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Civil War Soldiers' Spiritual Victories

Book Review

The human carnage observed by Vincent Colger following the First Battle of Bull Run or Manassas Junction (21 July 1861) stirred his heart so deeply that, with the cooperation of fifty representatives of fifteen YMCA’s in the New York area, the United States Christian Commission was established in November 1861. It became a national organization under the directorship of the Philadelphia philanthropist George Hay Stuart. Employing a volunteer staff, called agents, that numbered some 5,000 throughout the war era (agents, being pastors and laity, serving six weeks), the Protestant interdenominational agency, largely though not exclusively Northern in focus, sustained a far-reaching impact combining humanitarian compassion with spiritual care. It is said that they came with three things: bandages, Bibles, and the love of Christ. Sustained by private contributions, the USCC distributed over a million hymnbooks, 25 million Bibles or scripture portions, and 39 million pages of tracts with a budget of over 6 million dollars. Originally designed to assist chaplains, the need was so great that a larger workforce was required. Agents set up hospitals, carried the wounded from the fields, buried the dead, provided meals, wrote letters for the wounded, notified relatives of deceased loved ones, and witnessed to heaven through Christ in prayer meetings, preaching services, and at the bedside. In the midst of the ugliness of war, they became emissaries of care and hope.

This book is their story gathered from eyewitness accounts assembled from agents, soldiers, and patrons. Originally published in 1869 under the title Incidents of the United States Christian Commission (edited by Edward P. Smith), and still available in the original edition, the volume has been edited for a current leadership without any substantial change in content. Instead of a subject index that appeared in the original volume, this edition has a topical index designed for pastoral use by those seeking illustrative material for sermons and devotional talks.

The genius of the book is that it is a collection of experiences by participants in a maelstrom of horrific and horrifying proportions. The suffering of the beleaguered soldiery, the sheer butchery of nineteenth century close warfare, and the lack of medical advancement is a story worth the telling in the hope that it might cause some to think before a military solution is invoked (though I am not so naïve to think that it will). The real story is that of care and compassion exercised by so many for so very many others. As I read the reports of the agents, I wept for two reasons: the magnitude of suffering and death, as well as the penetrating evidence that the Bible, and our telling of its message of redemption through Christ, can bring hope, peace, and even joy in the midst of amputations, disease, and death. The story of the USCC needs to be rehearsed for this generation. Hopefully in reading these pages an altruistic human spirit combined with an eternal care for the souls of men will stir us to go to our broken generation with “bandages, Bibles, the love of Christ.”

I applaud Claybrook and Reed for their tireless effort in making the story of the USCC available to us in a new publication. If you heart has grown cold, if you have grown weary of well doing, if you question the efficacy of human care, if you doubt the power of the story of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, and the hope of life through death, let the voices of the past speak to you. I found the work a profound encouragement and hope that you will as well!

John D. Hannah