“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,/ Rough-hew them how we will.” –  Hamlet V, ii, 10-11

“I could see that there was two Providences, and a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow’s Providence, but if Miss Watson’s got him there warn’t no help for him any more.” – Huckleberry Finn, Ch. 3

That the concept of Providence was much discussed in various writings—speeches, letters, sermons, and so on—during the American War of 1861-1865 should not be surprising. It was a time of great turmoil, conflict, and violence over fundamental issues dividing the country. Among these were the relation of the States to the United States, the interpretation of the Constitution, slavery and the Constitutional sanction of that institution, the meaning and scope of freedom and equality—all of these and others considered in the context of a country “realizing westward,” in the phrase of that Yankee poet, Robert Lee Frost. Both North and South hoped and prayed to the same God and hoped and prayed that He would bless each of their causes.

Regarding those causes, this essay does not focus primarily on them or on the rightness or the wrongness of either side. History, as well as the study of history, is complex, sometimes elusive, mysterious, and fraught with enormous difficulties. It is not an attractive pursuit for the faint of heart, those seeking sure, simple answers, or the ideologically driven, no matter how well educated or intelligent. And this is noted in reference both to those who still believe that slavery was the sole cause of the War and to those who would dismiss it entirely, even as a critical circumstance of the conflict.

That being said, the following does not purport to be a history of the War in any case but rather an incomplete history of an idea—a theological concept—important especially to leaders on both sides in the conflict. The idea may be stated in this way: Providence is the belief that an all-powerful God oversees the world He has made and in fact has a plan for how things will ultimately work out. He is, in short, in control of matters small and large. Yet human beings have a role to play. Their role is necessarily secondary; that is, to the extent that they serve as agents in the world, they act at best as secondary causes. That, too, is part of God’s mysterious, paradoxical plan.[i]

The element of mystery in the phenomenon of Providence is paramount. One can hope that Providence blesses one’s cause. One cannot, however, know this to be the case, as Huck Finn discerned. A person can hope and pray and work in order to effect his cause, but that is about as far as it goes. (That states one orthodox view of the matter at any rate.)

And finally, and most intriguingly of all, the concept, especially in this particular case, inevitably raises the question of what happens to the belief—and the state of the believer—if his cause is utterly defeated? (After all, “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to naught”—or may do so—as the Psalmist declares in 33:10, RSV) What is one to say of Providence then? A man can still maintain that the cause was right, but can he still say that Providence supported it? And by the same token, what does one say if his cause in fact prevails? The response to that outcome would be revelatory as well. These are the sorts of questions to be engaged here, but there is no promise attached that easy answers will be forthcoming.

With the foregoing as background, the plan is to look at various expressions of the concept from spokesmen of both the Union and the Confederacy. The range of such statements gathered here is representative but does not purport to exhaust the subject. (Perhaps even now, a future doctoral student of the history of ideas lies in wait to make a comprehensive study of the subject.) Also, just as Mr. Lincoln has received veritable oceans of ink regarding many topics, this one is no exception. In the interest of some balance and brevity, however, my aim is to compare and contrast various figures in this connection. Among the others are Jefferson Davis, “Stonewall” Jackson, Robert Louis Dabney (particularly on Jackson); Generals Lee, E. P. Alexander, and Grant; Orestes A. Brownson and, finally, General John B. Gordon.

While Mr. Lincoln is only one of many who addressed the role of Providence during the War, he is a logical and compelling figure with which to begin. He is, for better or worse, the unavoidable 800-pound gorilla. One reason for that designation is his 1862 “Meditation on the Divine Will,” for in it the author memorably articulates the thorny issue of each side’s seeking God’s blessing on their respective causes, a blessing that surely cannot be given to each. Here it is in full:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect his purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.[ii]

The “Meditation” was not published in the author’s lifetime, but the core ideas—in one form or another—were expressed in other documents, both private and public, such as letters and speeches. This document forms the basis most importantly of the Second Inaugural address. But here, in the “Meditation,” we see Lincoln plain and straight. In other words, there is no effort to achieve a rhetorical effect in order to win an argument or sway a crowd and no pretense to piety. Whatever the actual religious beliefs of Lincoln over the course of his life, it is fair to say that he had evolved from his early years in Illinois when he was seen as an unbeliever and even something of a religious scoffer.[iii] As to the development and sincerity of his mature beliefs, I would refer the reader to commentaries by several scholars on the subject, among them Allen C. Guelzo, Mark Noll, and Ronald C. White.[iv]

What I want mainly to focus on in any event are the ideas expressed in the “Meditation” as they are carried over, if modified, into the Second Inaugural. Several Lincoln admiring commentators find both documents to be eloquent, rich, and profound. And indeed it is hard to argue with that assessment up to a point.

My own assessment, however, is that the Second Inaugural is flawed and more problematic than the “Meditation” for reasons to be laid out here. In the Second Inaugural, it is the occasion itself and the need for a rhetoric suited to that occasion and audience—which doubtless contained no Confederates—that transform it from the pure, theological articulation of the “Meditation” into a polemical, political utterance. So despite the effort to maintain the balance and tension of the earlier document, it inevitably ends up with the Rail-Splitter’s legs straddled awkwardly over both sides of the fence. For one, he pleads for non-judgement after he has already judged harshly: “‘woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!’” (an appropriation of Matt. 18:7); “but let us not judge not that we be not judged.”[v] Granted, Lincoln appears (rightly) to spread the blame for slavery to both North and South, but who had chiefly wrung “their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces” in the eyes of the speaker? He means the South of course. It is clearly too late to issue a caution against condemnation. It is not only too late; the rhetoric at this point is tone deaf and smarmy. In short, the Second Inaugural ends up as an odd mixture of compassion, ambiguity and paradox, on the one hand, and raw, spiteful, partisan politics on the other.[vi]

It is, of course, Lincoln’s prerogative to make judgements on the events of the War itself, its causes, and results as he understands them. Is it not a bit disingenuous, even unseemly, however, to do so while adopting a posture of the noble leader filled with the milk of kindness? One has to concede, in any event, that others in his time lacked even a fraction of the man’s compassion and good will, even if those qualities were adulterated.

The argument in favor of the Second Inaugural offered by some commentators rests on the speaker’s comfort with paradox and his presumed charity. Mark Noll for one, following the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, argues that Lincoln stood out among other nineteenth-century figures as virtually unique in this regard. In support, he references several noted clergymen of the day who, according to Noll, lacked the theological power and tensional quality of Lincoln’s presentation.[vii]

In spite of Noll’s assertion and his evidence, Lincoln was not the only one who engaged the paradox and ambiguity found in the “Meditation” and Second Inaugural. He may have done so with more eloquence and profundity than anyone else. (It might be added here that academics and intellectuals in general have a soft spot for ambiguity. And indeed, it has its place, even in political affairs. But as Mr. Lincoln surely realized over time, it is not a house in which a chief magistrate can permanently reside.)

As a look at key utterances by other figures of the period cited by M. E. Bradford, Richard M. Weaver, and others, will attest, the notion that God was indisputably on their side and their side alone never occurred to them for a moment. For them, God is sovereign and wills what He wills. They never assumed that personal or collective faithfulness guaranteed worldly success. That is the preserve of the New England, Gnostic abolitionist out to create the Utopian City on the Hill. To those other figures, in particular those south of the old surveyor’s line, we will return shortly.

In any event, Mr. Lincoln for his part did not invariably maintain the high-minded, magnanimous posture attributed to him in the Second Inaugural by Noll and others. In a letter to Thurlow Weed of March 15, 1865, the Inaugural gloves come off and Lincoln assumes a more comfortable role as mere mortal. The tensional rhetoric has disappeared; any effusion of charity, real or affected, has likewise evaporated:

Thank you for yours on my little notification, and on the recent Inaugeral [sic] Address. I expect the latter to wear well as—perhaps better than—any thing I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there is a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them [emphasis added]. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world . . .  (CW, VIII, 356).

It is now unmistakably clear that men—that is, Southern men—are not flattered by being shown that God, who cannot be in the wrong, has not approved of their actions. Moreover, it is Mr. Lincoln who, as the earthly voice of the Deity, has now told them so. In the “Meditation” he had reflected, “it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party” [emphasis added]. That was then. But now with victory in sight, the scales have fallen from his eyes and he can say with crystal certainty that God had favored the Union cause.

As M. E. Bradford and others have argued, Lincoln in the Second Inaugural and elsewhere elevates himself through his political position and his Biblically-imbued language to the role of God’s spokesman to such an extent that “it is difficult for us to reverse the ill effects of trends he set in motion with his executive fiat,” thus producing an agenda, Bradford adds, that would not have been countenanced if offered in another manner.[viii]

But the question left unanswered is what would Lincoln have said in the event that he, and the North, had had to face the awful (and at times real) prospect that a Union victory was out of reach, that a permanent separation of North and South would have to be accepted? What then?  We will never know, of course. But we can say with certainty that whatever he might have said would have lacked the smug, gloating tone of his reply to Thurlow Weed.[ix]

But to return to the issue of ambiguity and paradox, we may look, for one, at Lincoln’s counterpart, President Davis for another articulation of it. In several of his public and private utterances, Jefferson Davis alludes to his hope for the blessings of Providence regarding the Confederate cause. We see such traditional language, for instance, in his Inaugural Addresses of both February 16, 1861 and February 22, 1862. And we see similar references, if more personally rendered, in letters to his wife both before and after he was captured in May of 1865.[x] More pointedly, on September 26 of that same year he writes to Varina from his prison cell at Ft. Monroe: “an unseen hand has sustained me with a peace which the world could not give, and has not been able to destroy, will I trust uphold me to meet with resignation whatever may befall me” [emphasis added] (JD, 376).

In early 1863, in a proclamation of that year, he acknowledges the Confederacy’s recent reverses and declares that the “overruling” Lord has taught us “in His paternal providence [there sometimes] comes the anguish of defeat, and that, whether in victory or defeat, our humble supplications are due at His footstool.” Davis’ tensional rhetoric here is not that of Lincoln certainly. Yet he simultaneously embraces in this one passage both the extreme challenges that the Confederacy faced at the time and the recognition of a sovereign Deity who governs the world and who deserves our worship in all events, fair or foul.[xi]

Nearly twenty years after the War, in a speech before the Mississippi legislature on March 10, 1884, Davis reflects on the failed effort of the Confederate States to achieve independence. Having declined to seek a pardon, he reaffirms here his belief in the rightness of the cause. Even so, he concedes that “No one is the arbiter of his own fate . . . Fate decreed that they [the people of the Confederate States] should be unsuccessful . . . ” (JD, 429). Again we observe his linking two contrasting issues—the rightness of the cause and yet its failure—in the one locution. But what is notable also is the shift from the term Providence to that of Fate. Is this merely a minor point of diction? Or is it possible that in the time elapsed since the War his belief in the “overruling Providence [that] ordereth all things” has been transformed into the acceptance of a blind, impersonal Fate? That argument could be made, but without a more comprehensive review of Davis’s writings than is feasible here, it is impossible to make it with any certainty.[xii]

Finally, as regards the two presidents, Lincoln was indeed a thoughtful man (that is, literally full of thoughts), an intellectual even; if he had been well-educated, he might well have become a college professor in his day. Davis, on the other hand, while well-educated and deeply faithful, was not an intellectual, but a man of action, a soldier and a political leader, more adept perhaps in the former role some would argue.

In an essay entitled “The Crackup,” the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote—and I paraphrase—that the mark of a first-rate intelligence is the ability simultaneously to hold two opposing ideas in the mind and still function effectively. We have seen that ability in both Lincoln and Davis. It is found as well in one of the greatest of Confederate generals, namely “Stonewall” Jackson. In his case in particular, however, I would modify Fitzgerald’s formula to include such qualities as character, faith, and greatness of soul in addition to intelligence.

For Jackson, Providence operates in matters great and small and always for the ultimate benefit of his children. Whether the issue is the outcome of a great battle—First Manassas—or an injury to his finger during the course of it, the Lord of Hosts is in charge.[xiii] In some cases, though, the benefit He has in mind may not assume a pleasant form for the beneficiary. Yet, as R. L. Dabney writes in his biography of Jackson, “In every blessing or calamity of private life, as well as in every order or despatch [sic] announcing a victory, he was prompt to ascribe the result to the Lord of Hosts.”[xiv]

Dabney’s life of Jackson contains numerous references to his subject’s reliance on the providential hand of God in all affairs. In the interest of concision, I cite only two more instances. Of his greatest military victory, Chancellorsville, the General observes that some will think he had it all planned out early on. No, he says, “I simply took advantage of circumstances as they were presented to me in the providence of God” (Life, 710). Not least in demonstrating his radical faithfulness in God’s providential plan is the manner in which he faced death. At one moment during the days following his wounding, he said that he thought God might still have a work yet to do (Life, 719). Finally accepting the inevitable, he responds to his minister’s pronouncing his injuries a calamitous:

You see me severely wounded, but not depressed; not unhappy. I believe it has been done according to God’s holy will, and I acquiesce entirely in it. You may think it strange; but you never saw me more perfectly contented than I am today; for I am sure that my Heavenly Father designs this affliction for my good. I am perfectly satisfied that, either in this life, or in that which is to come, I shall discover that what is now regarded as a calamity is a blessing (Life & Letters, 719).

Besides his own address to last things, Jackson’s death raised questions relating to the Confederate cause for those who remained. One such issue, Dabney notes, is whether God had withdrawn the gift of the General’s life in “judicial displeasure,” or was his passing a prompting to trust in Him even more now? Dabney leaves such questions to the resolution found in God’s evolving providence (Life, 727).

Jackson’s commander, General Lee, had his own questions and concerns in the days before (and after) Jackson’s death. “Surely General Jackson must recover. God will not take us, now that we need him so much.” If his statement is shaped more by anxiety than by insight into the ways of Providence, Lee in his General Orders No. 61, announcing Jackson’s passing, comes very close to his subordinate’s view of His workings: “The daring, skill, and energy of this great and good soldier, by the decree of an All-Wise Providence, are now lost to us.”[xv] Even as the end of the War drew near and military prospects grew dimmer, Lee still put his faith in the Almighty. He writes on November 20, 1864 to his daughter Agnes: “I suppose [Grant] is preparing some great blow with which he intends to demolish us, but from which I trust a merciful Providence will shield us” (WP, 870).[xvi] Even if a “great blow” as such was not forthcoming in the remaining months of the War, the Army of Northern Virginia as an effective fighting force was not apparently shielded by Providence.  However one may parse that ending, the religious faith of General Lee was still intact, an attribute that calls for a much fuller treatment than can be provided in this context.[xvii]

While Lee’s Army in particular was noted for its religious fervor and conversions during the War, not everyone in that body shared the view of Providence evidenced in Jackson and Lee. A striking case is that of General Edward Porter Alexander, who served at one point as Longstreet’s chief of artillery. Indeed Alexander sneeringly refers to Jackson as “the Moses of the Confederacy” for his thoroughgoing reliance on the Deity. Clearly he himself had no such failing and would have had no use for the private or public musings of Lincoln for that matter:

It is customary to say that ‘Providence did not intend that we should win,’ but I do not subscribe in the least to that doctrine. Providence did not care a row of pins about it. If it did it was a very unintelligent Providence not to bring the business to a close—the close it wanted—in less than four years of most terrible & bloody war.[xviii]

Alexander asserts further that this reliance on Providence by the Confederate leadership was in fact an impediment to military success for it blinded them to the fact that the only course to victory was through their own “exertions.” Whether the General makes a valid point or whether he misunderstood what Jackson and others meant by Providence are interesting questions. But I leave them for others to consider.

Not unlike Alexander, General Ulysses S. Grant, took a less-than-serious view of Providence on at least one occasion in the War. During the siege of Vicksburg, as related in Foote’s account, the relentless Grant made light of the likelihood of General Joseph Johnston’s coming to the rescue of the fortified Confederates: “Their principal faith seems to be in Providence and Joe Johnston” (CW, 424). Time and circumstance, however, have a way of changing one’s perspective. To search for references to divine agency in the writings of Grant is a hunt for hens’ teeth. Yet, looking death in the face while writing his Memoirs to provide a financial legacy for his family, Grant acquires in his pain-filled, final illness a different view on the relation of God and man. In one of his “Notes to the Doctor” composed near the end, he writes: “If it is within God’s providence that I should go now I am ready to obey His call without a murmur. I should prefer going now to enduring my present suffering for a single day without hope of recovery.”[xix]  This is not the sinuous mind of Lincoln nor the radical faith of Jackson, but as the expression of a man who had come to front mortality with grace it is worthy of note in any event.

A highly developed view of Providence to contrast with that of both Alexander and Grant is provided by a lesser-known figure of the period, Orestes A. Brownson, a New England journalist and theological writer. While Brownson’s religious views are rooted in both reason and Scripture, he took his stand against the sort of rationalist outlook of figures like William Ellery Channing which held that God is strictly bound by his own natural laws.[xx]

In his spiritual diary, Brownson refers to the human being as an agent of secondary causes in God’s overall plan: “Though God governs all things he does not infringe upon the power he has delegated to man” (SW, 81). Like Lincoln and Jackson, Brownson grasps the complexity of existence through the prism of paradox. In an 1853 review of a book on the Desert Fathers, he asserts that we live, even as we live in this world, “under the supernatural providence of God.” He applies this to both individuals and nations. “God raises up whom he will, and whom he will he casts down” (SW, 238-239). Here Brownson, who eventually entered the Catholic Church, is very much in tune with the Calvinist Jackson. And like the General, he knew something of being cast down through the experience of losing two sons in the War. Because of that ordeal and other lesser ones he was indeed shaken but not defeated. It may be self-evident that Brownson departed significantly from his fellow New Englanders, especially ones in the Protestant and Transcendentalist camps. In religious matters at least, he had more in common with certain Southerners of the time, like Dabney.

Richard Weaver in his extended commentary on the literature of the post-War South, The Southern Tradition at Bay, singles out three principles drawn from its religious tradition: (1) That society is ordained by God; (2) that man is deeply flawed and requires intervention; and (3) that worldly success is never a sign of one’s being in the right.[xxi]

The first of these principles is another way of referring to the role of Providence in human affairs, and the second is an acknowledgement of the need for divine guidance. Southerners both before and after the War “saw nature and history as providential,” as M. E. Bradford writes, not in the abstract as propositions, but in the context of action in the world around them, action in which they participated.[xxii] Weaver adds that the victory of the North in the War threatened each of these assumptions. Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom,” with its government of, by, and for the people represented a version of “secular democracy, discarding the older notion of the civil magistrate as God’s vice-regent” (STAB, 148). Among other things, it spelled the end of a feudal, hierarchical society as embodied in the South of the early nineteenth century up to 1861.

It is the third of these ideas—secular success as a mark of rightness—with which I would like to move toward conclusion. Weaver cites the example of the typical Southern soldier who, because he observed a distinction between divine and earthly rewards, survived the War without a loss of faith in the ordering of Divine Providence (STAB, 213). Additionally, R. L. Dabney, himself a Southern soldier-clergyman, addressed the deleterious effect of post-War, creeping pragmatism on religion in an 1868 lecture at Davidson College. First of all, he asserts, “It is only the atheist who adopts success as a criterion of right.” Moreover, it is not new in “the history of men that God appoints to the brave and the true the stern task of contending, and falling, in a righteous quarrel” (STAB, 146-147). In short, what a man stands for counts for more than what he may gain of the world’s rewards.

A final figure who reflected notably on God’s ways, Gen. John B. Gordon of Georgia, held a less austere view of the role of Providence. In fact it seems almost a more positive and Southern version of Mr. Lincoln’s musings: “Providence accounts for all that human reason cannot explain . . . Human conflict thus appears as a working out of God’s policies, and the very violence of the strife may be a measure of the fruitfulness which will flow from it,” though not seen in advance by either side, to be sure (STAB, 210-211). Unlike Lincoln, however, Gordon’s reflections have the advantage of hindsight. And unlike Lincoln, though carrying still the wounds of battle, he survived and went on to have a most fruitful life in both politics and business.[xxiii]

Weaver’s citing of Gordon’s case may strike us as a bit odd particularly in light of the principle that Providence does not guarantee worldly success or, put otherwise, that worldly success is not a sign of the hand of Providence at work. (Critics of the Confederate cause and of the South generally might be inclined to argue that this principle is just another rationalization for its defeat, another building block in the edifice of the Lost Cause. The counter is that (1) the principle obtained both before the War and after and (2) it is either true, in or out of the Southern context, or it is not.) Gordon aside, the larger point that Weaver is getting at is that the typical Southerner, both before and after the War, consistently acknowledged the “inscrutable designs of Providence and the ineluctable tragedies of private lives” (STAB, 146).

Finally, we have seen a range of expressions on the theme Providence that may suggest the difficulty of arriving at one cogent definition—let alone understanding. It is not, of course, a matter of definition anyway in that the Deity is not to be contained in words or constructs of human devising. The ways of God with man are inherently mysterious despite the revelations available in Scripture and Tradition and the clarifications of theological commentary. At least this was true for the nineteenth-century Southern believer. Weaver notes that whether he was a Virginia Episcopalian or a Celt planted in the wilds of Appalachia, he wanted “something akin to the rituals of the Medieval Church, and to the Eleusinian mysteries of the ancients” (STAB, 146).

Whether that is an apt description or not, Southern religion certainly contrasts with that of New England Puritanism as characterized by M. E. Bradford in various essays, particularly those touching on Lincoln. It is a dispensation informed by the Gnostic, millennialist heresy that could not rest content with simply establishing the City on the Hill for themselves alone but, in time, sought to impose it on the rest of the body politic.[xxiv] Lincoln, as heir to that outlook, in his address at Gettysburg abandons argument in favor of oracle and proclaims “what must be, and yet forever remain the process of becoming” (BG, 188). The Gnostic interpreter knows, late or soon, how and why God directs events, which is why they are known as Gnostics.[xxv]

In the “older religiousness of the South” (Weaver’s phrase), a sovereign Deity was understood to govern the world in which man plays a role.[xxvi] But a man does not presume either to know how God will order events (or assume he can do so himself), but believes that He does and that it is the obligation of the creature to pay homage to the Creator in all events. He knows, too, that victory does not invariably go to those in the right—or even necessarily to the strongest—and that his true standing in this world and beyond does not ultimately depend on the estimate of his fellow man. It is a position whose adherents do not seek or need to impose it on those around them, let alone those far away. It is in sum the posture of Jackson, of Dabney his interpreter, of Davis and Lee, and the Yankee Brownson, along with countless others unnamed and unknown.

A final question may be put once more in closing: did Providence ultimately favor the Union cause? No one except Mr. Lincoln in March of 1865, certain Northern ministers of the Word before and after, and the eternal Deity Himself can answer it with any surety. The rest of us may choose to rest content with acknowledging the mystery of God’s ways with man.

Notes

[i] Especially as far as the South is concerned, the concept of Providence is associated with Protestantism. It is not, however, the exclusive property of that group as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticano, 1997) will serve to illustrate. See in particular sections 302-308, 310, and 314. See also a 6th-century debate on Providence in Book V of Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, ed., tr. Scott Goins and Barbara H. Wyman (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 172, in which the conclusion is reached that “freedom of the will remains unviolated for mortals” in relation to the divine plan.  From an early American history perspective, Providence was a term current in both New England and Virginia. Regarding the latter, it is found frequently in the writings of John Smith, as one historian notes, but among later Virginians becomes merely a vague figure of speech. See Richard Beale Davis, Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1585-1763 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978), I, 67. It was more than metaphor to at least one of them as we shall see, namely R. L. Dabney, who served on Stonewall Jackson’s staff and wrote an early biography.

[ii] Abraham Lincoln, “Meditation on the Divine Will,” Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1989), 359. The “Meditation” is dated early September, 1862.

[iii] See in particular Charles L. C. Minor, The Real Lincoln: From the Testimony of His Contemporaries. 1904; Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1992, 27-28. Minor, an early detractor, cites a number of sources in support of his point. See also Allen C. Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999), 325, who suggests that the course of the War may have forced upon the president a spiritual development, that is, from seeing merely a system of laws ruling mind and matter to view of “a providence which was more than a cosmic process,” something also more mysterious and extraordinary. In a sharply contrasting reading of Lincoln’s spiritual development, Tom Landess questions the sincerity of Lincoln’s late beliefs and points to his Gettysburg Address as including within the scope of Providence Sherman and Sheridan’s waging total war against civilian populations. (“Total war” is my paraphrase of Landess’ “war crimes.”) See Thomas H. Landess, Life, Literature, and Lincoln: A Tom Landess Reader (Rockford, IL: Chronicles Press, 2015), 220, 223.

[iv] See Allen C. Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (previously cited); Ronald C. White, Jr., The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words (New York: Random House, 2005); and Mark Noll, “’Both . . .  Pray to the Same God’”: The Singularity of Lincoln’s Faith in the Era of the Civil War.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 18, no. 1 (1997), 1-16. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0018.103/–both-pray-to-the-same-god-the-singularity-of-lincolns-faith?rgn=main;view=fulltext.

[v] Abraham Lincoln, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, et al. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), VIII, 333. For other references to Providence or God’s will in other speeches as well as letters, see the following: CW, IV, 212-213, 270-271, 332; CW, V, 215, 279, 478; CW, VII, 23, 535.

[vi] Carl Sandburg, in Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, IV (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1939), 95 takes note of differing contemporaneous readings of the speech. Some saw it calling for vengeance, others seeing it as a benediction. Arguably it is both and as such raises the question as to the ultimate effectiveness of embracing ambiguity as both rhetorical strategy and public policy. Moreover, I realize that to apply harshly critical terms to Mr. Lincoln banishes the critic in the eyes of some to the outer darkness inhabited by such lights as Mel Bradford.

[vii] One such clergyman is R. L. Dabney. Noll cites a letter by Dabney of September 12, 1865 in which his intent is to discredit Dabney’s unambiguous views on how humanely slaves were treated in the South. Noll finds the apologia self-righteous and repulsive. Certainly no one wants to defend slavery today on that or any other grounds, but the problem with such a critique is that it ignores the fact that men of the period like Dabney who were indeed slave owners, immersed in a concrete commercial system, did not have the luxury of discerning moral and social issues in the abstract. By contrast, New England abolitionists pronounced judgement with felicity on Southern slave owners based on recourse to a Higher Power (as against Scripture). One can in the twentieth century also easily condemn slavery and slave owners with a few strokes on a computer keyboard in the comfort of an academic office. But what exactly to do with persons in bondage in an inherited nineteenth-century society in which you are both involved is not so easy, even if one acknowledges “the evils of African slavery,” as does Dabney. See his A Defence of Virginia, and Through Her of the South (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1991), 1.

[viii] M. E. Bradford, “The Lincoln Legacy: A Long View,” in Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), 155. Granted, there are some who would not object to the trends Lincoln set in motion and accordingly would not want to reverse them. Chief among such trends might be Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration’s “created equal” phrase, which still bedevils us today. But that is an argument for another occasion.

[ix] Interestingly, Lincoln, not averse to flattery himself, assumes incorrectly that his correspondent was singling out the Inaugural Address for praise along with his “notification speech.” Such was not the case. See note 1 to the Weed letter, CW, VIII, 356, and Harold Holzer, Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 546.

[x] Jefferson Davis, Jefferson Davis: The Essential Writings, ed. William J. Cooper, Jr. (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 198, 224. Subsequently referenced parenthetically as JD with page numbers.

[xi] J. William Jones, D.D., Christ in the Camp: Or, Religion in the Confederate Army (1887; rpt. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1986), 46.

[xii] Two years after the Mississippi speech, at the dedication of a memorial statue for Alabama’s Confederate dead, Davis noted: “This monument will rest upon the land for which they died, and point upward to the Father [emphasis added] who knows the motives as well as the deeds of his children . . . ”).  (“Speech in Montgomery,” April 29, 1886, The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 14, ed. Lynda Lasswell Crist (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015), 310. And in a letter to William Pendleton of December 1, 1880, he had in a similar vein written: “In the eternity of truth, and the Government of the world, by Him who ‘doeth all things well’ [Mark 7:37] rests the only hope that is left to me” (Papers, 49).

[xiii] See David T. Myers, David T. Stonewall Jackson: The Spiritual Side (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2003), 48; and Mary Anna Jackson, ed., Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1892; rpt. Franklin Classics, an imprint of Creative Media Partners, n.d.), 177-178 (subsequently cited as Life & Letters, with page numbers).

[xiv] R. L. Dabney, Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson (1865; rpt. Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1983), 100. Subsequently referenced as Life with page numbers. If Dabney’s biography at times seems more like hagiography, it nevertheless depicts a truly remarkable Christian life, which some today, as was the case earlier, may find hard to credit.

[xv] R. E. Lee, General Orders No. 61, May 11, 1863, in The Wartime Papers of R. E. Lee, ed. Clifford Dowdey (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), 485. Cited subsequently in parentheses as WP in text.

[xvi] While not reflecting Lee’s own views, Shelby Foote relates in his narrative of the Gettysburg campaign a saying that developed around Lee’s fortunes in the War: “Fortuity itself, as the deadly game unfolded move by move, appeared to conform to a pattern of hard luck; so much so that in time men would say of Lee . . . that the stars in their courses had fought against him.” See The Civil War: A Narrative (New York: Random House, 1963), II, 461. (Subsequently cited parenthetically in text as CW, with page numbers.) A less esoteric interpretation of that particular campaign’s failure might chalk it up to weakness of coordination and communication.

[xvii] Unsurprisingly, the biographies of Lee range from the thoroughly admiring—for example, that of Douglas Southall Freeman (1936)—to current revisionist authors, the latter of whom toss around the word “traitor” with oily ease. Professor Guelzo’s recent effort on Lee is one such. See https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2021-09-29/a-conservatives-biography-tears-down-robert-e-lee-but-hed-rather-leave-the-statues-up.

[xviii] Edward Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, ed. Gary W. Gallagher (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 58-59, 502. It would not be surprising to find some students of the War today agreeing substantially with Alexander’s views.

[xix] Ulysses S. Grant, “Notes to the Doctor,” in Memoirs and Selected Letters 1839-1865, eds. Mary Drake McFeely and William S. McFeely (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1990), 1116.

[xx] Orestes A. Brownson, Orestes A. Brownson: Selected Writings, ed. Patrick W. Carey (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), 209-210. Subsequently cited parenthetically as SW, with page numbers. The document cited here is entitled “Mediatorial Life,” a letter to William Ellery Channing. Brownson also quotes the line from Hamlet that serves as the epigraph to this essay.

[xxi] Richard M. Weaver, The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Post-Bellum Thought, eds. George Core and M.E. Bradford (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1968), 147-148. Subsequently cited parenthetically as STAB with page numbers.

[xxii] M. E. Bradford, “The Theology of Succession,” In So Good a Cause: A Decade of the Southern Partisan, ed. by Oran P. Smith (Columbia, SC: The Foundation for American Education, 1993), 17.

[xxiii] Weaver does not make it clear whether Gordon’s later success was attributable in the general’s mind to the watchful eye of Providence or whether more was owed to his keeping his own eye on the main chance. In what appeared to be a dubious deal, Gordon in 1880, shortly after being reelected to the U.S. Senate, abruptly resigned to become general counsel of the state-managed Western and Atlantic Railroad, after which the governor appointed the former president of that entity to fill out Gordon’s unexpired Senate term. Eyebrows were raised. John B. Gordon – New Georgia Encyclopedia. In any case, Weaver in fact closes the commentary on Gordon by suggesting an affinity between his views on Providence and those of Lincoln (STAB, 212).

[xxiv] M. E. Bradford, “Lincoln, the Declaration, and Secular Puritanism: A Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” A Better Guide Than Reason: Federalists and Anti-Federalists (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994), 195. Cited subsequently as BG parenthetically in text.

[xxv] Gnosticism is both an ancient and modern heresy, both religious and secular in its multi-form manifestations. In essence, it seeks knowledge by way of the rational intellect at the expense of intuition, “heart,” or what Aquinas calls intellectus. It does so, generally, in its quest for power over being and ultimately over people. For a commentary on the movement in some of is modern forms, see The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin: Volume 5, Modernity Without Restraint, ed. Matthew Henningsen (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000), in particular the volume, The New Science of Politics, to which Bradford alludes.

[xxvi] Richard M. Weaver, “The Older Religiousness of the South,” in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, ed. George M. Curtis, III and James J. Thompson, Jr. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987), 146.


Thomas Hubert

Thomas H. Hubert, a native of Tennessee who grew up in Alabama, is a retired scholar, poet, and business person living in the Indianapolis area. He received a Ph. D. in English from the University of Georgia in 1975 with a concentration in American literature; his dissertation was on Allen Tate’s poetry. During the academic phase of his career, he taught at universities in the south and midwest.

5 Comments

  • Ken says:

    The Providence of YWH God. A wonderful topic and worthy of such an excellent discussion. George Gifford penned a great discussion on it. I have to reread this current discussion. The first read is like hitting a black walnut. Just cracked it a bit. It’ll take a couple more whacks. At least people back then were discussing the Providence of YWH God. The “secular”state that Lincoln handed us, bloodily, doesn’t seem to care about it. It’s just one of the reasons that today’s Federal State of Amerika is a lesser society than we had in the mid-19th century, whether north or south. There was a sense of right and wrong along with outrage then it seems. Today we see a lot of rage with little sense of right and wrong and little righteous anger. —KZ

  • SouthernPlanterAndStockDealer says:

    It was the Almighty Dollar, not any god that won the war then or any war since. The ‘Lord of Hosts’ is merely a semetic exaggeration to motivate.

  • scott thompson says:

    i suppose if lincoln had a daughter raped by someone, providence would demand the contest proceed. lincoln, what a POS.

  • scott thompson says:

    She told guests from the northern and southern Irish communities: “It is a sad and regrettable reality that through history our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss … with the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we wish had been done differently, or not at all.” https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/may/18/queen-ireland-apology-britains-actions

  • scott thompson says:

    and the contest determined that a nationally known actor put a bullet through honest abes head? while ‘our american cousin’ was being performed.

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