1862: Comfort Amidst Chaos and Confusion – How the American People Sought Comfort During the Civil War

Human beings have fundamental needs that have endured throughout evolution and time: food, water, shelter, clothing, and security. A sense of security is the one need that tends to be forgotten. When setting up refugee camps and temporary shelters, rescuers always supply the basic nutrition and medical care needed, as well as shelter and clean clothing, but the one thing that is missing is that need for security, for comfort amidst chaos. As an essentiality of human nature, one can see humanity striving for a sense of comfort during any time of war or disaster throughout history. The American Civil War is a prime example of this: beginning in January of 1862, when Abraham Lincoln issued a war order sanctioning the Union army to attack the Confederate army, a country is divided in two, and the American people must attempt to find some source of comfort in all the pandemonium. In 1862, the American people, civilians and soldiers alike, were able to cope with the madness of the war by seeking comfort in their faith, pride, optimism, and hope.

One way in which Americans were able to deal with the chaos surrounding them was through their faith in God. Oftentimes religion was a motivating factor in a soldier’s enlistment, and in their continued involvement in the war. Because they felt that God was on their side in the war, they were motivated to persevere because they felt that they were fighting for a justifiable cause. This was especially common in the Confederate army. The soldiers believed that they were doing the right thing in God’s eyes and that as a result they would emerge victorious. And when all didn’t go according to God’s plan, soldiers were still able to turn to religion for consolation, “Even when the war went poorly, religion continued to provide a source of comfort and stability” (Treviño). Religious holidays during the war were able to provide some measure of comfort to soldiers; while on the one hand they often served as a cold reminder of how alienated these men were from their families, religious holidays were also able to provide the soldiers with an escape from the war. In her essay “The Potency of the Christmas Wish”, Sarah Atkinson argues that Christmas gave soldiers a break from the harsh realities of war,

“Christmas, a time when wishes are answered and problems are addressed, offers an opportunity for a vital interruption in the gloom of the lives of both those at war and at home. … Soldiers saw Christmas as an opportunity to experience peace, joy, and celebration and reclaim the joys Christmas delivers” (Atkinson, “The Potency of the Christmas Wish”).

Although the soldiers weren’t able to be with their families for Christmas, their religion was still able to offer them a moment of refuge in such a gruesome and miserable war.

This idea of religion as a source of comfort in a time of war was true both for soldiers and for the people they left behind. In her article “Elizabeth Rhodes: An Alabama Woman’s Religious Beliefs During the Civil War”, Jennifer Newman Trevino explores the impact that one Southern woman’s religion had on her attitude towards the war. Trevino states in her article that in order to understand how Americans were able to cope with the war, one must look first at their faith, “Religion played a major role in the way Americans experienced the war and its devastation. … it is essential to explore the religious worldview of the antebellum South in order to understand how people dealt with the war” (Treviño). Trevino recognized that the war impacted those at home just as greatly as it did those on the battlefield. By exploring the diary of one woman’s account of the war, she is able to demonstrate both how helpless and scared the families of soldiers in the Civil War felt and also how faith and religion provided a haven for those affected by the war. Elizabeth Rhodes was deeply affected by the war, as she lost multiple sons in battle. To cope with such great loss, she turned to religion to console her in her time of need,  “As she struggled with her inner self, Rhodes turned to religion to explain the death of her children, to assuage her fears as the country plummeted into disunion, and to provide comfort as the world around her constantly changed” (Treviño). Elizabeth Rhodes felt that God was controlling every aspect of the war, and that all she could do was trust in Him and find comfort in the fact that He has blessed her and her family for their contributions to the war effort.

Just as soldiers were able to find peace amidst the chaos in religious holidays during the war, those that remained at home also sought comfort in the religious holidays. Christian citizens remaining at home were encouraged to “abandon their right to festivities and merriment and rather fulfill their “duty” as Christians in reconnecting with God” (Atkinson, “The Potency of the Christmas Wish”). When their loved ones are away fighting for their rights, those at home could oftentimes feel detached from the war effort and without a sense of purpose. By pairing Christian duty with the war effort, civilians at home can feel less distant from the war and more connected to their loved ones through the fulfillment of their Christian duties on Christmas day, “Like the soldier on the battlefield who has a duty to fight for the prosperity of the nation, those at home now have the duty to fight for a deliverance of acceptance from God” (Atkinson, “The Potency of the Christmas Wish”). In feeling connected to their loved ones and to the war effort, civilians at home are once again able to find comfort in a time of war through their religion.

In the same way that religion served as a consolation for soldiers and reminded them why they were fighting, for many soldiers, the impetus behind their enlistment was what kept them going through the hardest of times. For many soldiers it was the idea that fighting for one’s country was the noble thing to do. A soldier’s decision to enlist in the war was linked with his own pride in his manhood. Because regiments were most often formed based off location, a man would enlist with other men in his community. For this reason, to fight for one’s nation was to fight for one’s community, and one’s family. This idea of protecting family while serving a greater cause embodied what it meant to be a true man, and so enlistment was often an act of pride rather than patriotism. As Thomas E. Rodgers writes in his article “Billy Yank and G. I. Joe: An Exploratory Essay on the Sociopolitical Dimensions of Soldier Motivation”, “To not show courage in battle would be a dereliction of duty to nation and community, a betrayal of everyone loved, and proof that one was not a man or deserving of the liberty won by one’s forefathers” (Rodgers). Therefore, a soldier’s enlistment during the Civil War didn’t necessarily mean that he was devoted to his nation or the cause he was fighting for. Cowardice was not looked favorably upon in this time of war, especially when the men you were fighting with were your neighbors, family, and friends. McPherson argues that this sense of community within regiments was also a factor in deserter rates. Men were less likely to desert when surrounded by other men they knew, and who knew their families,

“Many of the men in a regimental company in these volunteer regiments had been friends and neighbors back home. Their families knew each other. Thus, any reports of cowardice, or bugging out, or skulking on the battlefield not only would ruin a man’s reputation among his comrades, but if the news reached home, it would bring disgrace to him and his family” (McPherson).

Once again, a man’s sense of pride comes into the equation, as men remained in the war not always out of pure devotion to the cause, but to protect their pride and their reputation. Pride, for many soldiers, was something they could cling to amidst all the chaos. War is a oftentimes a cruel and dehumanizing place, and for a man to still have his sense of pride at the day meant that he was still a man, despite all the acts of inhumanity that he had seen that might have made him feel otherwise. The fact that amid such tumult and destruction such pride still existed showed the weight that it held in a soldier’s involvement in the war.

From inspecting everyday records from 1862, such as advertisements, news articles, and announcements, one can see the way in which life continued on as normal despite the war. There were still advertisements for clothing and help wanted ads for housekeepers. In her paper, “Optimism in the Spring of 1862”, Abigail McQuillan provides an example of an announcement for a concert in Boston in April of 1862, “One specific event that was said to occur the following day was “Wednesday Afternoon Concerts at Boston Music Hall”. The perpetuation of regular activities, such as concerts, experienced by people at the time, help build upon the idea of progress or positivity felt throughout the country in the spring of 1862” (McQuillan “Optimism in the Spring of 1862”). Her argument is that despite the war going on around them, Americans managed to continue on with life as usual, attending concerts and enjoying the spring weather in Boston. One coping mechanism commonly resorted to when dealing with chaos and confusion is to continue on with life as normal. Retaining a certain level of normalcy was important, both for the soldiers and their families. Everyday rituals and routines served as a form of comfort to those whose lives were devastated in one form or another by the war. McQuillan attributes this need to move on with life as a sign that progress was being made and that the nation remained optimistic as a whole, “one might make the connection that the preparation of the changing of seasons can also relate to the change in attitude, or the progress that the nation as a whole was feeling in the month of April” (McQuillan, “Optimism in the Spring of 1862). Remaining optimistic in a time of such turmoil can be difficult, but overall, can bring comfort to those in a state of unrest and ultimately can serve as an effective coping mechanism.

The postal system played an integral role in comforting both soldiers in the Civil War and their loved ones waiting to hear from them back home. Letters allowed loved ones to stay connected despite the separation between them. However, letter writing wasn’t always the easiest mode of communication. While regiments were camped out in one location for several weeks, getting soldiers their letters was relatively simple for the postal system. It was during times of combat where regiments were constantly on the move that it was difficult to get mail to the soldiers,

“periods of intense action saw both armies in perpetual motion. This continued shifting of location made delivering the mail a very real challenge. Families and friends persisted in writing, however, since the letters they exchanged were their only connection to their men at the front, and soldiers greedy for any reminder of home clamored for more mail” (Burke).

When mail is the only means of communication for months on end, families and soldiers alike grew to depend on it as a source of abatement from the pandemonium of war. Tori Mayher discusses the increasing importance of the postal system during the Civil War in her essay “The Postal Service: Preaching Positivity and Ambivalence”,

“The nation dove into a state of turmoil and uncertainty, which would make        accessible, affordable, and a reliable national Postal system essential. The “new” American Postal service sought to and felt they had to change– hopefully, receiving a letter would transform from an extraordinary to an ordinary experience” (Mayher, “The Postal Service: Preaching Positivity and Ambivalence”).

The news received on both ends was not always good. News of death and destruction as well as birth and joyous events were sent back and forth. Any news was better than no news, for no letters for an extended period of time often meant bad things. Because there was no censorship of these letters, they serve as one of the best records of the Civil War, and as an indicator of the importance that this mode of communication held to both civilians and soldiers throughout the Civil War.

“Seek Comfort in Faith, Pride, Optimism, and Hope” sounds like something one would find on the inside of a Christmas card. However, that is exactly how the American people reacted in 1862 to cope with the frenzy of the war. Finding small comforts in the middle of such great destruction benefitted not only those affected, but also the war effort as a whole. These coping mechanisms allowed soldiers to keep fighting, war nurses to continue attending to the ill and wounded, mothers left behind to take care of their children, noncombatants to keep the country running while the men were at war, and life to go on as normal. Without faith, pride, optimism, and hope, the war would’ve ended before it even truly began, and 1862 would be known as the year that America almost evolved into an industrial nation, slavery was almost abolished, and that a great division within the nation was almost resolved. But instead of a year of almosts, 1862 was a year of progression and change, and that was as a result of the ability of the American people, both soldiers and noncombatants, to overcome great struggle and persevere for the greater good.

 

WORKS CITED:

Atkinson, Sarah,  “The Potency of the Christmas Wish”

Burke, Kathryn. “Letter Writing in America.” National Postal Museum. Smithsonian Institute, n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2012. <http://www.postalmuseum.si.edu/letterwriting/lw04.html>.

Mayher, Tori, “The Postal Service: Preaching Positivity and Ambivalence”

McPherson, James M. “Citizen Soldiers of the Civil War: Why They Fought.” Rally on the High Ground. National Park Service, n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2012. <http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/rthg/chap4.htm>.

McQuillan, Abigail,  “Optimism in the Spring of 1862”

Rodgers, Thomas E. “Billy Yank and G. I. Joe: An Exploratory Essay on the Sociopolitical Dimensions of Soldier Motivation.” The Journal of Military History 71.4 (2007): n. pag. JSTOR. Web. 4 Dec. 2012. <http://ej4da6xn7z.search.serialssolutions.com/?genre=article&isbn=&issn=08993718&title=Journal+of+Military+History&volume=69&issue=1&date=20050101&atitle=Billy+Yank+and+G.I.+Joe%3a+An+Exploratory+Essay+on+the+Sociopolitical+Dimensions+of+Soldier+Motivation.&aulast=Rodgers%2c+Thomas+E.&spage=93&sid=EBSCO:America%3a+History+%26+Life&pages=93-121>.

Treviño, Jennifer Newman. “Elizabeth Rhodes: An Alabama Woman’s Religious Beliefs During the Civil War.” Alabama Review Oct. 2009: n. pag. America: History & Life. Web. 4 Dec. 2012. <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=8&hid=24&sid=51a76590-2aa3-4b07-9ce6 04cc1a1e8bd9%40sessionmgr15&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=ahl&AN=44876483>.