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Civil War Soldiers' Spiritual Victories

Book Forward

A Leading Church Historian Gives “Triumph Amidst Bloodshed” Impressive Book Review


During the early days of the American Civil War, an organization came into existence to minister to the needs of soldiers after the onslaught of battle. This group was an outgrowth of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and their leaders—primarily in Boston, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The YMCA had been founded by George Williams in London, England on June 8, 1844 to provide healthy activities for young men in major cities. By 1851, YMCAs had been formed across Europe and North America. Many of the chapters were organized and managed by older men. As a result of the spiritual awakening in North America during the revivals of 1857 and 1858, a significant number of young and progressive business leaders dedicated themselves to the service of Jesus Christ. They revitalized the YMCAs.

The organization they formed to help the soldiers was named the United States Christian Commission. Its purpose was to render aid and comfort to the wounded and dying by ministering to their mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual needs. From 1862 to 1865, the U. S. Christian Commission raised money to send some five thousand ministers, Christian laymen and women to the various battlefields to serve the soldiers. They often arrived at the battlefields while the engagements were still in progress, thereby, taking shot and shell with the soldiers. They were usually called “delegates” rather than chaplains since the army had regularly commissioned chaplains. Some three hundred Christian Commission delegates were in attendance at the Gettysburg Battle.

Through the untiring efforts of the YMCA members, money was also raised to distribute food and purchase items that were not normally provided by the army, such as, articles of clothing and assorted comforts, Bibles and New Testaments, hymnals and books, periodicals and letter writing materials. The delegates often wrote letters for dying soldiers and made sure they were delivered to their families. They rented space in many cities for “Soldier’s Rest” facilities. These were like the United Service Organization (USO) accommodations made available to soldiers of modern wars.

Some twelve members of the United States Christian Commission Women’s Auxiliary were on board the ill-fated river boat the Sultana when its boilers exploded at two o’clock in the morning of April 27, 1865. The Sultana was carrying Union soldiers to their homes. The women were ministering to the more than two thousand survivors of Confederate Prisons at Andersonville, Georgia and Cahaba, Alabama. The overloaded river boat was in the middle of the flooded Mississippi River headed to Cairo, Illinois from Memphis, Tennessee. After the explosion, the wooden vessel immediately burst into flames. Many of the soldiers leaped into the river to escape the flames. A large number could not swim and were pulling each other underwater. A Christian Commission lady standing on the deck called down, urging them to cease struggling and to hold onto the ropes and chains hanging from the boat. The men calmed down. When they saw that the flames were about to engulf the lady, they begged her to leap into the water. She refused, saying, “I might lose my presence of mind and be the means of the death of some of you.” With these words, she became a voluntary martyr to the men she had helped and remains a lasting symbol of the sacrificial spirit of the United States Christian Commission. (Chester D. Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 10)

At the end of the Civil War, these five thousand delegates were asked to send specific incidents of their experiences to Reverend Edward P. Smith, Field Secretary of the U.S. Christian Commission. Some ten thousand handwritten accounts were received. These were reduced down to those in the original book and republished here with a topical index of the stories. Inasmuch as possible, the accounts are presented in their historical context throughout the progression of the war.

In 1869, the book Incidents of the Christian Commission was published to provide a representative record of the U.S. Christian Commission’s work among soldiers during the Civil War. These eyewitness stories breathe the charged air of the battles and their aftermaths. In this revision, we have sought to provide a topical index of these accounts to make them accessible to writers, public speakers, preachers and all those who wish to experience the pathos and spiritual triumphs of those who fought and died to preserve the Union.

Since many of the soldiers in the accounts died, some may question our choice of the revision’s title TRIUMPH AMIDST THE BLOODSHED: Civil War Soldiers’ Spiritual Victories. But these Christian soldiers firmly believed they would go straight to Heaven and often urged others to join them there. They considered eternal life with God as the highest form of triumph. This was a reality to them and made dying easier and some even longed for it.

This thought is captured in the concluding account of this book from an address by Reverend Herrick Johnson, Pastor of the (N. S.) Presbyterian Church, in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. He was a U.S. Christian Commission delegate about the time of the Wilderness Battle and his eloquence captures the heart of the Christian soldier’s hope of victory over death. He used a metaphor related to his experience of standing on the summit of a mountain in the Swiss Alps at sunset where he saw “. . . the bridge of golden sheen that stretched over hills and valleys, the lakes and dells from the far distant horizon to our very feet.”

In the pastoral oratorical flourishes of the day, he continued, “. . . I have stood beside the dying soldier when it seemed as if a bridge of golden sheen were let down from heaven, a highway for the ransomed of the Lord. And that way, cast up of God, has glowed with the steps of the angels, which come to bear the soldier—who has made his last charge and fought his last battle—home. And up that shining path with angel convoy, the spirit has gone—away from the clang of arms and the din of strife and the groans of the wounded—away, away to the very gates of pearl, to the Peace like a river and to the Eternal Rest of God.

There are the undying tokens and proof of the success of the United States Christian Commission. The Nation may point to its States won back from treason! The army may point to its battle flags wrung from the foe by vigor and valor and victory! Generals may point to their starred shoulders as proofs of undaunted heroism! Sanitary Agencies may roll up their peerless record of sublime beneficence!

“But there, up there, are the souls that are marching on—marching on! There are the trophies immortal that have been snatched from death! There are the unfading stars that have been set in Christ’s diadem through the agency of this United States Christian Commission.”

Craig L. Claybrook & John W. Reed, Editors