Give the Devil His Due: National Division and Concepts of Evil in the Civil War Era

Friday, January 8, 2010: 9:50 AM
Elizabeth Ballroom B (Hyatt)
Edward J. Blum , San Diego State University, San Diego, CA
After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, artist J. L. Magee believed he knew who had convinced John Wilkes Booth to commit the deed. Magee did not blame Confederate President Jefferson Davis. General Robert E. Lee was not at fault either. According to Magee, it was the devil. Satan had infiltrated Booth’s heart. In a lithograph, Magee created a twin horned, fanged, emaciated devil standing behind Booth. With his right hand, Satan pointed to a derringer pistol in Booth’s possession; with his left, Satan motioned to Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. Moments later, the devil would disappear; Lincoln would be dead; and Booth would be on the run.           

Although there has been increasing attention to the role of religion during the Civil War, most of this work has focused on the “forces of good.” Eminent historians, including Harry Stout, Charles Reagan Wilson, Eugene Genovese, and Drew Gilpin Faust, have tended to analyze Christian worldviews, the role of ministers, faith in heaven, or concerns about Armageddon. Yet many Americans were also concerned about the role and presence of evil amid them. Whether it was Satan inspiring the work of Booth or demons leading southern politicians to secede or Abraham Lincoln dipping his pen in devil’s ink to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, concerns over evil influenced the cultures of the Civil War.           

My paper examines conceptions of evil at three key moments: secession, emancipation, and Lincoln’s assassination. At each moment, ministers, politicians, and everyday individuals incorporated their ideas of evil into their understandings of the events. I suggest that by focusing upon Satan and demons, Americans not only sanctified their war efforts (and hence made the massive bloodshed more possible) but also mitigated their responsibility for their actions by claiming that outside evil forces made historical change (rather than human decisions).