale and helped him to continue to fight. Even in one of his earliest letters, Joseph Hoyle comforted his wife with words such as: “But such is the decree of this cruel war that we must be separated for a while, though I hope we will be permitted to enjoy each others company again in this world, yet if these hopes be frustrated, let us look forward to a time when we will enjoy each others love in a brighter world than this, and, thank God, there will be no parting there” (Item 686). These thoughts were comforting for both the men in battle and for loved ones at home, for “the man who through repentance and faith, places all his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ is assured of eternal life in heaven after this life on earth is ended” (Woodworth 2001, 249). Drew Faust refers to historian Richard Carwardine’s observation that during the Civil War about forty percent of the population of the United States sympathized with evangelical Christianity (Faust 2009, 172). Joseph Hoyle and his wife would have fallen into the forty percent of evangelical Christians and the belief of an afterlife. Faust argues that it is because of the war that men started to question what really happened once life on earth ended. Faust explains this urgency of needing to know with, “its concerted attention to salvation, evangelicalism made the afterlife the focus of American religious belief and practice” (Faust 2009, 172). The afterlife became the focus of many men during and after the Civil War as a way to justify their religion and that God would take care of them when they died.
As faith grew and the war dragged on, more and more men became interested in life after death. For these men, thinking of heaven and an afterlife offered an escape from the hardships and death found in war, along with “a place to reunite with loved ones who had passed on” (Dollar 2005, 142). For Joseph Hoyle, the thought of being able to meet Sarah again in heaven if he did not survive the war was very comforting for them both. It was also a way for Joseph Hoyle to calm his wife’s nerves and worries.
Providence is the belief that, as war approached, God would decide the outcome of war. It was standard for Christians to believe that God had control of all outcomes, but Southerners specifically believed that God was fighting for the Confederacy and would see to it that the war ended in their favor. The thought of having God on their side and ensuring their victory would have given Confederate soldiers a boost in morale because of their belief that God controlled all outcomes. Mark Noll argues that “the mistake was to believe “that God must surely bless the right.” But what Southerners had forgotten was the lesson of history that God often let “the righteous…be overthrown.” Despite the fact that the North was guilty of “a cruel, unjust and wicked war of invasion upon free States…urged on, in great part, by an infidel fanaticism,” and despite the fact that godly ministers “prayed fervently for the Success of the Confederacy,” is still remained the case that “the result was with God alone”” (Noll 2006, 77). Noll also states that it was common for Christian believers to think that God was especially concerned about the fate of the republican government (Noll 2006, 79). Joseph Hoyle mentioned several times to his wife how he believed that God would see that the Confederacy would prevail. This belief in providence was not only common among the wealthy but also among the common people of the South.
Some Confederates saw the Civil War as God punishing the United States for its sins and hoped that repenting would bring peace. Some believed that the “hand of God could be seen in Confederate defeats…But just as divine displeasure could explain military defeat, the possibility of divine favor could lead men to continue the struggle for long after it seemed rational” (Mitchell, Civil War Soldiers 1988, 173). Since some Confederates believed that their cause was just, they believed that God favored the South, leaving no doubt in their minds that the Confederacy would win the war. These Confederates supported their beliefs with “early battlefield victories and other encouraging news [that] served to confirm that God favored their cause” (Dollar 2005, 63). Men continued to pray for God to grant them with victories and for the war to end with the South rising in Triumph. Many men still believed that God favored the South late into the war, “the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy, however, ended all hope of divine intervention” (Dollar 2005, 177). Many times throughout the war, Joseph Hoyle wrote about religion and told his wife, Sarah, to remain faithful to God and to pray. In one of his first letters to his wife, Joseph Hoyle expressed how hard it was be to be apart from each other. He wrote, “I trust that the good Lord will take care of you; and soften all your sorrows. Into his hands I resign you” (Item 208). This quotation shows that he had some kind of providential outlook because he believed that his wife’s fate was in God’s hands. Joseph Hoyle did not, however, state in any of his letters to his wife anywhere that he believed that God favored the South. This relates to Noll’s argument that Americans realized over the course of the war, that they were not able to understand God’s will and how He intended the direction of the war to be (Noll 2006, 87). With this realization, the confidence in divine intervention and a Confederate victory would have dropped, resulting in some a loss of confidence in their cause.
One could easily question how these men, Christian men, were able to shot at and kill other men and often other Christians. If the Bible states “Thou shalt not kill”, how did these men do it? Christians are taught to never kill another human being, for those who had attended church regularly it would have been embedded in them at a young age. Many soldiers would have had difficulty coping with the fact that they had to shoot and kill other men, going against everything they had ever been taught in church. These men had to find a way to justify their actions such as, “it was a just war, a holy cause against an evil enemy” (McPherson, For Cause and Comrades 1997, 72). By believing this, the men thought that God would forgive them for killing. Another reason these men would have come up with in order to justify their actions was “in the hot blood of combat it was a question of self-defense, of kill or be killed” (McPherson, For Cause and Comrades 1997, 73). This thought was a distinction between murder and combat, which was enough to justify the killing. A better understanding of the Sixth Commandment would have also brought ease to Christian soldiers. A more correct way of understanding “Thou shalt not kill” would be “You shall not murder”, “an understanding of the context would have shown soldiers that the Bible frequently affirmed the taking of human life in a just war” (Woodworth 2001, 216). Men reacted to the killing in different ways. According to Girvan some men initially struggled with having to kill another man, but over time it became as routine as conducting drill and later felt remorse when they had time to think about what they did (Hoyle and Girvan 2010, 40). On the other hand, some men became addicted to the adrenaline rush and never felt remorse for killing men in battle (Hoyle and Girvan 2010, 40). By feeling remorse men that struggled with the killing would have suffered from low morale, while men who did not feel remorse would have felt a boost in morale from the adrenaline rush. Solely based off of Joseph Hoyle’s letters, it is not clear as to how he reacted to the killing. Joseph Hoyle never mentioned having to kill anyone in any of his letters to his wife. It can be assumed that he most likely fell under the former based off his reaction to a man being shot for desertion discussed later.