The Overland Campaign was now in its second bloody week. Its mammoth casualty lists, already thick with names from the Battle of the Wilderness, waxed fatter at Spotsylvania, as the Army of the Potomac bludgeoned the Army of Northern Virginia in efforts to flatten the Mule-Shoe Salient. These gruesome current events filled columns of the secular press and likely informed the imaginations of the readers of the Macon, Georgia, Christian Index, who simultaneously learned from a preacher’s epistle how some soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia had spent the last week of March, 1864, just before the current battlefield carnage erupted. A fast-moving storm had deposited over a foot of snow along the Rappahannock and, sometimes directed by their officers, troops in General John Brown Gordon’s brigade waged mock battles with one another, hurling snow balls. But after discharging some boisterous energy in simulated fracas, many devoted themselves to religious services and to prayer. Regaining his ministerial voice as one who interprets the ways of God to mortal flesh, the correspondent for the Index noted that General Ulysses Grant had just arrived to direct command the Army of the Potomac and predicted “another ‘on to Richmond’” campaign, which had since ensued. Given the botched U. S. invasions of 1862 and 1863, the author elaborated, Grant’s arrival and imminent southward march was doomed to fail, not only because of historical precedent, but because the Army of Northern Virginia was stronger than “it has ever been,” and “if we will only trust in God and do our whole duty,” opined the corresponded, Grant and his army would lose again.1

Published exactly one year to the day before Lincoln died and fifty-one weeks before Grant’s successful campaign compelled General Robert E. Lee to surrender at Appomattox, the correspondent’s missive serves to illustrate how contingency shaped the Civil War. To the religiously-minded white southerner, the past success of Lee’s Army predicted martial success through God’s providence. That is, the outcome the writer had predicted might have come to pass, but it did not, in no small part because Grant was not George B. McClellan. A second theme is wartime Confederate civil religion, with the correspondent linking transcendent purpose for a society that saw its values, ideals, and institutions as uniquely godly. Jehovah would again deliver His chosen people from Pharaoh’s invading horde. But a third reading of this wartime writing highlights many ideas that after Confederate defeat came to be known as the Lost Cause, especially the emphasis on the martial valor and religious virtues of the Confederate soldiers and their leaders.

This is not surprising because the correspondent for the Christian Index was none other than John William Jones, a Virginian who enlisted in the Civil War first as an infantryman with the 13th Virginia Regiment and then labored as a chaplain, serving as he would later say “from Harper’s (sic) Ferry in ’61 to Appomattox Court House in ’65.” Most importantly, Jones devoted his long post-bellum career justifying the Confederacy, becoming in the words of Charles Reagan Wilson the “evangelist of the Lost Cause.” His Personal Reminiscence of General Robert E. Lee situated “Marse Robert” at the apex of a moral pantheon of exemplary leaders of a righteous mission to achieve southern independence. His Christ in the Camp and lengthy essay on Confederate morale in Confederate Military History made the Army of Northern Virginia not just a heroic band of brothers, but a means by which many of the unconverted came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. As the Secretary for the Southern Historical Society, whose publications became a major literary source for the Lost Cause, Jones used the experience of war and Lost Cause remembrance “to teach southerners about the importance of Christianity, as well as about virtue.”2

Historians have long studied the creation and uses of the Lost Cause, whose myriad expressions adorned the former Confederacy long after Lee’s surrender. Gary Gallagher defines the Lost Cause as “a public memory of the Confederacy that placed . . . wartime sacrifice and shattering defeat in the best possible light,” whose architects “sought collectively to justify their own actions and allow themselves and other former Confederates to find something positive in an all-encompassing failure.” In sum, post-bellum southerners extolled their noble wartime sacrifice under the direction of saintly and chivalrous leaders against insuperable odds in pursuit of a cause in which they deeply believed. Historians debate how much of the Lost Cause historical narrative is factual and verifiable. The late Thomas Connolly and others suggest post-bellum needs suppressed internal discontent in the Confederacy and embellished Lee’s generalship, creating unity and efficacy after the fact that the real history of the Confederacy belied. Others, such as Gallagher, agree that the mythology of the Lost Cause contains some embellishments and served largely psychological ends after the war. Still, he contends that the mythology nonetheless contains important truths: under Grant, the superior resources and manpower of the United States vanquished the Confederacy military, and it was his awareness of this eventual likelihood that caused Lee to take rash tactical risks in the first place. Both approaches emphasize the post-bellum uses and constructions of the Lost Cause. Yet, it was Charles Reagan Wilson who reminds his readers that the Lost Cause had deep roots in antebellum ideology and culture. This theme of continuity of the Lost Cause ideology is further developed in the scholarship of Matthew Aaron Speiser, who sees it growing out of pre-war celebrations of southerness in the face of industrialization and free labor ideology.3

Although there is little doubt about the importance of the Lost Cause as a balm to the defeated white South or to the demonstration that the deification of the Confederate cause was rooted in the deep loam of white southern pride of the antebellum era, Jones’s wartime writings elucidate a third theme: wartime experiences of southern whites shaped and informed the post-bellum Lost Cause. Jones’s tenure as a Confederate chaplain provided evidence of God’s directing the mundane affairs of humanity toward the conversion of lost souls, allowed him to witness the courage and heroism of common Confederate soldiers and their leaders, and permitted him to observe the “good death” experienced by so many Confederates, a sign of the true Christian faith that animated white southerners. At the same time, his journey with the Army of Northern Virginia provided an on-going opportunity to craft a pro-southern record of the Civil War, even while its outcome was uncertain, a narrative that served as a first draft of Confederate military history. His wartime correspondence from the last year of the war provided a record of Jones’s beliefs and ideas that would later inform his post-war career. These letters, moreover, “describe the battles and comment on army movements,” detailing both conversion and carnage, unlike the edited versions of them that appear in his post-war writings.4

Where historians in hindsight see contingency, Jones and his religiously-minded contemporaries saw the hand of God. Jones himself experienced secession and the outbreak of Civil War as a providential redirection of his own plans to become a missionary to China. A man of faith, he still maintained “that the Lord will yet open a way for me to spend my life in preaching.”5

And from Jones’s perspective, the Lord did open a way for him to preach, converting not scores of people in China, but his fellow southern brethren who formed the ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia. His wartime writings reported not only high attendance at preaching and number of baptisms—eleven on April 21, 1864, near Orange Court House, Virginia—but that the larger work of ministry in the Army of Northern Virginia to make a new South, not the one that came in the wake of Confederate defeat, but one that more fully embodied its antebellum Christian ideals in practice. Jones wrote: “[I]n almost every brigade there are young brethren (many of them young converts) who have decided that, if the Lord spares them to the end of the war, they will devote themselves to the work of the Gospel ministry.” Before the war, Jones would speculate, many of these educated, ambitious young men had intended to follow some “secular calling.” But their experiences in battle led them to seek God’s true plan for their lives.6

Not even the din of constant and horrific battle deterred the soldiers’ expression of religious devotion or the ministerial endeavors of Jones and his clerical confederates. Three weeks into the Overland Campaign, in the wake of the withdrawal from Spotsylvania in mid-May, 1864, Jones noted, “there has been little opportunity for preaching, but the Lord has not been forgotten.” Soldiers held prayer meetings in the trenches and even, he claimed, sang hymns in the forward positions within easy range of the rifled muskets of the enemy. “Sermons have also been preached in the trenches—albeit they have sometimes been cut short by the bursting of a shell or the whistling of the minnie.” Other chaplains confirmed that these experiences with Gordon’s Brigade were hardly unusual, as religious revival that had begun in the early spring were apparently continuing virtually everywhere in Lee’s army.7

The work of grace in wartime continued through the Overland Campaign of May-June 1864 through the Siege of Petersburg from mid-June 1864 through April 2, 1865. Jones described Sunday, June 5, 1864, near Cold Harbor, where he preached to “immense gatherings . . . [of soldiers] listen[ing] with something of the earnestness of men who were persuaded that they might be hearing their last sermon.” From the trenches of Petersburg, Jones’s preaching coincided with a general condition of revival prevailed in the Army of Northern Virginia. After a nighttime sermon to General Ambrose R. Wright’s Georgia Brigade, “about one hundred men came forward for prayer, as calmly but as determinedly as they were marching on their country’s foe.” In the wake of this scene, as the throng dispersed, scores stayed behind to garner religious tracts and pamphlets, which Jones claimed the troops valued “as if they were diamonds, rubies, and gold.”8

Despite the incomplete work of grace and the on-going horror of combat, Jones’s experiences from the Overland Campaign through the Siege of Petersburg also sharpened his perception of the genuine heroism and fortitude of Confederate commanders and combatants, the staple of the Lost Cause. His report during the Battle at Spotsylvania included his own version of the oft-recited soldiers’ refrain of “General Lee to the rear” as “‘Our old noble Chief must go back. His life is too valuable to be thus exposed.’” He described the famous capture of Major General Edward Johnson, “standing on the ramparts, musket in hand, fighting like a Trojan, and calling on his men to stand by him,” at the point he was taken prisoner by enemy troops. In the face of the imminent collapse of their lines, the “gallant fellows,” Jones’s term for these Confederate troops, “exposed to a terrible crossfire, outflanked again and again, and opposed in front by an immensely superior foe . . . inch by inch regained the ground that had been lost.” Post-bellum writers of the Lost Cause did not say it any better.9

Jones’s battlefield missives convey not only a sense of heroic sacrifice and bravery against long odds, his repeated references to what Drew Faust calls the “good death” on the part of Confederate soldiers illustrates how religious people in the United and Confederate States sought to make sense of such carnage under the watch care of a benevolent deity. In Jones’s wartime narrative, the military dead were the first martyrs for the Confederate States of America. Because of the contingencies of war, they later became symbols for a nationalism that endured through the rhetoric of the Lost Cause, but before the cause was lost their godly deaths attested to southern religious virtue and martial ardor. Jones told of conversations with “poor fellows, dreadfully mangled and about to die, who were as composed and happy as if about to fall asleep under the parental roof.” A “young Georgia officer” whose wounds prohibited him from speaking to Jones, simply wrote on a slip of paper, “My whole trust is in Christ, and I feel perfectly resigned to God’s will.” Still another young man, gasping his last breaths, asserted over and over: “Jesus says him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out and I have gone to Him and know that He will be true to His word.” Others, Jones noted, did not have the Christian faith and faced their ends “with Stoical indifference,” which to him justified further efforts on his own evangelistic endeavors and justified his repeated calls for more support from good Christian folk on the home front.10

Jones’s wartime reports illustrate a final and core element of Lost Cause ideology, the need to create a pro-southern narrative of Confederate rectitude and heroism at the expense of the leaders, soldiers, and motives of the United States. Long before Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin of the United Daughters of the Confederacy sought to spare the literate South, especially its school-aged children, from “Long-legged Yankee lies,” and even before Lost Cause writers found that one way to prove their case was to focus on General Lee’s War Order No. 9—which emphasized the overwhelming material might of the United States, rather than the skill of its generals or the élan of its fighting men—Jones sought to inform his readers of Lee’s virtues and Grant’s vices. He employed the “Grant the Butcher” rhetoric typical in the secular press and depicted Grant as unfeeling and unwise. In the wake of the failed charges at Cold Harbor, scores of Grant’s wounded troops lay on the battlefield without medical care or water. Gunfire from United States troops prevented Confederates from providing sustenance and care to their wounded foes. Jones’s Grant “seemed utterly oblivious” to the condition of his men. When he did become aware, Grant asked for a flag of truce so both armies could tend to their dead and wounded. Lee, of course, had cared for his own dead and wounded and told Grant that no mutual flag of truce was necessary. “After some prevarication,” wrote Jones, “the ‘Great Butcher’ was forced to yield to the dictates of humanity, and sent a formal request to remove his wounded and bury his dead, which Gen[eral] Lee at once granted.” Given the crucial nature of war and the ill-will that motivates and sustains conflict, Jones’s harsh characterizations of Grant read like understandable wartime feelings whose articulation served important propaganda purposes for those on the home front. But these wartime understandings carried over into the post-bellum years, providing a dark under-current of sectional animosity during a time of otherwise national reconciliation. And, of course, Grant’s image, as Joan Waugh has shown, never recovered.11

General Lee stood tall in the saddle in comparison to Jones’s Grant. In 1861, Jones knew “little of Lee” but on first sight, “a single glance sufficed to show that he was no ordinary man.” Not recognizing Lee at first a year later, Jones recalled how Lee was summoned to the front at Gaines’ Mill and seeing him astride Traveller, “with erect carriage and flashing eyes . . . I thought he was the noblest looking man I had ever seen.” Jones noted that Lee in repose seemed almost ordinary, but when summoned to duty he was “‘every inch a soldier.’” Jones’s Lee was terse and to the point, but courteous to visitors, and conveyed a sense of humanity that made him seem more approachable than “certain Captains or Majors.” Rather than take his headquarters in an available home, he camped with his troops. Eschewing fine cuisine, Jones’s Lee often ate what his troops ate, even when that meant subsisting on half-rations. He was a general whose martial skills had no equal, yet “the crowning glory” of Lee’s “character is that he is a humble, devoted Christian.” While his display of faith was not as “assertive” as Stonewall Jackson, he was “equally sincere” in his piety. He read the Bible regularly and faithfully prayed for “Divine guidance and strength.” He humbly acknowledged his need for the prayers of others and he gave glory to God for Confederate successes. He supported the chaplains and ministers in the army and frequently attended worship, where “it is evident to all that he is more than an idle listener.” His presence did not excite his troops like Stonewall Jackson’s had done, but his troops have “the most unbounded confidence in him as a leader and love for his as a man.” It was no wonder to Jones that they would not allow him to risk his life unnecessarily at Spotsylvania. He was a leader for whom southerners should continue to pray “to the close of this conflict to reap the rich reward of his priceless services.”12

Jones also contrasted the virtuous Confederate soldiers with their Yankee Counterparts, men “[s]o coarse in their vulgarity that you recoil with loathing from it; so startling their blasphemy, that you wonder that God would spare for a moment such beings to taint his pure air with sacrilege.” Their speaking patterns resembling that of demons in hell, Jones wondered how it might be to have to spend eternity with such barbarians.13

Neither Jones nor the Army of Northern Virginia could shield themselves from bad military news and its impact on the Confederate cause. But Jones used these reports both to assure the home front of eventual victory, should that be God’s will, and to assert that the Army of Northern Virginia would fight bravely to the very end. Looking backward, it is easy to interpret Jones’s words as wishful thinking, until one remembers that Lincoln believed he would lose the 1864 Presidential Election until Atlanta fell in September 1864 and General Philip Sheridan prevailed in the Shenandoah Valley in October 1864. As for Jones, he interpreted Lincoln’s re-election as good news for the Confederacy because it removed any hope of a negotiated Confederate independence, which through the grace of God would now have to be won on the battlefield. And presaging the mythology of the dolchstoss from Weimar Germany, Jones chided the citizens of Savannah for accepting surrender in December 1864, “flying to the far greater evils of subjugation,” rather than enduring privation like the Army of Northern Virginia, which was continuing to fight for victory.14

Jones’s optimistic and hopeful assessment of Confederate prospects dashed itself against the powerful Army of the Potomac and the generalship of the man he called “‘Crafty Ulysses.’” Petersburg’s defenses collapsed and Lee’s weary skeletons moved west, meeting with disaster at Sayler’s Creek on April 6, where a quarter of Lee’s army was captured. His escape routes cut off, his army badly mauled, Lee chose to surrender to General Grant, rather than die the “ten thousand deaths” he professed was his preference. Jones’s and Lee’s cause for which they had fought was indeed lost, at least in the way they had envisioned it.15

Peace wrought a new cause. Led by Jubal Early and John William Jones, Confederate partisans crafted the Lost Cause, emphasizing their heroic deeds and honor, that Early asserted, “‘should be religiously guarded.’” The Confederate general and the Confederate minister had a post-bellum agenda to be sure, but Jones did not have to create new themes to fulfill his new task, but merely to enlarge and continue those he had developed during the war. Jones’s Civil War had always been about God’s plan for converting lost sinners, evidence of which he saw in Lee’s army. As he had done when secession redirected him from the mission fields in China to ministering to soldiers in the army, he found a new vocation as the “evangelist of the Lost Cause,” using his pen to chronicle the exemplary character of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. For Jones, the Overland Campaign and the siege of Petersburg were backdrops for a larger drama of providence bringing salvation to sinners. Looking back over the last year of the war, Jones wrote: “our eyes saw, our ears heard, and our hearts felt of His presence and power during that memorable campaign of 1864-65.”16

  1. Macon, Ga., Christian Index, April 15, 1864. The letter is dated March 25, 1864. Jones signed nearly all of his letters to the Christian Index with “W”, and internal evidence alone establishes J. William Jones as the author, but a few appear as J. Wm. J. and in a letter dated November 18, 1864, he noted that hereinafter he would sign J. W. J. Macon, Ga., Christian Index, January 5, 1864.

  2. J. William Jones, Christ in the Camp or Religion in the Confederate Army, reprint ed. (Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 1986), 6; George Braxton Taylor, Virginia Baptist Ministers, 5th series (Lynchburg, Va., J. P. Bell, 1915), 220-25; Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1980), 119 ff.

  3. Gary W. Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History (Bloomington, In.: University of Indiana Press, 2000), 1; Cf. Thomas Connolly, The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977) and Gary W. Gallagher, Lee & His Army in Confederate History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), esp. pp. 255-82. Wilson, Baptized in Blood, 119; Matthew Aaron Speiser, “Seeking the Roots of the Lost Cause: The Continuity of Regional Celebration in the White South, 1850-1872” (Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Virginia, 2008) and “Origins of the Lost Cause: The Continuity of Regional Celebration in the White South, 1850-1872,” Essays in History (2009). Retrieved: December 6, 2014.

  4. Jones, Christ in the Camp, 379.

  5. Jones to Taylor, October 4, 1860; Jones to Poindexter, November 29, 1860, J. Wm. Jones Papers, D. R. Series, Case 3, Drawer 4, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, Tn.

  6. Christian Index, May 13, 1864.

  7. Christian Index, June 10, 1865. Letter dated May 24, 1864.

  8. Christian Index, June 24, 1864, September 2, 1864.

  9. Christian Index, June 3, 1864. Jones’s missive is dated May 17, 1864. General accounts and analysis of the battle include Gordon C. Rhea, The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7–12, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997); Gary W. Gallagher, ed., The Spotsylvania Campaign (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

  10. Christian Index, June 17, 1864; Drew Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 6-17.

  11. Christian Index, June 24, 1864; Joan Waugh, U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 185-87; James M. McPherson, “Long-Legged Yankee Lies” in Alice Fahs & Joan Waugh, eds. The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 64-67.

  12. Christian Index, July 1, 1864; Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee:A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), 192.

  13. Ibid., 192.

  14. Christian Index, September 30, 1864; December 29, 1864; February 2, 1865.

  15. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 844-48.

  16. Early quoted in Gary W. Gallagher, The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave Off Defeat (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1997), 169. Jones, Christ in the Camp, 389.