NATURAL MEN OF THE CIVIL WAR: The Great Revival and the Coming of the Natural Man

Historical notes courtesy of Research Assistant Kyle McCulloch

Above: June, 1863: The only known image of First Lieutenant Phillip W. Biddle of the CSA 41st Virginia Infantry, top right.

The American Civil War is perhaps the most exhaustively studied period in the history of the United States, but there are still some stories that have slipped through the cracks or have been subtly washed from the pages of America’s past. One such rarely examined fragment is that of the Great Revival and the Coming of the Natural Man.

May of 1863 brought the death of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. This, combined with the previous loss of Vicksburg and the victory of the Union army at Gettysburg, had the Confederate army demoralized. Due to these events and, no doubt the bloody experiences on the battlefield, there came to be a Great Revival of religion amongst the troops.

Emerging from the camps and hospitals around Richmond, Virginia, this Christian Revival of worship spread quickly through the CSA troops and a new zeal for prayer meetings and hymn singing sprang forth. Preachers and pamphlets flooded the camps, causing many to embrace the word of Christ. Among those converted was Phillip W. Biddle, First Lieutenant of the CSA 41st Virginia Infantry, and it was his newfound faith that led him to the idea of the “Natural Man.”

Lieutenant Biddle was so fervent in his belief that God was on the side of the South that on October 14, 1863 in Prince William County, Virginia, at the Battle of Briscoe Station, he divested himself of his uniform and, as he put it, “all weapons of man that might protect him.” In other words, as a testament to his faith, Biddle chose to walk naked into pitched battle as lead shot blazed around him. Though the Confederates were defeated at the Battle of Briscoe Station, suffering some 1,380 casualties, Biddle survived unscathed. When called before his commanding officer, Biddle stood firm in his conviction that he would continue to go to battle “as I was born” and “let God’s favor for the Confederacy shine upon my natural skin.”

Word spread of Biddle’s miraculous survival, and it was not long before others in the CSA followed Biddle’s lead. Soon, Natural Men, as they came to be known, could be found throughout the Southern troops. Incredibly, many of these Natural Men not only escaped death but caused injury and even fatalities, armed with nothing more then their belief in God and their bare hands. These naked Sons of the South lifted the spirits of Confederate troops and caused many to shuck their uniforms in solidarity with their faith. Though this act raised the morale of fellow soldiers, it was distressing to officers to have men lay down their weapons and fight with their bare hands. No matter how inspiring these Natural Men were, the Confederacy was in greater need of armed combatants, so General Lee was eventually forced to issue a command that there be but one Natural Man per unit and that they must not fight but march beside the flag and fife and drum in battle. This edict led to fewer casualties of Natural Men, which bolstered the narrative that they were “blessed and protected by the hand of God.”

When news of the Natural Men reached the Union troops, they were quick to adopt the idea. The North began to see Natural Men of their own spring up spontaneously within their ranks, perhaps born not so much out of faith but as an attempt to refute the claim that God was on the side of the South. While some claim that the Union came to the idea independently of the South or, harder to believe, they conceived of it first, what is clear is that the notion of the naked soldier took hold on both sides and, by remarkable coincidence, or by design to cast murk upon the concept’s true origins, Private Phillip Biddle of the 2nd District of Columbia Army (easily confused with Lieutenant Phillip W. Biddle of the CSA) was credited by the North with the idea and term “Nude Fellow,” the name given to the naked representatives of God’s preference for the Union forces. Although Natural Man and Nude Fellow were used interchangeably in the North, only the term Natural Man was used in the South.

With the end of the war, so too, came the end of the Natural Man in military service, though for years afterwards there could be found a few naked stragglers roaming America, fighting not so much for a political ideology but for the glory of God alone.