[With thanks to Joe Topinka and the PhilaCWDIgest, via Joe Bilby]
The journey of a small, rare leather-bound Episcopal prayer book with the name “Mary Gibbs Barnwell” embossed on the cover began when it was published in 1799. Its most recent and perhaps final chapter was written on Nov. 17, 2008 in Beaufort, S.C., when resident Tom Chidsey and his brother Stephen returned it to the Barnwell family more than 150 years after the Civil War battle where Chidsey’s great-grandfather found it while burying Confederate dead.
Charles, the 18-year-old son of an uncompromising abolitionist, joined the 129th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers. He was assigned burial duty after the battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Md., on Sept. 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day in the history of American wars, with 23,000 casualties. A letter Charles wrote home from the battlefield on Sept. 26, 1862, said, “I visited the battlefield but it was too horrible to be described.” He found the prayer book on a dead Confederate soldier who had no other identification, he explained in a handwritten note he inserted into the book.
It took the Chidsey family more than 150 years to discover the name of the soldier who carried that precious book into battle and to find his descendants. The book, a collection of 13 handwritten letters by Charles, a photograph of the young private in his uniforms, local newspapers, discharge papers, and other documents were passed down to Francis Chidsey, Charles’ son and Tom Chidsey’s grandfather. Charles would live to be 89 years old and was the first mayor of Easton, Pa.
As a 15-year-old growing up in Washington, D.C., Tom Chidsey, now a geologist with the Utah Geologic Survey, became interested in the Civil War, visiting battlefields as a Boy Scout and learning all he could about its history. Knowing this, Francis gave his grandson his father’s Civil War treasures. The prayer book was so fragile that Chidsey made a protective display case for it in his 9th grade shop class. He began a long and often frustrating quest to return the rare publication to its rightful owner. Chidsey concluded after much research, including a trip to the Antietam battlefield, one of the best preserved Civil War sites, that the Confederate soldier who held the book must have died at Antietam.
“The primary purpose of this journey [to Antietam] was to attempt to learn the identity of the soldier that Charles Chidsey buried after the battle,” said the Sandy resident. “I met with the Antietam park historian and we searched the records listing Confederate dead for anyone named Barnwell. We came up empty. However, the historian cautioned me that the list of Confederate dead was poor at best considering the times and the nature of the battle. So Barnwell could have been killed in action at Antietam although not listed on the official records.”
All Chidsey knew was that this prayer book had to be a special gift from Mary Gibbs Barnwell or passed down from another family member to the fallen soldier. Chidsey had all but given up on finding the rightful owner until his brother Stephen, who he describes as “more computer savvy,” went to work on the Internet and tracked the Barnwell name to South Carolina and, more specifically, the St. Helena Episcopal parish church in Beaufort. Established in 1712 as the Church of England, it is one of the oldest congregations in the United States. The Chidsey brothers learned that the soldier who carried the prayer book into the Battle of Antietam was Stephen Bull Barnwell, a member of the parish and a prominent family in South Carolina whose members played significant roles in the American Revolution and Civil War.
The first Barnwell was buried on the church site in 1702. The book had been handed down through the family to Stephen, who was immortalized with other Confederates on a wall tablet just outside the door of the old church. The fallen soldier was a member of the 8th Georgia Infantry in Savannah, was mortally wounded at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, and died in the hospital at Martinsburg, W.V., on Oct. 21. He was 19 years old and had blue eyes, brown hair, a fair complexion and stood 6 feet tall.
The Chidseys worked with Bob Barrett, the parish historian, the Barnwell family historian, and Jeffrey Miller, the rector of St. Helena’s Parish, to piece together the story. The fact that Miller served as a National Park Service historian at, of all places, the Antietam National Battlefield before becoming a minister, helped fill in some blanks. Miller was able to tell the exact place where Stephen Bull Barnwell was wounded, based on the fact that he was assigned to carry the flag into battle. “This is a rare and unusual text by itself,” said Barrett. “Add the history of the Barnwells, and how it eventually was carried off to war by Stephen Bull Barnwell, and then, after all these decades, how it was returned to the church, and it is [a] fascinating story.”
The other thing that impressed Barrett is that, Chidsey’s letters provide the perspective of a Union soldier for descendants of Confederates. “It was kind of hands across the divide after a century and a half,” said Barrett. “It was touching and impressive.” Tom Chidsey never determined the monetary value of the rare prayer book. As its keeper for the past 40 years, his only interest was to eventually find its rightful owner. “I wanted to find out who the soldier was and who was Mary Barnwell and give the book back,” he said. “It was really not ours. It belonged to their family… They were thrilled.”