Revivals occurred more or less equally in both
the Union and Confederate armies, in all theaters of the war, and throughout
most of the conflict. Some historians have suggested that they began in the
Confederate Army of
Northern Virginia and became most noticeable beginning in the spring
of 1863, though they occurred before then, as well. In fact, revivals generally
followed an army's first experience of heavy fighting and high casualties. A
Confederate chaplain was not alone in writing that it was a well established
pattern that "scores of men are converted immediately after great battles."
In Virginia, heavy and sustained fighting on a very large scale began with the
in the spring of 1862. Several weeks later, as soon as the tempo of military
operations allowed, the stirrings of revival began in both the Union and
Confederate armies. Both chaplains and the soldiers themselves cited two reasons
for the increased religious activity. First, many of the men were thankful that
they had survived battle. "What cause for gratitude to God that I was not cut
down when my comrades fell at my side," wrote a Confederate soldier. In
addition, their proximity to death and suffering brought to mind questions of
their own mortality and afterlife. After witnessing the death of a fellow
soldier, a Pennsylvania soldier wrote, "The fact that I must die became to me
living and real."
Revivals in the armies took different forms.
In 1862 a Georgia soldier serving in Virginia wrote that although there had been
none of what he called "revival meetings"—large, enthusiastic, often highly
demonstrative religious services—nevertheless a strong religious movement was in
progress, characterized by nightly prayer meetings in many regiments and a large
upsurge in Bible reading among the troops. At other times the army revivals
included more traditional displays of heightened religious interest. During the
first months of 1864, delegates of the United States Christian Commission, an
organization established by Northern churches to minister to the spiritual and
material needs of the soldiers, set up a tent in the Vermont Brigade of the
Union's Army of the Potomac.
Though the tent could hold two hundred men, it hosted overflow crowds at nightly
meetings, with many men unable to get close enough to hear the preaching.
Services lasted an hour and a half, with a short sermon followed by a lengthy
experience meeting in which many soldiers took part. Similar meetings were
taking place throughout the Army of the Potomac that winter, as well as in the
camps of the Army of Northern Virginia.
The revivals in the armies continued until
combat operations made them impractical, then they sprang up again when the
campaigning stopped. The Civil War was the occasion for a series of revivals,
occurring in both armies from 1862 until 1865, interrupted by the fighting of
battles. The new faith that the soldiers found through these revivals helped to
sustain them amid the carnage and hardship of war and may have mitigated
somewhat the demoralizing effects of warfare on the men who waged it.