2nd Manassas - Aug. 1862
Life and the Civil War

Father William Corby
For many Civil War soldiers both North and South, religion served to provide hope and meaning despite enduring years of boredom, terror, temptation, and violent death. When possible, men of the church took an active role in lending such to the troops both during times of idleness and of combat. The Reverend Father William Corby, chaplain to the Union's Irish Brigade among others, extended general absolution to all soldiers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. He was also known to administer last rights to the dying on the field while under fire. Prior to the conflict in the Wheatfield on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, he offered general absolution to the Irish Brigade. Despite the loss of 506 of their men during that days battle, one soldier stated that, because of Father Corby, "He felt as strong as a lion after that and felt no fear although his comrade was shot down beside him." Not the only example of heroism by people of the clergy, Chaplain William Hoge ignored the Union Blockade to bring Bibles to Southern soldiers at the risk of his own arrest.

Poplar Grove Church built by 50th NY EngineersThe importance of religion to the soldiers can be seen in part by considering some of the work completed during the war to allow for religious worship. During the Union's siege of Petersburg Virginia in 1864 and 1865, the 50th New York engineers built a spectacular gothic style church out of the logs and wood the found in the surrounding area. They named the structure the Poplar Grove Church in honor of a church at Poplar Springs which the two armies destroyed during the Battle of Peebles Farm. The 50th New York engineers built this church, which no longer stands, on the current grounds of the Poplar Grove National Cemetery, the final resting place of over 6,000 Civil War dead. Of those dead, 2,203 remain unknown. [C]

Of course not all who fought in the war necessarily found strength in religion. One incident relayed by George Cary Eggleston, a member of Confederate General Richard Stoddert Ewell's staff, began with the General witnessing a chaplain hurriedly moving away from the fight. Eggleston would continue, "It is said that on one occasion, the firing having become unusually heavy, a chaplain who had labored to convert the general, or at least to correct the aggressive character of his wickedness, remarked that as he could be of no service where he was, he would seek a less exposed place, whereupon Ewell remarked, 'Why, chaplain, you're the most inconsistent man I ever saw. You say you're anxious to get to heaven above all things, and now that you've got the best chance you ever had to go, you run away from it just as if you'd rather not make the trip, after all.' " [3]

Union 9th Corps Chaplains outside of Petersburg VA 1864

Confederate Major General John Brown Gordon wrote of several incidents which provide a snapshot of how at least the men with whom he had contact may have approached religion. He would relay in his memoirs even a little religious humor even when addressing death.

"A beautiful Southern girl, on her daily mission of love and mercy, asked a badly wounded soldier boy what she could do for him. He replied: "I’m greatly obliged to you, but it is too late for you to do anything for me. I am so badly shot that I can't live long." "Will you not let me pray for you? I hope that I am one of the Lord's daughters, and I would like to ask Him to help you." Looking intently into her bewitching face, he replied: "Yes, pray at once, and ask the Lord to let me be His son-in-law."

The general would continue:

"After (a) conference as to the proper disposition of troops for resisting the expected assault, we withdrew into a small log hut standing near, and united in prayer to Almighty God for His guidance. As we assembled, one of our generals was riding within hailing distance, and General Harry Heth of Hill's corps stepped to the door of the log cabin and called to him to come in and unite with us in prayer. The officer did not understand the nature of General Heth's invitation, and replied: 'No, thank you, general; no more at present; I've just had some.' "

On a more serious note, the general would mention the overall approach to religion of much of the army.

"From the commander-in-chief to the privates in the ranks, there was a deep and sincere religious feeling in Lee's army. Whenever it was convenient or practicable, these hungry but unyielding men were holding prayer-meetings."

However, apparently not able to resist the lighter side:

"At one of these gatherings for prayer was a private who had lost one leg. Unable to kneel, he sat with bowed head, while one of his comrades, whom we shall call Brother Jones, led in prayer. Brother Jones was earnestly praying for more manhood, more strength, and more courage. The brave old one-legged Confederate did not like Brother Jones's prayer. At that period of the war, he felt that it was almost absurd to be asking God to give the Confederates more courage, of which virtue they already had an abundant supply. So he called out from his seat: 'Hold on there, Brother Jones. Don't you know you are praying all wrong? Why don't you pray for more provisions! We’ve got more courage now than we have any use for!' "

General Gordon would finally add:

In a meeting for prayer near my headquarters, there was more than the usual impressiveness - more of that peculiar sadness which is significant of a brave despair. As in all the religious gatherings in the army, all denominations of Christians were represented. The chaplain who conducted the solemn services asked a number of officers and others to lead in prayer. Among them, he called upon a private who belonged to my sharpshooters, and who had not had the advantages of an early education. This consecrated soldier knelt close by my side, and with his heart all aglow with the spirit of the meeting, and his mind filled with strong convictions as to the justice of our cause, he said in a clear, ringing voice: 'Oh, Lord, we are having a mighty big fight down here, and a sight of trouble; and we do hope, Lord, that you will take a proper view of this subject, and give us the victory.' " [57]

Sunday morning mass, 69th NYSM; Courtesy of the US Library of Congress