Christian Religion in the Twenty-Seventh Massachusetts Regiment, 1861–65

(image: Henry A. Hubbard, descended from missionary David Brainerd)

Abraham Lincoln famously noted that both sides of the Civil War “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” While much has been made of the “Christian character and piety” of Confederates like Robert E. Lee, Christian belief and practice was ever present in the Union Army as well as the North as a whole (see for example Massachusetts Baptists and The Civil War).

William P. Derby’s, Bearing Arms in the Twenty-Seventh Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteer Infantry During the Civil War 1861–1865 (Boston: Wright & Potter Company, 1883) is an example of a “regimental history,” histories of particular regiments compiled and published after the war by members of those regiments (see more on regimental histories here). Derby’s account of the 27th Massachusetts contains a number of references to Christian practice and belief, some of it incidental, some of it in the form of Biblical allusions, and some of it in extended accounts of religious services. Attached here is an edited compilation of a number of those references as an example of the various ways that Christianity infused the Union War effort.

An important note is to be made regarding the depiction of African Americans in Derby’s account. Racism was prevalent in the Union Army, and even the “best intentioned” white soldiers still held patronizing and condescending views of the newly freed slaves. When reading Derby’s accounts of Black church services, one must often read “against the grain” of his white perspective to see more clearly the rich religious belief and feeling expressed in the Black church.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating look at the role of Christianity in the Union Army, one that could doubtless be repeated across any number of the hundreds of regimental histories available.

Here are a few quotes:

[As the regiment was preparing to leave for the front]: “Sunday, October 20th, [1861] Rev. Henry M. Parsons, pastor of the First Congregational Church, Springfield, [Massachusetts] preached upon the grounds an eloquent and stirring sermon from 1 Cor. 16 : 13 — ‘Quit yourselves like men ; be strong'” (16).

To the Citizens of North Carolina : … We are Christians as well as yourselves, and we profess to know full well, and to feel profoundly, the sacred obligations of the character. No apprehensions need be entertained that the demands of humanity or justice will be disregarded. We shall inflict no injury unless forced to do so by your own acts ; and upon this you may confidently rely” (74)

“On the morning of the 9th, as the troops were awaiting orders to move, Chaplain Woodworth rode along the line, saying,“Boys, this is the Sabbath, and as we cannot have other religious exercises, can’t we all join in the Doxology!” Comrade Oliver A. Clark of Company A, to whom music and the sentiment were both inspiring, led off in a clear, strong voice. Like electricity it sped from line to line, and the rising sun witnessed five thousand warriors with uncovered heads, singing“ Praise God from whom all blessings flow” (140).

“If Nicodemus would not wake under such fervency as moved the crowded cabin at that midnight hour, melody and volume will do little to accomplish it. Emancipation was to them a great jubilee, and in the realization of long -deferred hope, every power of body and mind was thrown into this melody which expressed their faith in God’s deliverance” (217).

“Sunday, May 22d, [1864] was a sad day, as with depleted ranks we gathered for divine service, and reviewed the terrible experiences of the previous week. Fervent prayer was offered, that God would shield those who had fallen into the enemy’s power, and temper the winds to the bereaved at home. While we were engaged in this service, Maj. Gen’l Martindale arrived, and, dismounting, remained with uncovered head until the close, joining tears with us over lessons drawn from the lives of comrades slain” (292).

[At the siege of Petersburg, 1864]: “It seemed as if the sun were standing still a second time, and this time for the benefit of the Amorites” (339).

[In prison in Andersonville, Georgia 1864]: “When the storm had passed, and the waters had receded to the banks of the stream , it was found that the swift current like a faithful scavenger, had cleared the swamp of all its filth, and that at the foot of the hill and just over the dead line, a spring of clear, cold water had burst forth, sufficient to supply the wants of the entire camp. This spring continued to flow undiminished, until our departure, a constant reminder of God’s miraculous care and intervention. No Moses had been sent to smite the rock, but none the less had the Almighty cleansed this Gehenna by floods of water, and opened the fountains of the earth to minister to the wants of his suffering creatures” (381).