- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2008

Readers of Civil War literature have long known that the average soldier, both Confederate and Union, had strong religious faith that carried him through battle and the separation from home and loved ones.

Leaders such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson for the South were quick to thank the Almighty for victories and to pray for continual strength in battle. Even Ulysses S. Grant, who was not given to public religion, said children should attend Sunday school and receive “instruction in the science of morals.”

However, it is in the writings of ordinary soldiers, chaplains, women at home and slaves that devotion to God comes forth most strongly. It is from this great source material that Terry R. Tuley, a minister in Tennessee, compiled a yearlong devotional book called “Battlefields and Blessings: Stories of Faith and Courage From the Civil War.”

For each day, he cites a section from a private letter or diary written by one of the war’s participants, adding to it a Bible verse, and closes with a very brief comment. From the horrors of the battlefield come the heartfelt prayers and observations of the participants, words of faith that helped them in their struggles and that may be valuable to contemporary readers as well.

There was no dearth of religious material from the soldiers. According to the author, “The Southern Baptist Convention in a single year produced 6,187,000 pages of tracts and 6,000 Bibles. In less than a year, the Methodists circulated 17,000,000 pages of tracts and 20,000 Bibles. From May 1863 through March of the following year, Presbyterians produced more than 6,000,000 pages of religious material.”

A random sampling gives the tone of the book.

Feb. 2 brings a little-known story of President Lincoln en route to visit Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters near City Point, Va., in late March 1865. Stopping in the telegraph hut, he came across three tiny kittens, crying piteously. Picking up one, Lincoln asked, “Where is your mother?” One of the men answered that the mother cat was dead. Continuing to pet the kitten, Lincoln said, “Then she can’t grieve as many a poor mother is grieving for a son lost in battle.”

He picked up the other two kittens and sat there “with all three in his lap. He stroked their fur and quietly told them, ‘Kitties, thank God you are cats, and can’t understand this terrible strife that is going on. … Poor little creatures, don’t cry; you’ll be taken good care of. He looked toward Col. Bowers of Grant’s staff and said, ‘Colonel, I hope you will see that these poor little motherless waifs are given plenty of milk, and treated kindly.’ Bowers promised that he would tell the cook to take good care of them.

“Col. Horace Porter watched the president and recalled, ‘He would wipe their eyes tenderly with his handkerchief, stroke their smooth coats, and listen to them purring their gratitude to him.’ Quite a sight it was, thought Porter, ‘at an army headquarters, upon the eve of a great military crisis in the nation’s history, to see the hand which had affixed the signature to the Emancipation … tenderly caressing three stray kittens.’ ”

The author then remarks that mercy and kindness are rare commodities, but urges the reader to “go out of your way to treat someone with mercy and kindness this week.”

For the July 4 entry, titled “No Fear at Gettysburg,” the author tells of the time Lincoln spent in prayer and his dependence on divide guidance during the war-torn years of his presidency. He quotes a statement made to Gen. Dan Sickles:

“I went to my room one day and locked the door and got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed to him mightily for victory at Gettysburg. I told Him that this war was His war, and our cause His cause, but we could not stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. And after that, I don’t know how it was, and I cannot explain it, but soon a sweet comfort crept into my mind. The feeling that God had taken the whole business into His own hands.” The reader is urged to place reliance upon his faith in God in all situations.

The May 2 entry, “Robert E. Lee’s Opinion,” recounts an occasion when Lee was asked his opinion about a fellow Confederate officer who had made some uncomplimentary remarks about him. Lee replied that he had found the man very satisfactory. This perplexed the man asking the question, who said, “General, I guess you don’t know what he’s been saying about you.” “I know,” answered Lee, “but I was asked my opinion of him, not his opinion of me.”

Many of the anecdotes are humorous, such as one titled “Clothed for a Cooler Climate,” for Aug. 2:

“The [Union] sergeant of the picket guard being stationed near Pohick Church, Va., had his attention drawn to the tinkling of a cow-bell in the bushes.” With visions of new milk running through his head, the sergeant moved forward, but “as he advanced, the cow-bell retreated.”

Finally, he “had the satisfaction of seeing not the cow, but a ‘Secesher’ with a cow-bell hung to his neck and a six shooter in his belt. When he got within easy range, and in sight of the squad, the Sergeant hailed him: ‘I say, old fellow, would you rather go to the devil or to Washington?’ … “To Washington, I reckon,’ drawled the rebel, ‘I ain’t clothed for a warm climate.’ ”

The accompanying Bible verse from Proverbs says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Mr. Tuley adds that “laughter is good medicine for a depressed spirit.”

Laughter also came from the Sept. 28 entry, “The Reluctant Chaplain,” a story told by Confederate Gen. Jubal Early:

“During the recent fight on the Rappahannock, he saw a man running past him. ‘Where are you going?’ cried the general. ‘To the rear,’ replied the man. ‘I am a non-combatant.’ ‘Who are you?’ demanded the general. ‘I am a chaplain,’ replied the runner. ‘Well,’ said the general, ‘here is consistency! For 20 years you have been wanting to get to heaven, and now that there is a chance, you run away from it.’ ”

Mr. Tuley likens it to the Old Testament story of Jonah running from the Lord.

Faith in the midst of adversity provides a poignant connection between Christmas and the war in the Dec. 25 entry, telling the story of noted poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lost his young daughter in a tragic accident, causing him to write, “How inexpressibly sad are all the holidays. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”

On Christmas Day of 1862, he wrote, “A merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.” A year later, his sadness seemed compounded with news that his son, Charles, had been seriously wounded in the Army of the Potomac.

Yet at Christmas of 1864, his strength and his faith in God had been renewed, and it was at that time that he wrote the beautiful “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The memorable strains of “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men” have for more than 100 years brought hope and peace to a frequently war-weary world.

The author tells of how “many a young man dreamed of leaving the boring routine of ‘life on the farm’ to seek adventure on the battlefield. Yet those same young men soon found the reality of war to be far from their romantic fantasies. Many of the personal diaries … reveal that those same young men grieved for their mothers and the comforts of home when [lying] sick and dying in the field hospitals of bloody battles.”

After learning that Fort Bragg, N.C., put the book on its recommended reading list for soldiers there, Mr. Tuley said, “I am presently giving away my book to soldiers who come through our church. I wish I could get my book into the hands of every soldier.”

Mr. Tuley draws upon his pastorates in Kentucky, Tennessee and other places to amplify his message.

The book is extremely well compiled, end-noted as to source, and presented in a way that is not “preachy,” but readable and inspirational. The stories come from the McClung collections at the historical library in Knoxville, Tenn., the Internet archival resources of the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina, and a number of published works.

Mr. Tuley quotes soldiers in all phases of battle, injury and impending death. He also gives glimpses of women in the battle arena, nurses on the scene, including Clara Barton, and outstanding military leaders. Attention is given to the slaves involved in the war, their appreciation for the struggle that might free them and their faith in the God who watched over them regardless of their station.

While some of the stories have been told before (mostly the ones of Lee and Jackson and the memorable letter of Maj. Sullivan Ballou of the Second Rhode Island Volunteers made famous by the Ken Burns television series) the bulk are little known and deserve attention.

Those who combine a strong faith with an interest in the war will enjoy this thoughtful addition to their reading list.

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page. She is a member of the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table.

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