Baptists and the American Civil War: May 7, 1864

confederatesoldiersThe Battle of the Wilderness ends inconclusively when Union General Ulysses S. Grant, facing a well-entrenched Confederate foe, withdraws from the field and turns toward Spotsylvania Courthouse in an effort to reposition his troops between Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond, the Confederate capital.

The three day battle has left 3,700 dead out of over 18,000 total casualties. Upon Grant’s retreat, Lee hastily prepares to reposition his forces in an attempt to thwart his opponent’s intentions. His task is now all the harder, as Confederate casualties from the Wilderness battle have decimated his ranks more than that of the Union army.

Meanwhile, in north Georgia in the Atlanta Campaign Union General William Tecumseh Sherman divides his forces into three columns and moves against Confederate General Joe Johnston‘s defensive positions on Rocky Face Ridge and Crow Valley. As will prove to be the case again and again, Johnston, in the coming days, retreats further south in order to avoid being surrounded by Sherman’s army.

As these critical maneuvers unfold in Virginia and Georgia, readers of the North Carolina Baptist Biblical Recorder are, editor J. D. Hufham hopes, encouraged by his vividly upbeat, if misleading, assessment of the war at the present.

The military campaign for 1864 has already opened; and, thus far, the friends of the South have ground for encouragement and rejoicing. In the smaller engagements, which always precede the great shock of battle, we have been uniformly successful.–In Florida, in Tennessee, in Louisiana, in Arkansas and in North Carolina, our brave men have met and vanquished the enemy. But these are only the first flashes which indicate the approach of the tempest, soon to set in. In a few weeks, battles are to come off in Virginia and in Georgia, which, whether we consider the numbers engaged or the interest at state, will surpass anything that has yet been witnessed in the progress of this war. They will go far towards deciding it. It may be that they will terminate the bloody and desolating struggle in which we have been engaged for more than three years.

Many of the Southern people have adopted the latter opinion and not without a showing of reason. Both parties are now more than ever, relying on concentrated efforts. Our enemies especially, are trusting to the force of numbers; and, in Virginia and Georgia, we shall soon encounter the bulk of their armies. They have gathered their men there from all quarters; and if, with the blessing of God, we can gain a decisive victory, it will be difficult, if not impossible for them to fill up their thinned ranks. To this difficulty will be added others equally formidable. The administration at Washington, artfully as they have managed their finances, have hardly been able to avert or delay a terrible craeh [crash?]. In spite of all their efforts, gold has gone up to 180 and the Secretary of the Treasury has declared that all his schemes will fail without military success. Taking this confession as evidence–and it is confirmed by what has already taken place at the North–disaster in the field will bring financial ruin upon our enemies. This will be all the more fatal to them because they are a manufacturing and commercial people. There is, a strong and growing peace party among them, composed of men who were opposed to the war at first, and who have grown tired of the burdens which it imposes. Many of them, slowly as they learn, even in the school of experience, have become convinced that the subjugation of the South is impossible. A decisive victory, for us may so embolden and strengthen this party as to open the way for negotiating and finally for peace.

These and other considerations of a similar character have led many persons to expect an early close of the war. Let us hope they are well grounded. They all proceed on the supposition that we shall be victorious in the approaching battles. Let each one do what he can to secure these victories. There is much to encourage and cheer us in the present aspect of affairs.–Our army is in excellent spirits, well clothed and fed, and ready for the shock of battle whenever it may come. It is also more nearly equal to that of the enemy, in numerical strength, than it has ever been. We may expect from our soldiers and their leaders all that human valor and skill can achieve.

Let us not, however, commit the folly of trusting to the soldiers alone. Let us remember that God alone is the giver of victory; that without His blessings all efforts will prove abortive. Remembering this, let each of our readers, in this crisis of our national history, make earnest and unceasing prayer that God will so direct our armies as to give us the victory, and, with it, the priceless boon of peace.

Doubtlessly, many readers are not deceived by what amounts to propaganda. In reality, Confederate soldiers are underfed and often hungry, even while frequently clothed in ragged uniforms. Desertions are commonplace, while the remaining Confederate forces are vastly outnumbered by Union troops. Economically, the Union’s finances are buffered by huge amounts of gold and silver streaming in from western territories and states. As for the political climate of the United States, the Republican Party and abolitionists, while not a lock to win in the fall elections, are in better shape than Hufham indicates.

As such, the Recorder editor is right to conclude his optimistic assessment with the cautionary note that God will ultimately decide the victor. If God doesn’t come through for the flailing Confederate States, the holy cause of white supremacy and black slavery is doomed.

And then how will the white Christian elites of the godly Confederacy confront their wholehearted, unqualified wrongness on the issue of black slavery?

Sources: Battle of the Wilderness (link) and (link); Atlanta Campaign (link) and (link); “The Opening Campaign,” Biblical Recorder, May 7, 1864 (link); Andrew F. Smith, “Did Hunger Defeat the Confederacy?”, North and South, May 2011, Vol. 13, No. 1 (link)