Saving Jack: Religion, Benevolent
Organizations, and Union Sailors
during the Civil War
Michael J. Bennett
IN HIS WORK For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, James M. McPherson contends that, as products of the Second Great Awakening, "Civil War armies were, arguably, the most religious in American history."1 Many soldiers, he contends, marched off to war with Bibles in their pockets. Not so for Union sailors, who "with few exceptions" were more prone to throw their Bibles aside.2 Overall, most men who served as Union sailors in the Civil War seemed to lack the religious dedication McPherson attributes to their brothers in arms. Unlike the soldiers' experience, sailors' time in the navy during the Civil War lessened, rather than encouraged, genuine and expedient reliance upon prayer, conventional religious practices, and faith in God. Much of the blame for failing to save "Jack" falls upon the navy, which took actions that effectively discouraged religious expression aboard ships and helped turn the irreligious impulses of its recruits into fixed patterns of behavior. The navy failed to provide enough chaplains and Bibles, worked sailors on Sundays, and abandoned a prewar policy of mandatory attendance at Sunday services. Stirred by charges of Sabbath desecration and a perceived erosion in religious sentiment among an already irreligious set of men, the United States Christian Commission launched a vigorous
1 James M. McPherson, For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil
War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 63.
2 Journal entry for September 8, 1861, in Amos Burton, A Journal of the Cruise of
the U.S. Ship Susquehanna (New York: Edward O. Jenkins, 1863), 75–76; James M.
Merrill, "Men, Monotony and Mouldy Beans—Life on Board Civil War Blockaders,"
American Neptune 16 (January 1956): 54.