Satan and Secession: Evil and the Crisis of the Union

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM
Superior Room B (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Edward J. Blum, San Diego State University
When trying to explain why thirteen southern states ceded from the United States of America in 1860 and 1861, James Hunnicutt of Virginia was convinced that sacred forces were at work. Secession wasn’t the design of heaven, however. It was the work of hell. Amid secession debates, this Virginian lamented, “Surely no people were ever more completely under the wild, wicked, and restless infatuation of the devil than what the American people appear to be at the present time. Our country is demented; we fear it is doomed.”

Hunnicutt wasn’t alone. A variety of Americans – North and South, white and black, male and female – blamed the devil and the demonic for the national division. By examining their perspectives, my essay illuminates the central role that conceptions of evil played during the Civil War era. The catastrophes of the era were so intense for many Americans that they could only be explained by invoking Satan himself.

This focus on the presence and power of evil reveals another religious side of the Civil War. When studying religion and the War, most scholars have focused on the ways Americans tried to understand the war in terms of God’s providence or the supposedly impending millennium of Christ’s return. Yet the perceived presence of sacred evil – particularly in the literal and metaphorical form of devils, the demonic, and Satan – shows that providentialism and millennialism were not the only religious interpretations of the war. Turning to evil, Americans expressed the depth of their fears and frustrations, the confusions of their biblical and typological readings, and the power of the war to shake faith in God’s power. In short, by taking seriously the invocations of the devil, we see another side of how the Civil War challenged and transformed faith in America.

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