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The Great Civil War Revival: God at Work in Unlikely Places

Both armies returned to the banks of the Rappahannock after Gettysburg, and more permanent camps formed in preparation for the coming winter. The permanent camps created environments on both sides where camp meetings could prevail. Benjamin Lacy describes the growing revival: “During the fall of 1863 and the spring and winter preceding Grant’s attack on May 5, 1864, the revival reached its greatest heights, spreading from company to regiment, from regiment to brigade, from brigade to division, from division to army corps, until the entire Army of Northern Virginia was seriously affected.”[19] John H. Worsham describes the scene at Montpelier after the retreat from Gettysburg:

The interest manifested was so great that the seats were taken in the afternoon by such men as were not on duty; and when night relieved from duty those who had been drilling, etc., the men stood up in immense numbers around those who were seated…The gathering, each night, of the bronzed and grizzly warriors, devoutly worshiping, was a wonderful picture in the army, and when some old familiar hymn was given out, those thousands of warriors would make hill and dell ring.[20]

Revival in the Army of Northern Virginia erupted into the familiar form of camp meetings, and thousands found salvation. Troy D. Harman describes the tone of the revival:

After Gettysburg the revivals occurred on a much larger scale. This was evident almost immediately upon the army’s return from Pennsylvania, as there was a general sentiment within the rank-in-file of the need for repentance. There was a sense that the losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg were the results of God’s punishment for ongoing sins in both Lee’s army and the Confederate nation.[21]

A sense of repentance and expectation of renewal prevailed in both armies on either side of the Rappahannock. Some looked to God to advance their cause, but the revivals to the common soldier arose more from a need to seek religious solace in the horror of war than promotion of the corporate cause. Both sides demonstrated a growing sense of repentance for national sins.

“The Holy Spirit was evidently with us, working with power in many hearts; and Jesus was also there, manifesting His power and willingness to save.”

Revivals appeared on both sides of the Rappahannock. Abundant reports of revival in the southern army exist within the works of witnesses who sought to promote the Lost Cause mentality during Reconstruction in the South. W. W. Bennett and J. William Jones provide extensive first hand reports of extended meetings in which thousands sought prayer and salvation. Jones relates one meeting in which 610 came forward for prayer and over 200 professed salvation. He estimates that over 500 found salvation each week in the late 1863 camps.[22] J. F. J. Caldwell gives a typical description of the revival scene: “Now, however, almost everyone seemed to become concerned. The most ordinary preachers drew large congregations; scarcely a day passed without a sermon; there was not a night, but the sound of prayer and hymn singing was heard.”[23] Jones quotes Hugh Roy Scott concerning the peace of God felt in the late 1863 camps along the Rappahannock: “This was an evening never to be forgotten by any who were present. The Holy Spirit was evidently with us, working with power in many hearts; and Jesus was also there, manifesting His power and willingness to save.”[24]

The midpoint of the war and the lack of major conflict as winter approached created a sense of peace in God unusual for armies facing one another across a river. Bennett describes the unusual sense of peace from God found in the men remembering the horror and loss of war and facing the prospect of death and suffering in the coming year: “Such camp-meetings were never seen before in America. The bivouac of the soldier never witnessed such nights of glory and days of splendor. The Pentecostal fire lights the camp, and the hosts of armed men sleep beneath the wings of angels rejoicing over many sinners that have repented.”[25] Two armies faced each other while both felt the effects of revival.



The prevailing attitude arose that the war existed as a mystical judgment on the nation for its sins.

At home, the people grew fatigued by the protracted war, and religious interest decreased. The soldiers, however, faced renewed carnage with religious expectation. The prevailing attitude arose that the war existed as a mystical judgment on the nation for its sins. Soldiers rarely saw slavery as the sin, but the soldiers faced mounting loss and suffering with a sense of religious penance. Woodworth observes: “The war was a punishment for sin, and the North felt that punishment as well as the South because the North had been part of a nation that had for four score and seven years tolerated slavery.”[26]

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Category: Church History, Winter 2017

About the Author: F. Wesley Shortridge, D.Min. (Evangel University, 2016), M.A. (Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, 2010), B.A. (Central Bible College, 2009), is the founding pastor of Liberty Community Church in Bealeton, Virginia. Facebook LinkedIn

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