Monday, March 22, 2010

A Just War, Just A War, Crusade or Jihad?: Yankee Soldiers and Their Motivations for Sacrifice

No Peace For The Wicked: Northern Protestants and the American Civil War, David Rolfs, University of Tennessee Press, notes, bibliography, index, 288 pages, 2009, $38.95.

No Peace for the Wicked: Northern Protestants and the American Civil War examines Northern Protestants' religious worldview, their motivations for fighting, and why the most religious generation in U.S. history fought America's bloodiest war. In the spring of 1861, young men throughout the Northern states rallied around the Union flag, eager to punish the Confederate renegades who had brazenly inaugurated civil war by firing on Fort Sumter. Often driven by their Protestant religious beliefs, many northern soldiers believed they were enlisting in a just war to save their Christian government from a "wicked" Southern rebellion.

These Protestant soldiers' faith was severely tested by the hardships and tragedies they experienced in the Civil War. The vast majority easily justified their wartime service by reminding themselves and their loved ones that they were engaged in a holy cause to preserve the world's only Christian republic. Others were genuinely haunted by the horrific violence of a seemingly endless civil war, and began to entertain serious doubts about their faith.

The first comprehensive work of its kind, David Rolfs' No Peace for the Wicked sheds new light on the Northern Protestant soldiers' religious worldview and the various ways they used it to justify and interpret their wartime experiences. Drawing extensively from the letters, diaries and published collections of hundreds of religious soldiers, Rolfs effectively resurrects both these soldiers' religious ideals and their most profound spiritual doubts and conflicts. No Peace for the Wicked also explores the importance of "just war" theory in the formulation of Union military strategy and tactics, and examines why the most religious generation in U.S. history fought America's bloodiest war.

In the Autumn 2009 Civil War Book Review, Robert Welch reviewed No Rest For The Wicked: "Within the last decade religion has become one of the fastest growing areas of this new research, with works by Steven Woodworth, Mark Noll, Harry S. Stout and others delving into concepts of faith, morality and the service in the face of civil conflict. David Rolfs seeks to build directly off the arguments of several of these authors at various points in his work through a study of the role of Protestant Christianity among Union soldiers and the post-Second Great Awakening environment that formed their beliefs.

Rolfs' discussion of religion among Federal soldiers centers on the analysis of archived letters and diaries representing both major theaters of the war, as well as soldiers from numerous states. . . . The rigorous work that Rolfs put into the development of his methodology, as well as the time necessarily spent in archives to find the letters of these Christian soldiers and the works of such ministers as Henry Ward Beecher, makes this book of interest to the social historian of the Union army. . . . Rolfs' overall work is an informative read, giving new insights to the religious world of the Federal soldier during the Civil War and the society that shaped him. It should provide an interesting addendum to the library of anyone researching the role of religion as part of the overall experience of the mid-nineteenth century and who wishes to understand the motivations, compromises and conflicts of faith faced in the midst of America's bloodiest and most challenging conflict."

David Rolf states:
First developed as an extensive 2000-2002 disseration project under the guidance of Professor James Jones and Sally Hadden at FSU No Peace for the Wicked: Northern Protestants and the American Civil War was a vision inspired by the work of James M. McPherson. In the afterword to the groundbreaking 1998 work Religion and the American Civil War McPherson challenged historians to explore "the ways in which ordinary northerners and southerners, inside and outside the army, managed to rationalize the killing" of the American Civil War.

As a young graduate student, socialized in the more pacifistic just war traditions of the Catholic Church, I was particularly interested in how devout Reformed Protestant soldiers in the Union army managed to justify not just the killing, but a terrible and protracted civil war that seemed to contradict some of their earlier beliefs concerning the nature of man, the justice of the Union cause, the certainty of Union victory, emancipation, and God's purposes in the war.

From the inside cover:
In the spring of 1861, young men from all over the Northern states flocked to join the Union arm, eager to crush the newly fomented Southern rebellion. Many were driven by their Protestant religious beliefs, convinced they were joining a holy cause to save the Union from the "wicked" Confederacy. Those religious ideals were quickly put to the test by the vicious nature of the Civil War. Some soldiers rationalized their violent actions, telling themselves that they were engaged in a noble conflict to preserve the ideals of the Union, while others were huanted by the horrors of war and eventually lost their faith altogether. The motives, dilemmas and justifications of these men are now brilliantly captured in David Rolf's No Peace for the Wicked.

The first comprehensive work of its kind, this book takes the reader into the minds of these often-conflicted soldiers. Drawing from a rich trove of letters, diaries, and published collections, Rolfs offers a penetrating examinination of the religious motives of these Christian warriors, who represented a variety of denominations and social backgrounds. Many of their innermost thoughts--both their ideals and their torments--are shared in the pages of this book. "No Peace for the Wicked" also explores the importance of "just war" theory in the formulation of Union military strategy and tactics.


"Civil War armies were probably the most religious in American history. Products of the Second Great Awakening in American Protestantism, many Northern soldiers believed they were fighting for God as well as country. Their faith helped them confront danger and possible death. In this fine study, David Rolfs shows how this war over secular issues was nevertheless infused with Christian rhetoric and convictions." James M. McPherson

"This book makes an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the Civil War in general and to the place of religion in Northern common soldiers in particular . . . In its use of primary materials (supplemented by printed letters), the book's scholarly content rises to the level of the very best `people's histories' of the Civil War." Mark Noll

No Peace for the Wicked is a deeply thought provoking book that reveals an often overlooked aspect of Northern soldiers' motivations and inner struggles. Those wishing to understand the Civil War soldiers--or the cultural landscape of nineteenth-century America--will not want to miss this book." Steven E. Woodworth

David Rolfs was born in Chicago, David Rolfs grew up in southeastern Wisconsin, where he attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Whitewater. He earned his Ph.D. in nineteenth-century American history at Florida State University, where he also minored in the history of the Middle East. David's research interests include early American history, the American Civil War, World War II, Holocaust studies, Middle East civilization, and the theme of conspiracy in American history. He has authored articles on just warfare, the Holocaust, and the religious history of the American Civil War. When he is not teaching or writing, he enjoys spending time outdoors with his wife and five-year old twins.

Text Sources:
Civil War Book Review
University of Tennessee Press

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