Columns, Faithful and Reforming

American Lutherans and the Civil War

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War (1861-1865). This bloody and destructive war represented a crucial turning point in American history, and one that affected all aspects of our society.

American Lutherans were profoundly influenced by the war and, in some sections of the country, Lutheranism was severely affected by its events. Sorrow and suffering were strangers to few homes during this time, and the nation mourned even as it fought.

Though many other issues may have contributed to the war, the chief dispute in the American Civil War was slavery, and especially its expansion into the new western territories. Though few Lutherans in the North were radical abolitionists (the Franckean Synod being an exception), most Northern Lutherans tended to oppose slavery and its extension. Most Southern Lutherans had eventually come to support the system of slavery, and the question of slavery had complicated their relations with their Northern counterparts. While some American Lutherans supported the mediating policy of the Democrats, increasingly the Northern Lutherans (especially the new immigrants) were drawn to the newly organized Republican party.

Mark Granquist

Much of the Battle at Gettysburg turned upon possession of “Seminary Ridge,” where the Lutheran seminary stood.

With the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860, the long-simmering national tensions erupted into divisions and conflict, as the Southern states withdrew from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. Following many other Southern religious groups, Southern Lutherans withdrew from their Northern counterparts, and in 1863 formed a new organization, eventually known as the General Synod, South.

Lutherans in border states, such as Missouri and Tennessee, watched cautiously as the conflict erupted into warfare in the spring of 1861. It would be the Southern Lutherans (mainly in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) and Lutherans in the border states who would bear the direct effects of the war that stretched out for the next four years.

Lutherans go to war … against each other

On both sides of the conflicts, American Lutherans rushed to support their governments. Many Lutherans enlisted in their respective armies.

There were numbers of regiments in the Union army made up of young German and Scandinavian immigrants, often Lutherans. Lutheran pastors volunteered to accompany these regiments as chaplains (notably Claus Clausen, William Passavant, and John H.W. Stuckenberg). Various Lutheran groups, North and South, organized to support their soldiers in the field, sending supplies and religious materials to the armies when possible. Support for the two respective governments was strong, though some Lutherans worried about possible transgression of the line separating church and state, and held back.

The war came home directly to Northern Lutherans in the summer of 1863, when Confederate troops pushed into southern Pennsylvania and fought a climactic battle with Union forces at the little town of Gettysburg. This town also just happened to contain the oldest Lutheran seminary in the United States, and much of the battle turned upon possession of “Seminary Ridge,” the geographical feature on which the Lutheran seminary itself stood. The destruction of the battle itself caused a great deal of damage to the Gettysburg seminary, and the students and faculty were displaced for an extended period of time. Tensions in Missouri in the early months of the war also threatened Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and students there briefly formed a company to defend the campus.

But it was in the South, especially in Virginia and the Carolinas, where Lutherans were most directly affected, especially in 1864 and 1865 as Union troops pushed into the South. By this time the war had become a bloody, destructive conflict from which civilian property and institutions were not exempt.

Already the Northern blockade and the demands of war had seriously impoverished many Southern Lutherans, but direct warfare added further misery, especially during Sherman’s march to the sea. Some Lutheran congregations were damaged or destroyed by the war and its effects; Southern Lutheran institutions, such as Roanoke and Newberry Colleges, and Southern Seminary, collapsed from lack of students and funding. The armies of both sides confiscated properties and goods for use in the war effort, and few places were left unscathed.

With the end of this war in April 1865, the direct conflicts ceased, though the effects of war would continue to be sharp for many years, especially in the South. The Eastern Lutherans would continue to be divided North and South for the next 50 years, but would eventually be formally reunited in 1918.

Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.

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