Righteous Armies, Holy Cause: Apocalyptic Imagery and the Civil War
A recurring theme for American mythmakers, particularly in times of crisis or national self-doubt, has been the Apocalypse. Nowhere is this pattern more evident than in cultural responses to the Civil War.
The War, according to many Christians, must have been sent from God; either God was punishing the nation for allowing slavery to exist, or he was reproving worldly humanists for destroying a divine institution. But slavery was not the only issue. Individuals who attempted to explain the war's horrors looked inside themselves and saw moral blights that needed removal. Or they looked at their opponents and saw political corruption.
Although apocalyptic interpretations of the war have most often been associated with the North, a significant body of apocalyptic literature appeared in the South during the Civil War. Furthermore, themes of the end of the world pervade the songs and oral history of Southern slaves. Apocalyptic interpretations were not only an argumentative tool of the pulpit and religious tracts, but they also pervaded popular culture in poetic language, verbal images, and visual iconography, becoming an aesthetic preoccupation as well as a rhetorical strategy.
All participants envisioned a radically different world made by the war. To Unionists it promised the purgation of the last great sin -- slavery -- that kept the United States from fulfilling its millennial promise. To Confederates it held out the hope of removing the corruption that had infiltrated the national government since the Constitutional Convention adjourned. To slaves it meant forsaking the bondage of their world in favor of the freedom they would experience as new Children of Israel. After the CivilWar, however, liberal Protestants, fundamentalists, and artists formed increasingly divergent expectations about the end of the world.
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