Journal of Southern Religion


Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Righteous Armies, Holy Cause: Apocalyptic Imagery and the Civil War. Macon, Mercer University Press, 2002. 288 pp. Illustrations, bibliographical references, appendix, and index. Reviewed by A. James Fuller, University of Indianapolis, for the Journal of Southern Religion.


To many Americans, the Civil War marked the end of the world. Apocalyptic language and imagery has long been a part of American society and culture, especially in the realm of Evangelical Christians, where politics is inevitably linked to religion. In this thin volume, Terrie Dopp Aamodt studies the ways in which those who anticipated and experienced it interpreted the cataclysmic conflict of the Civil War. In Righteous Armies, Holy Cause, historians of American culture and Christianity will find confirmation of other recent studies that have linked the coming of the war to religion.


 
"...Americans took divergent paths following the Civil War, and their conception of the Apocalypse changed along with their interpretations of themselves and their world."  

 

Aamodt argues that the Apocalypse has been a "recurring motif for American mythmakers, particularly in times of crisis or national self-doubt." (3) Thus, both North and South built on pre-war conceptions of America having a special destiny to interpret the Civil War as part of the end times, another sign indicating the fulfillment of God's plans for the world. "The process of interpreting cataclysmic events in terms of the earth's violent end explained the otherwise inexplicable and placed America in a special role of prophetic fulfillment." (3) For many Northerners, the war was divine judgment, with God punishing the United States for the national sin of slavery. Southerners agreed that the conflict was divine punishment, but understood that the sin for which the country was being punished was the growth of anti-Christian attitudes and humanist philosophies (such as abolitionism) which threatened Godly institutions. While both sides blamed the other for divine wrath, both sides also interpreted this conception of punishment on a more personal level, arguing that they were being reproved for their own failures and sins, for not living up to the standards set for God's chosen people.

All of this was rooted in the theology of Evangelical Christianity, which emphasized divine judgment and held out the hope of salvation through individual conversion to escape the wrath of God that would follow the imminent return of Christ. Such language was frequent in the many revivals that were so popular in the United States. So, apocalyptic conceptions were common in the churches, especially in the millennialism that swept the country in the decades just before the war. Such thinking held that Christ might return at any moment and, for those who believed this way, the world was divided into clear delineations of good and bad, right and wrong. In war, the enemy was the diabolical ally of Satan and the Antichrist, while one's own forces were the true soldiers of the Cross, defending the faith against great evil. The Civil War, then, was a sign of the Last Days and fraught with terrible importance. The author argues that this apocalyptic imagery was widespread and deeply rooted in the culture of antebellum America. No wonder, then, that when the war came, Americans tended to understand it in the familiar religious terms that pervaded their society.

But the war did not prove to be the fulfillment of apocalyptic predictions. Both sides saw themselves as holy and heroic, both saw the other side as demonic and doomed to defeat. Victory was certain and would be swift in coming. Yet the war dragged on and on and both sides wondered about their fate. When the conflict ended, Southerners did not change their view. Instead, they clung to the righteousness of their Lost Cause. When God did not bring the kind of victory Northerners expected, they returned to religious liberalism, uncertain about His involvement in their affairs. This doubt grew as "aggressive secularism and acquisitiveness of the late nineteenth century, eroded away their confidence." (138) Each side chose their heroes-usually martyrs-and made Lincoln and Stonewall Jackson the stuff of myth. Yet, their understanding of the meaning of the war changed. Thus, Americans took divergent paths following the Civil War, and their conception of the Apocalypse changed along with their interpretations of themselves and their world.

A scholar trained in American Studies, Aamodt deftly examines poems, paintings, novels, and songs to demonstrate the pervasiveness of this imagery in nineteenth-century America. She opens the book with a series of fifteen paintings and adds an appendix of about forty different poems from a variety of perspectives, but all supporting her point about apocalypse. Readers will find a fair balance between the antagonists in this book. North and South, free and slave, white and black are all included and give voice to the cataclysmic interpretation of the war. This is a strong point of the book, which offers a broader analysis than those confined to one side or another. Most historians will agree that apocalyptic imagery was present in the era of the Civil War, but was it as widespread as Aamodt makes it out to be? Further, while scholars of religious history will find this to their liking, it is not for everyone. Aamodt's use of theological terminology and concepts will be too much for most readers, limiting her audience to specialists in the study of religion and culture. It is not for the typical reader of history and will hold little appeal for the usual Civil War audience. Still, it is a valuable little book that confirms the work of recent scholarship and explores a theme still powerful in our culture today. Indeed, many Americans continue to interpret cataclysmic events like war and terrorist attacks with apocalyptic imagery, painting the enemy as evil and the United States as holy and just. In a sense, then, Righteous Armies, Holy Cause holds significance for many more than those who make up the author's narrow audience.

A. James Fuller, University of Indianapolis

 

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