Soldiers of the Cross: Confederate Soldier-Christians and the Impact of the War on Their Faith
by Kent T. Dollar, Mercer University Press, 253 pages, $35
Many historians have studied in detail how religious faith affected the shape and tone of the Civil War, but few have discussed how the war itself affected the spirituality of those involved. This is a significant oversight, according to Kent T. Dollar, because the experience of war transformed the religious sensibilities of numerous Christians of all denominations.
In Soldiers of the Cross Dollar sets out to remedy that oversight by examining the impact the Civil War had on the faith of nine Confederate soldiers. After studying the lives of these men, selected as representatives of the broader economic, religious and regional variations in Southern society, Dollar concludes that the Civil War had a maturing effect on soldier-Christians and strengthened their faith in God.
Before the war all were devout in their beliefs, but the personal and fatal risks of combat brought into stark relief how little control each had had over his own ultimate destiny and altered perceptions of his relation to a higher power. Those who possessed strong religious faith before the war increased their devotion to God with the first taste of battle. (Even among those whose professions of faith came during the war, soldiers increasingly came to accept their lack of control over events and accepted that their fate was a question for God to decide.)
The nine men in this study accepted events, good and bad, as Divine Will. All felt that Confederate losses in battle were due to a lack of faith among Southern soldiers. One man believed that God took Stonewall Jackson from the Confederates because the soldiers impiously “made almost an idol of him.” Survival was an issue that lay outside of human hands.
Their spiritual journeys shape the format of the book. Organized in a broad chronological order, the five chapters examine sequentially: faith before the Civil War, the relationship between faith and justifications for war, the impact of fighting on faith, the war’s impact on views of the afterlife, and the course of religious faith after the war. Interspersed throughout each chapter are biographical snapshots of each man as seen through the lens of that chapter’s theme.
The ordering of material proves to be the book’s greatest shortcoming. It is not only difficult to reconstruct a single overarching biography for any of the subjects, but it also disrupts the flow of the larger narrative and hinders any thematic comparisons among the men in question.
As is the case with a work that looks at only a few select individuals, readers may wonder if the book’s findings hold true for a larger selection of the Christian soldiers who served the Confederacy. The nine men under examination may indeed represent a balanced cross-section of Confederate soldier-Christians, but more work is necessary.
One might even challenge the very notion of the Confederacy as a uniform social entity. Dollar has provided much incentive for historians to examine the impact of the Civil War on the faith of those involved. Plenty of room exists for such an enterprise, as Dollar himself notes, and Soldiers of the Cross provides a solid starting point for such an endeavor.
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.