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Chapter 11: religious life of Lee's Army

  • Revival in Barksdale's brigade at Fredericksburg
  • -- a model chaplain -- personal conferences with comrades -- a prayer between the lines -- a percussion shell at Gettysburg.

No account of my experience as a Confederate soldier would be complete if it failed to refer to the religious life of the army. This was an element of importance in all our armies, from the outset to the end, and was recognized and fostered as such by our leading generals, many of whom attended the religious services held among the men of their commands, some of them taking loving direction of these services.

I remember on one occasion, when my father was preaching to Tom Cobb's brigade, on the lines about Richmond in 1862, that the service was interrupted by sharp firing in front and the command marched off into the woods. It proved a false alarm, however; the troops soon returned and the service was resumed. But the men were preoccupied, nervous, and widely scattered, and everything dragged, until the general, rising, begged my father to wait a moment, and called out: “Men, get up close together here in front, till your shoulders meet. You can't make a fire if the sticks don't touch.” They “closed up” and the meeting proceeded with great power.

Volumes have been written on this general theme by chaplains and others, and I have already made brief incidental reference to it; but more than this is required. Not that I propose to condense into this chapter every fact or incident within my knowledge illustrative of this phase of life in the Confederate armies. On the contrary, I shall, in the main, throughout this book, allow the religious element to [139] mingle with others that gave character to our soldier life, and to crop out here and there, as it actually did in our every-day experiences; for with a Confederate soldier, especially, religion was not at all a mere Sunday matter, to be put on and off with his Sunday clothes, even if he had any such.

But as the revival at Fredericksburg in the winter of 1862-1863 concerned especially the infantry brigade with which I was longest and most closely associated I may be pardoned for giving a brief sketch of what was probably the most marked religious movement in our war and, as I believe, rarely paralleled anywhere or at any time.

The religious interest among Barksdale's men began about the time of, or soon after, the battle of Fredericksburg, which was about the middle of December, 1862, and continued with unabated fervor up to and through the battle of Chancellorsville and even to Gettysburg. In addition to the labors of the regimental chaplains, the ablest and most distinguished ministers in Virginia, of all denominations, delighted to come up and speak to the men. My father, who was nearly seventy years old, came over from Jackson's corps late in February and remained for many weeks. The fraternal spirit of the Christian workers is thus portrayed in a letter by Rev. William J. Hoge, D. D., of the Presbyterian Church, written from Fredericksburg in the spring of 1863. Says Dr. Hoge:

A rich blessing had been poured upon the zealous labors of the Rev. Mr. Owen, Methodist chaplain in Barksdale's Brigade. The Rev. Dr. Burrows, of the Baptist church, Richmond, had just arrived, expecting to labor with him for some days. As I was to stay but one night, Dr. Burrows courteously insisted on my preaching. So we had a Presbyterian sermon, introduced by Baptist services, under the direction of a Methodist chaplain, in an Episcopal church! Was not that a beautiful solution of the vexed problem of Christian union?

The Baptist church had been so injured during the bombardment that it could not be used. The meetings were first held in the Presbyterian church and then in the Methodist, and finally were transferred to the Episcopal church, St. [140] George's, which was the largest in the city, and accommodated, I should say, packed as it invariably was, from a thousand to twelve hundred men. I have never seen such eagerness to hear the Word of God, nor greater simplicity, directness and earnestness in religious services. Long before the hour appointed the men would begin to gather, intent on getting into the church and securing a seat. Thereafter every moment was occupied with some act of worship of uncommon intensity and power. The singing, in which everyone joined, was hearty and impressive; the prayers, offered generally by the men themselves, were soul-moving “cries unto God;” the preacher was sometimes a distinguished divine from Richmond, sometimes one of the army chaplains, sometimes a private soldier from the ranks, but whoever he might be, he preached the gospel and the gospel only. The following is an extract from a letter written by my father just after he reached Fredericksburg:

After my arrival we held three meetings a day — a morning and afternoon prayer-meeting and a preaching service at night. We could scarcely ask of delightful religious interest more than we received. Our sanctuary has been crowded, lower floor and gallery. Loud, animated singing always hailed our approach to the house of God; and a closely packed audience of men, amongst whom you might have searched in vain for one white hair, were leaning upon the voice of the preacher as if God himself had called them together to hear of life and death eternal. At every call for the anxious, the entire altar, the front six seats of the five blocks of pews surrounding the pulpit, and all the spaces thereabouts ever so closely packed, could scarcely accommodate the supplicants.

To this graphic picture may I add a few touches. There was a soldier in a red blanket overcoat who had a voice like the sound of many waters, and who almost invariably sat or stood on the pulpit steps and led the singing. I remember, too, the many marks of cannon balls upon and in and through the building, and that it added to the thrill of the services to realize that we were gathered under the frowning batteries upon Stafford Heights. And while I greatly enjoyed the many powerful sermons we heard from distinguished [141] ministers, yet I was still more impressed by the simple song and prayer and experience meetings of the men, which were generally held for at least an hour before the regular service began.

Many of the “talks” delivered by the private soldiers in these preparatory services were thrilling beyond expression. Let me attempt to reproduce two or three of these, promising that if I cannot be sure of the precise words employed by the speakers, I at least will not fail to reproduce the substance and the spirit of their addresses:

I remember that one of these private soldiers, in illustrating and enforcing the folly of living in this world as if we were to live in it forever, asked his comrades what they would think of the good sense or even the sanity of one of their number who should to-morrow morning send to Richmond for an elegant wrapper, velvet smoking cap and slippers, and when they came, throwing away his blanket and stout shoes and clothes, should insist upon arraying himself in “these butterfly things” in the face of the fact that the next moment the long roll might turn him out into the deep snow or the guns of the enemy batter down his cantonment over his head.

Another, speaking of the trivial things to which a man gives his heart and for which he may lose his soul, speculated with the finest — fancy as to what it was, and how very a trifle it may have been, that turned the heart and the gaze of Lot's wife back toward Sodom and turned her breathing body into a dead pillar of salt.

And still another — a great, broad-shouldered, doublejointed son of Anak, with a head like the Farnese Jove and a face and frame indicative of tremendous power, alike of character and of muscle-delivered himself of his “experience” in one of the most graphic and moving talks I ever listened to. He said in substance:

Brethren, I want you to know what a merciful, forgiving being the Lord is, and to do that I've got to tell you what a mean-spirited liar I am. You remember that tight place the brigade got into, down yonder at ----, and you know the life I lived up to that day. Well, as soon as ever [142] the Minies began a-singing and the shell a-bursting around me, I up and told the Lord that I was sorry and ashamed of myself, and if He'd cover my head this time we'd settle the thing as soon as I got out. Then I got to fighting and forgot all about it, and never thought of my promise no more at all till we got into that other place, up yonder at ----; you remember it, tighter than the first one. Then, when the bullets begun a hissing like rain and the shell was fairly tearing the woods to pieces, my broken promise come back to me. Brethren, my coward heart stopped beating and I pretty nigh fainted. I tried to pray and at first I couldn't; but I just said, “Look here, Lord, if You will look, I feel I have lied to you and that you won't believe me again, and may be you oughtn't to; but I don't want to go to hell, and I'm serious and honest this time, and if You do hear me now, we'll meet just as soon as I get out safe, and we certainly will settle things.”

Well, brethren, He did all I asked of Him, the Lord did; and what did I do? Brethren, I'm ashamed to say it, but I lied again, and never thought one thing about it at all till one day we was shoved into the very worst place any of us ever was in. Hell gaped for me, and here come the two lies I had told and sat right down upon my heart and my tongue. Of course I couldn't pray, but at last I managed to say, “Lord! Lord! I deserve it all if I do go there, right now, and I can't pray and I won't lie any more. You can do as You please, Lord; but if You do . But, no, I won't lie any more, and I won't promise, for fear I should lie. It's all in your hands, Lord-hell or mercy. I've got no time to talk any more about it. I've got to go to killing Yankees. But, oh Lord! oh Lord!-no, I daresn't, I daresn't; for I won't lie any more; I won't go down there with a fresh lie on my lips; but, oh Lord! oh Lord!”

And so it was, brethren, all through that dreadful day; fighting, fighting, and not daring to pray.

But, brethren, He did it, He did it; and the moment the thing was over I wouldn't give myself time to lie again, so I just took out and ran as hard as ever I could into the deep, dark woods, where God and me was alone together, and I [143] threw my musket down on the ground and I went right down myself, too, on my knees, and cried out, “Thank you, Lord; thank you, Lord! but I'm not going to get up off my knees until everything's settled between us;” and neither I didn't, brethren. The Lord never held it over me at all, and we settled it right there.

It is said that more than five hundred men professed conversion in these Fredericksburg meetings, and this statement is based upon careful figures made by the regimental chaplains, and particularly by Rev. William Owen, who really began these meetings, and was practically in charge of them. Some of the chaplains were very uncommon men. My father, who was in the ministry more than fifty years and had a very wide experience with men, expressed the highest estimate of them.

Easily the most marked man among them, however, was the Rev. William Benton Owen, chaplain of the Seventeenth Mississippi Regiment. My recollection is that he had been a private soldier and was commissioned chaplain, because he was already doing the work of one-yes, of half a dozen --without the commission. Of all the men I ever knew, I think he was the most consecrated, the most unselfish, and the most energetic, and that he accomplished more that was really worthy of grateful recognition and commendation than any other man I ever knew, of his ability. By this I do not mean to imply that his ability was small, but simply that I do not include in this statement a few men I have known, of extraordinary abilities and opportunities.

“Brother William,” as we used to call him, was also a man of the sweetest, loveliest spirit, but of the most unflinching courage as well. After he became chaplain he never felt it right or fitting that he should attempt to kill or wound a man, so he never fired another shot, yet he was seldom back of the actual line of battle. It may give some faint idea of his exalted Christian heroism to say that his regular habit was to take charge of the litter-bearers in battle, and first to see to the removal of the wounded, Federal as well as Confederate, when the former fell into our hands; and then to attend to the burial of the dead of both sides, when we held [144] the field and the enemy did not ask leave to bury their own dead.

It will be remembered by Federal soldiers that the American Tract or Bible Society published Testaments with the United States flag on the fly leaf, and, on the folds of the banner, the printed words, “If I should fall, send this to -- ,” space being left for his home address, which each soldier was supposed to write in the appropriate place. Dear Brother William could not always burden himself with all these Testaments taken from the dead soldiers' pockets; but because that was not possible, he used to carry a little blank book in which he would copy the home addresses of the dead soldiers and would afterwards write to their friends, telling them where they were buried, and, if possible, how their bodies might be identified.

After one of the bloody repulses of the enemy at Spottsylvania in 1864, Brother William was, as usual, out in front of our works, utterly unconscious of his own heroism or his own peril. He had removed the wounded of both sides and taken note of our dead, and was making his memoranda of the home addresses of the Federal dead, when a Minie ball struck his left elbow, shattering it dreadfully. He was at once carried to the field hospital, and some of Barksdale's (now Humphreys') men sent word down the line to me. As soon as our guns were disengaged I galloped to the hospital to see him; but when I arrived he was under the knife, his elbow being in process of resection, and, of course, was unconscious. My recollection is that I saw him but for a moment only. Much as I would have given for even so little as one word from him, I could not possibly wait, but was obliged to return to my post.

I never saw him again. As usual, after one of these death grapples of 1864, Grant slipped off to his left and we to our right, this time too far for me to get back. In a few days we heard that Mr. Owen was in Richmond and then that he had been sent home, and our hopes grew bright that he would ultimately recover. But no; he was never really a strong man; indeed he was one of the few small and slight men I remember in the entire brigade, and, besides, he was [145] worn and wasted with his ceaseless labors. He never really rallied, but in a short time sank and passed away. Few servants of God and man as noble and consecrated, as useful and beloved, as William Owen have lived in this world or left it for Heaven.

I have referred incidentally to two special friends of mine in the company,--whom we will now identify as Allan and Billy,--and in a later chapter will refer again to the sincerity and candor of the intercourse, especially the religious intercourse, of soldiers with each other. If now I can, by a touch here and there, reveal something of what passed between me and each of these noble boys as they were led into the higher life, I will have done more than I could do in any other way to put before you the every-day religious life of the army.

Both my friends were younger than I, both were high, moral men, but neither was a christian; Allan and I were law students when the war interrupted our studies-he at the University of Virginia, I at Columbia College, New York. It was he who, having been previously a pronounced Union man, left the University before breakfast the morning President Lincoln's call for troops was published and joined a military company in Richmond before going to his father's house. Billy was the guide who met us at the train the day we joined the battery, and conducted us to the Howitzer camp. We were all in the same detachment, that is, attached to the same gun, so I readily could and actually did pass much of my waking life first with one and then with the other, and I generally laid down by one or the-other at night. Our religious conferences were seldom all three together, for the other two differed in nature and did not have the same temptations or difficulties to overcome. I began earnest effort with both of them as far back as Leesburg, and when I was promoted and left the battery, just after Chancellorsville, both had become Christians.

It may seem almost grotesque in such a connection to remark that one of the most difficult things for a soldier to do is to keep his person and his scant clothing reasonably clean, and that one of the large memories of my soldier life [146] is a record of “divers washings.” Yet I cannot recall ever having bathed or washed, while with the company, with any one other than my two dear friends, and it is singular how vividly I do recall standing waist deep in a pool or stream of water with Billy or with Allan, each of us scrubbing away at his only shirt, or at one of his two shirts, as the case might be, meanwhile earnestly discussing some aspect of the one great matter.

Both my dear friends were exceptionally strong men intellectually, but Billy had the simpler nature, with less tendency to self-analysis and introspection, stronger physical life and higher animal spirits; so that with him it was a clear and a clearly-confessed case of light-hearted content and happiness as he was, and consequent light-hearted indifference to any great change. But he was growing more thoughtful, more tender, more perfect in his moral life.

He was wounded seriously at Malvern Hill and threatened with the loss of an eye, and was at home in the country with his mother and sisters for some months. Meanwhile his father died, and he began to realize that if he lived through the war he would have a great burden to carry with his “seven women,” as he afterwards called them when nobly bearing them on his great shoulders. “Seven women taking hold of the skirt of one man, and that the skirt of a round — about jacket,” as Billy used to say. He returned to us just before Chancellorsville to find the great revival at Fredericksburg in progress and a general condition of thoughtfulness throughout the army, including our battery. He attended some of these wonderful services and we were together as much as possible. I felt the greatest yearning and the strongest hope for him.

Suddenly Chancellorsville burst upon us, and as Hooker's really great plan was disclosed we all felt that the next few days were indeed big with fate. Hooker had crossed an immense force at the upper fords of the Rappahannock and Sedgwick was crossing in front of Fredericksburg. All of us were deeply stirred; and when night fell and our lines began to grow still, I proposed to Billy that we should walk out to the point of the hill overlooking the wide river [147] bottom and hear, if we could not see, the Federal army getting into position. We did so, and no previous hour of our lives had ever proved as impressive as that which followed. We passed beyond our pickets and continued to walk until we got where the murmur of our lines could no longer be heard, while every movement of Sedgewick's great host was plainly audible. We heard the commands of the officers, the tramp of the men, the rumble of the artillery carriages, the shouts and curses of the drivers. We thought of the great meetings in Fredericksburg violently brought to a close, and of the great audience of worshipers to-night manning the lines with us. We thought of the morrow and then of our dear ones praying for us, while I found my arms gradually embracing my friend and drawing him closer to my bosom; and then, taking off our hats, we prayed,--oh, so quietly, yet so earnestly — committing us and ours to God's merciful keeping, for the night, for the morrow, forever. I do not remember that we spoke after the prayer ceased, but I felt a new answering pressure in Billy's arms which now closely enfolded me, and the sense of a new brotherhood between us. We walked silently back to the guns, but with a new strength, a deep trust and peace in our souls, and we laid down with our arms about each other and slept as quietly as little children — as indeed we were, God's dear soldier children, who had felt His gentle assurance that all was and would be well.

The facts relating to Allan's conversion and death are so remarkable that I would scarcely dare record them were it not that I have before me a written memorandum of them prepared while I was a prisoner at Johnson's Lsland in the spring of 1865. Allan was, as before intimated, rather prone to introspection, but his mental processes were so definite and his verbal expression of them so clear that one experienced no difficulty in understanding him and always felt assured that he thoroughly understood himself.

A few days before Billy's return, Allan and I were washing our clothes, and I, as usual, talking, when he abruptly and almost impatiently interrupted me, saying substantially that, while I evidently thought I was speaking sensibly and [148] appositely, yet what I was saying had in fact no sort of application to his case.

“No doubt,” said he, “it is enough if a man believe on the Lord Jesus Christ; but this direction is given to one who has, in all sincerity and earnestness, asked, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ Now I feel that I have never sincerely and seriously asked that question, and I am not asking it now. The fact is, the whole current of my being sets toward the fulfilment of my earthly purpose; though just now the immediate pursuit of it is kept in abeyance by the war. It is not worth while to attempt to deceive myself or you; what I really desire and am absorbed in, my dear Bob, is not eternal life, but the life which now is. Now then, what should, what can a man do, who is in my condition? Tell me what you really think; and speak quietly and practically, so there will be no mistaking your meaning.”

I knew he was honest and hoped he was more earnest than he realized at the moment, so I begged for light and guidance before answering, and then I said:

Allan, do you intellectually and firmly believe the New Testament records and the main outline of the Christian system; and if you do, have you any feeling at all connected with them and their bearing upon your life?

“Yes,” he said, “my intellectual belief is definite and decided, and I probably, yes, certainly, have some desire to accept the truth in the fuller, Christian sense.”

“Then,” said I, “your present duty is clear and it is to pray to God to help you to accept in this fuller sense. Tell Him of your full intellectual faith and your feeble heart faith. Utter sincerely that prayer of prayers for a man in such a world and such a life as this, ‘Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief!’ Do this sincerely, and I feel satisfied the heart or soul part of your faith will grow.”

He protested that the best prayer he could offer would be but half-hearted and an insult to God. I combatted this idea, contending that it would be a greater neglect and insult not to attempt to pray at all, and he finally promised he would try. When I next saw him alone I think we were on the march for Chancellorsville. He was evidently unhappy, [149] and when I asked him if he had prayed, he said he had not, that he had been upon his knees, but could not pray, and added that his nature must be more paralyzed and things even worse with him than he had supposed. I saw that another Teacher and Physician had taken the case out of my hand. He rather clung to me, but I thought best to leave him with his new Teacher, and I did.

Two of our comrades were killed and horribly mangled by solid shot or whole shell in our Chancellorsville fights, and we buried one of them at night in a thicket. Returning there after the burying party had withdrawn, I saw a man on his knees at the graveside. It was Allan, and at my approach he rose and advanced to meet me, saying:

Bob, I am a mystery to myself. I don't see how I am to go up to the gun in to-morrow's fight and face temporal and eternal death; and yet I presume I shall be able to do my duty.

I said decidedly:

You have no business, Allan, and no need to face eternal death. That is not before you, unless you will have it so.

We said a few words to each other, a few more to God, went back and joined the sad circle around the camp fire a short while, and then laid down together. I think I told him about Billy, and then we slept.

The next day, after evening roll call, we each put an arm around the other's waist and walked off into the woods, and as soon as we got out of earshot of others I began:

Well, Allan, to go back where we left off-

He put his other hand in mine and I felt a thrill as he did so, while, with the sweetest smile, he said:

No, Bob, I don't think we will go back there. I've gotten beyond that point, and I don't like going back. I have found the Lord Jesus Christ, or, rather, He has found me and taken hold of me.

It was the largest, the most thrilling moment of my life. Never before had I been conscious of such overpowering spiritual joy. We were for the moment two disembodied [150] human souls alone with God. The earth with its trappings had disappeared.

It was my last word with him. It must have been the next day that I received my first promotion and left for Richmond, for Beers was killed at Chancellorsville and I buried him at Richmond. When I returned to the army it was to Early's division of the Second Corps. True, we did not begin the advance into Pennsylvania for almost a full month after Chancellorsville, and what became of this month to me I cannot say, except that I went where I was ordered, and do not recall meeting the Howitzers again until after Gettysburg.

On his way to his last battle this splendid youth wrote to his family a brief note, in which he said:

In the hurry of the march I have little time for thought, but whenever my eternal interests do occur to me, I feel entire assurance of full and free pardon through Jesus Christ, and if called upon to die this moment I think I could do so cheerfully.

These were the last words he ever wrote.

After Gettysburg I rode over to the old battery and they told me this story. On the last day, worn with that tremendous fight, two of our guns had taken up their last position. All thought the struggle over. Allan had just seen a friend on the staff who promised to, and did, send word home of his safety at the close of the battle. Suddenly a terrific fire burst thundering, flashing, crashing upon them and No. 1, while ramming home the shot, had the sponge-staff shattered in his hands. No. 1 was Billy; Allan was gunner, and stooped to unkey the other sponge. A frightful explosion, the piece is dismounted and most of the detachment hurled violently to the earth!

The sergeant, a quiet, phlegmatic man, looked about him in horror. The lieutenant, running up, demanded:

Why don't you change that wheel?

“I haven't men enough left, sir; we've used up the supernumeraries.”

“Where's Allan?” [151]

“There he is, sir” --pointing to a mangled mass which no one had the nerve to approach. There lay our noble comrade, each several limb thrice broken, the body gashed with wounds, the top of the skull blown off and the brain actually fallen out upon the ground in two bloody, palpitating lobes. A percussion shell had struck the rim of the wheel while he bent behind it unkeying the rammer.

His chariot and horses of fire had caught him up into Heaven.

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