When the Smoke of Battle Clears, Where is God?

God is bigger than the battles in history and the lives of all the men who fought them, but He is with each one of us.

My great, great grandfather, Enoch Jones, and his brother, Silas Jones, fought in the Civil War for the north. They were members of the 40th Illinois Infantry, Company F. They mustered in August 10, 1961, at Springfield.

In March 1862, the 40th Illinois, 46th Ohio and Morton’s Battery was organized into a Brigade commanded by Colonel Hicks under General Sherman, and they boarded transport ships that carried them up the Tennessee River. They re-combined with the 6th Iowa under Colonel McDowall and entered the Battle of Shiloh. It would be their first armed conflict.

The north took a beating at Shiloh. The 40th Illinois was commended for standing ground under heavy enemy fire even after their cartridge boxes were empty. A total of 196 men of the 40th Illinois were killed or injured in the one battle, including Colonel Hicks.

Silas suffered mortal injuries. He mustered out of this life two weeks later. Enoch mustered out of the 40th Illinois Infantry on May 15, 1865, two days after Jefferson Davis was captured and one month after President Lincoln was assassinated. The north was victorious, but at great cost.

Enoch saw action at the Battle of Shiloh, Siege of Vicksburg, Battle of Missionary Ridge, Battle of Kennesaw Mountain and Siege of Atlanta, and other places before he returned to a humble life in central Illinois. Enoch didn’t participate in the famous “March to the Sea”, because he took a bullet in Atlanta. The bullet drove a button into his chest, but that button saved his life. It earned him the Purple Heart my parents have to this day.

I was fortunate at a Civil War memorabilia show years ago to find a tattered and yellowed dairy written by another volunteer in the 40th Illinois Infantry. He was in a different company, but his periodic reports of the movements and activities of the Brigade gave me a ground level view of the experiences of my ancestors as Union Civil War infantrymen.

When the diary opens, the author anticipates with patriotic and religious confidence the mission they are about to partake. The 40th Illinois was a completely voluntary unit. The diary expresses a kind of righteous hope and abandon to the cause of fighting for God and for country.

I could not help but think of the horrendous carnage of human and equine life they would encounter. Sinew, flesh and bone left exposed to the gaping air as the smoke slowly drifted off future battle scenes. The groans of shattered men lying in their own blood would be the only sound remaining as infantrymen regrouped to count their ranks. Trees splintered by the shrapnel of canons and muskets would stand starkly against the acrid stench of gunpowder lingering still that gaping air.

Did they know what they were in for?

I recalled seeing Civil War physicians’ bags. They carried saws, and picks, and hammers and other objects of painful reminders of the brutality of war without modern anesthetic or antiseptic. Saws saved what was left of the living by cutting off limbs susceptible of gangrene. Many, like Silas Jones, survived the battle with injuries only to die later of infection.

Knowing these things, I was intrigued to read the thoughts and expressions of resilient faithfulness to the duty fight for God and country continue on the pages of that diary after the Battle of Shiloh, and all the way past the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Then the diary ended – abruptly. No resolution. No postscript. No clue as to why it simply ended.

I can only imagine the writer mustered out early – maybe in Atlanta. I assume he wasn’t as lucky as my great, great grandfather. But I am not writing merely to tell a story of my ancestor. There is a bigger picture.

As a northerner myself, and a modern one at that, I naturally assume my ancestors were fighting for God and country. They were the good guys, right? Their confidence and faith in the rightness and righteousness of what they were doing was not misplaced – despite the utter ugliness and brutality of battle.

The thoughts that inspire my writing today involve that sense of confidence in fighting for God and country exhibited in the diary I found. More particularly, though, my thoughts are prompted by awareness of similar sentiments of Confederate soldiers who also prayed to God and believed they were fighting for God and country.

I view the Civil War as ending slavery, wresting it from the clenched fist of the South. It preserved the Union, divided and broken though it was. Thinking that Confederate soldiers may have sought their solace, hope and inspiration for fighting in the same God is unnerving.

In Googling for an example, I found a doctoral dissertation, “Soldiers of the Cross”: Confederate Soldier-Christians and the Impact of War on Their Faith, by Kent Toby Dollar, at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, August 2001. As a northerner, I might be tempted to scoff at the title. They are clearly deluded, right? To think God was with them…

The dissertation follows the writings of nine (9) men before, during and after the war. It finds that “these soldiers became more religious as the war progressed.” Each of these men “read their Bibles, associated with other Christian soldiers, attended religious services, and communed privately with God”, and “[t]he tribulations of war drove them to new spiritual heights and greater maturity”.

But they were on the wrong side! They actually believed the institution of slavery was ordained by God!

They saw the North as “invaders who intended to conquer the South and subjugate its people”, leaving them in “utter ruin and misery”. Diary entries spoke of Northern troops “stealing our property and burning our houses”, fearing that Southern property would be” parcelled [sic] out among a horde of foreign adventurers ad mercenary soldiers”.

They believed they were fighting a just war, defending their homes and families against the Northern aggressors. We may view them as mistaken, misguided and ignorant of the true facts today, but the religious sincerity of men in the study is hard to question.

“[T]he threat of death and concern for loved ones crowded the soldiers’ minds”, realizing they had little control over such things, they leaned on God in faith for hope. They grew in demonstrating Christian virtues. They became more single-minded in their faith in God; they worshiped more sincerely; “they exhibited more humility, and they sought to serve God more actively”.

A tree is known by its fruit, right? These men exhibited the growing fruits of the Spirit. They grew closer to God and stronger in their faith.

Was God on both sides of the Civil War?

I want to say, “No! Of course not. The North was clearly right.”

Right or wrong, men on both sides of the bloody conflict believed in God and prayed.

How do we square that?

Not every Confederate soldier was a saint. The diaries of the nine men expose vice that flourished in the Confederate camps. These men were overwhelmed “by an abundance of immorality”. They remained steadfast in their faith despite these influences. Three of them experienced conversions during the War and remained faithful afterward.

Dare we think that northern camps were filled with saints and no sinners?

Broad is the road that leads to the destruction, and narrow is the gate that leads to life. Few find it. I haven’t done the research, but I don’t think I need to research the matter to know that northern camps reflected southern camps in the character of the men found there.

So, what does this all have to do with the price of tea in China?

The parallels today should be noticeable. The Civil War did not end racial injustice. The same racial attitudes continued unabated after the War, mixed now with new animosities toward the victors, leaving gaping wounds slow to heal. The pain continues today.

I am thinking of the divide between Trump supporters and “never Trumpers”, and the Christians on both sides of that divide. I am thinking of racial issues that continue today, with American Christian divided still.

White evangelicals have overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump, while black evangelicals overwhelmingly have not. The white evangelical world was all about Trump, but praying, believing and Holy-Spirit-filled black evangelicals fall predominantly in the other camp. Thus, I was drawn to one of the New York Times photos of the Year:

Des Moines, Jan. 5
 Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. prayed at the Corinthian Baptist Church during his presidential campaign, in which he promised to restore the “soul of America.”  Brittainy Newman/The New York Times

Civil war continues, and Christians find themselves on both sides of the issues that continue to divide us. If history is any lesson, we know that we will have a more objective view of our present times in hindsight. But, it’s still unsettling to think that sincere and faithful Christians who pray daily to God and exhibit the fruits of the Holy Spirit can be so divided over current issues.

My conclusion at this time is simply that God is bigger than all of it. God works out His purposes despite the messiness and contradiction of human existence. Just as the nine Confederate believers survived the Civil War with greater humility, singleness of purpose and reliance on God, we would do well to walk in the same direction.

When the smoke of battle clears, we go on living, and this purpose in living only remains clear – to know God and to love Him and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

We may be swept up in conflicts that are greater than we are. We may grope in the darkness of our finite lives, feeling our way to a very imperfect and shadowy understanding of our place in the current scheme of things, but we can never really know. Such is our lot in life.

Where is God in the midst of the smoke-filled battle? He is with everyone who calls on His name.

And so, we cast ourselves on Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, relying on Him for what we cannot do for ourselves – in everything. God, who is all in all, knowing the beginning from the end and every hair on every head in between, is achieving His ends in the great battles of history and in the humble lives of every saint who is committed to Him.

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