A Day in the Life of a Confederate Chaplain

A Day in the Life of a Confederate Chaplain

“It was my custom during the siege of Atlanta to take a couple of hours about midday, when there was a lull in the firing, to go back to the field infirmary, where our wounded were cared for and sent to the hospitals in the country south of us. I looked after our wounded, took note of their condition and of the hospital to which they were sent, wrote letters for them, and provided such little conveniences as they might need. We had at the infirmary a little Irishman named Billy, who was about five feet tall, with shoulders three feet across and arms and legs like solid posts of oak. He was the best and kindest nurse I ever saw, and there is no telling how many lives he saved. Billy always saved dinner for the parson and went with me on my rounds. He had one weakness. He wouldn’t take a drop from the medical supplies, but sometimes he would get a brand of stuff we called pinetop whisky and would become not drunk, but very talkative and effusive in his kindness.

“One day we had a little ‘scrimmage,’ as Billy called it, in which half a dozen or more were wounded. We captured some prisoners, among them a boy eighteen years old, a handsome youth, whose leg was shattered. He was the son of a widow from Oswego, N. Y. As he lay along with our wounded men, awaiting his turn on the operating table. I gave him some morphine to relieve his pain and asked him if I could do anything for him. He said he wished above all things that his mother might know of his condition. At that time we could send letters by flag of truce through the lines. So I wrote to his mother and gave her the address of the hospital to which he would be taken, and I wrote for him careful directions how he could send letters from the hospital. He had no money, so I gave him some Confederate notes; but he would need some United States currency to pay postage on his letters home. Nearly all of our boys had some Yankee shinplasters of ten, twenty-five, and fifty cents which they had secured in surreptitious trading with the Federal soldiers between the lines; so I explained the situation and asked that any of them who had as much as a dollar in these bills to let me have them for this Yankee boy. At once every one of those wounded boys drew out his treasure and gave to me freely what I needed.

“Billy was in a joyful mood that day and was deeply touched by the Christian spirit shown, and he had to express himself.

“‘Parson, the Baptis’ Church is a grand old Church. It has made me all I am,’ he said.

“‘Yes, Billy, it is a grand Church.’

“He went on: ‘Parson, you are a Baptis’?’

“‘No, Billy, I am a Presbyterian.’

“Without a moment’s delay he spoke: ‘Well, as I was sayin’, that grand old Prisbytarrian Church has made me all I am.’

“The men by this time were much amused. I said: ‘Why, Billy, you said you were a Baptist.’

“He was indignant. ‘Did I say Baptis’? Did I say Baptis’? I meant Prisbytarrian, the grandest Church in the wurrold. To the divil wid the Baptis’.

“But Billy never let ecclesiastical or political prejudice interfere with his ministrations. When a man was wounded, be he Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian, Catholic or Protestant, Confederate or Federal, Billy was ever to the fore to help him.

“I took leave of the Yankee boy, and I never heard of him again. His leg was amputated, and the probability is that he died in the hospital. I lost my record of his name, and he may be sleeping in some nameless grave in the South. Such is the tragedy of war.

“A conversation which I heard on one of these daily visits may be of interest to others, as it was to me. Nearly every day the infantry was visited by some of the higher officers of our army to look after their wounded. One day about the end of July or the first of August half a dozen or more generals and colonels were gathered there, and they were earnestly discussing the removal of Gen. Joe Johnston. Of course I had no part in the conversation, but I listened with eager eyes, for I was devoted to ‘Old Joe,’ and I took notes in a diary, now lost. General Loring, who was major general commanding a division, was the chief speaker. He said with great emphasis: ‘Gentlemen, I say what I know. In the light of what has happened, I am sure that if General Johnston had been left in command ten days longer he would have destroyed General Sherman’s army.’

“He then went on to explain in terms that I did not fully understand. The idea was that if battle had been delivered a day earlier Sherman’s divided army would have been defeated and would have had to retreat to Chattanooga, over one hundred miles. The battle that General Loring had in mind was the first attack made by General Hood on the 20th of July, two days after Johnston’s removal; and his idea was that the delay of one day was fatal to us, as it gave General Sherman time to concentrate his army.

“On that day I had one of the saddest experiences of a chaplain’s life. Our brigade was not heavily engaged, and our losses were comparatively light; but we suffered in the loss of one of our noblest officers, Colonel White, of the 53d Tennessee. Whether he was killed or wounded I never knew, and I believe none of his family ever found out his fate. If he was captured, he died in prison; but it was possible for him to have been killed and his body never found. It was partly in thick woods that our brigade was engaged, and I found some of our men not seriously hurt who went on to that command. We found the body of one of our regiment lying in a little country road near a deserted cabin. I did not know the location of any of the troops and felt that if we tried to carry the body to our own lines we were just as likely to run into the lines of the enemy, so we determined to bury him where he was killed. We found an old ax at the cabin, and with that and a board for a shovel we scooped out a grave two or three feet deep, rolled him in his blanket, and laid him in the grave. We placed some limbs with thick leaves on his body and covered him over with earth. Then I read the burial service and offered a prayer, and I carved his name on the trunk of a tree at the head of the grave. We left him there, hoping to come back and remove him; but in the pressure of daily battles I never could go again to the place, which was between the opposing lines.

“One more experience, to give an idea of the activities of a chaplain’s life. On the 28th of July, 1864, we attacked General Sherman on the Powder Springs of Lickskillet road. The battle is known as that of Ezra Church. We were repulsed with heavy loss. Our brigade went in with nine hundred men, and we lost in two hours over five hundred. The captain of my company, D, Capt. Robert L. Dunlap, was killed. He was a Cumberland Presbyterian preacher and a man of the coolest courage I ever saw. I went to get his body, but the firing was so hot that the litter bearers could not do more than care for the wounded. I had to be content to get his sword and sash and some letters and other papers from his person. I had to walk across an open field to reach his body, and the bullets were flying thick across it, with frequent whiffs of grape and canisiter. A brigade which had been repulsed lay behind some rail piles on the edge of the field. As I went forward to my comrade’s body I ran, but when I started back it wouldn’t do for the preacher to run with all those eyes fixed on him, so I walked to the rail pile and stepped over. But if I were to say I was not scared I would lie, for I would have given a hundred dollars not to run but to fly across that field.

“When night came, after we had gotten all our wounded back to the field infirmary, I took my litter bearers and went over the field gathering the dead for burial. It was Thursday night after midnight before I got them all gathered, and they were buried the next day. I was very busy all day Friday helping to care for our wounded, and it was night before I could get time to bury Captain Dunlap and Lieut. Ashton Johnson, of General Quarle’s staff, for I wished to put their bodies where they could be found and removed after the war. I got about a dozen men, and, placing the bodies on stretchers, we carried them to a large brick house in the edge of Atlanta, and the owner, a Mr. Kennedy, gave me permission to bury them in his garden. He loaned me some tools, and we dug one large grave for both bodies. While we were at work by the light of pine torches I noticed in the yard the tents of a general’s headquarters. It was quite late, and the general and his staff were getting ready to retire. Just as we finished the grave a messenger came from the general to inquire at what hour we would have the funeral. I told him that we had brought the bodies with us and who they were. He immediately had all of his attendants to dress and come with him to the grave, and there at midnight I held a funeral service–reading the Scriptures, prayer, a hymn, and a brief address. The general and his staff, standing by the grave, took part in the singing and in every way showed respect for the dead and reverence for religion. That officer was Maj. Gen. William B. Bate, of Tennessee, and there began a friendship between a general and a private that lasted until the high officer was laid to rest after many years of honorable service to his State and the nation.

“I might go on indefinitely with these recollections. To me they are sadly interesting, but I cannot hope that they will be so interesting to others, now taken up in the strenuous endeavor of present-day activities. I tell them that the younger people may learn that a Confederate chaplain’s life was no sinecure. My work was not exceptional. I remember with tender affection the noble brand of chaplains whom I knew–grand old John B. McFerrin, patriarch of us all, S. M. Cherry, DeWitt, Girardeau, Flynn, Bryson, Bennett–a goodly fellowship in which denominational names were forgotten, most of them now in heaven.”



by James H. McNeilly, D.D., Nashville, TN, first published in Confederate Veteran, Vol. XXVI, No. 11, November 1918 (TCK archives). Photo from http://www.49thtennessee.com/soldier-photos/
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