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The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell: A Chaplain's Story
The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell: A Chaplain's Story
Joseph Hopkins Twichell
University of Georgia Press, 2006
352 pp., 34.95

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Gerald L. Sittser

A Chaplain's War

The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell.

We know something of the grand scale of the Civil War—the battles, the generals, the various factors that led to the conflict—but we know much less about how it affected the people who actually lived through it and fought in it. The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell thus provides us with an invaluable resource, weaving the mundane and extraordinary events of the war into a seamless narrative that allows us to view the war as it really was, at least through the eyes of one rather remarkable man. His attention to detail, human sympathies, and religious sensibilities make him a trusty observer of a conflict that forever changed the course of American history. Moreover, his convictions hearken back to a time in American history when evangelical faith, moral reform, and social justice were allies rather than enemies.

Joseph Hopkins Twichell (1838-1918), the son of a tanner, was born and raised in New England. After graduating from Yale, Twichell enrolled in Union Theological Seminary in New York to prepare for the ministry. But his abolitionist sympathies drove him to volunteer as a chaplain in the Excelsior Brigade of Lower Manhattan, a unit mostly made up of Irish Catholics. From 1861 to 1864 Twichell served as chaplain of the brigade, which saw action in several major Civil War battles, including Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor. After his tour of duty Twichell returned to New England, married Julia Harmony Cushman, with whom he had nine children, and completed his ministerial training at Andover Seminary.

Twichell then served as pastor of Asylum Hill Congregational Church for 47 years. The church grew steadily under his leadership and started many outreach programs to Hartford's needy. But Twichell's interests were not confined to church ministry alone. He enjoyed a deep friendship with the élite of New England, including the writer Mark Twain and the composer Charles Ives, who married his daughter Harmony. He became involved in the Chinese Educational Mission, the Hartford Evening Club, Nook Farm, the Republican Party, and the Yale Alumni Association.

Alas, Twichell has been largely lost to our historical memory. This publication might help change that. He wrote hundreds of letters during the war, mostly to his father but also, especially after his father's death in 1863, to his mother, siblings, and a few friends. The book includes about a third of his letters, a short biography of Twichell, occasional commentary, notes to identify obscure references, maps, photos, drawings, and bibliography. The editors provide necessary information without becoming obtrusive; they let the letters speak for themselves.

Early on, Twichell's primary duty was to organize religious services for "his boys," as he liked to call them. But as the war progressed he found it nearly impossible to perform traditional religious duties and thus had to find other ways to make himself useful. He assisted medics in performing amputations and other surgeries, comforted soldiers who were about to die, wrote letters to their families back home, secured couriers to get their meager pay to the bank, and helped to bury the dead.

His letters provide an unvarnished account of the war as soldiers and civilians experienced it. For example, he frequently comments about the impact of weather and other natural phenomena, which so often affected the movement of troops and the outcome of battles. (He likens bad weather—rain and mud, cold and wind, drought and dust—to the plagues of Egypt.) His attention to detail makes his account of historic battles ghastly and wrenching. He describes the suffering of individual soldiers, the stench of death, the cries of the wounded, all the while adding the human element that every person fighting in the Civil War felt—the longing for home. "I have been up to my elbows in blood all day, and it is a relief now just at night to turn for a few minutes homeward, where there is peace and happiness." He comments after coming upon Confederates who had died in battle, "They lay in heaps almost—a half dozen together. Wounds of every description were open to view, some horribly disfiguring … . I saw one handsome fellow, with a beardless face and a hand small and delicate as a girl's. I took hold of it and even in death it felt smooth and soft."

Twichell took his job as chaplain seriously. He expresses moral indignation about the abuse of alcohol (he was a teetotaler), use of profanity, discord among the troops, the execution of deserters, and tension between Protestants and Catholics. He tried his best to find common ground with Catholics, hoping that his example would impress them spiritually. Though never fully approving of Catholics, he did develop a fast friendship with a Catholic chaplain, Father O'Hagan, and grew to appreciate some elements of Catholic faith. His familiarity with Catholics mitigated the natural suspicion and hostility he had inherited from his background—and set him apart from most of his fellow Protestants, especially after the war.

He is no distant, cold observer. He admits to depression and loneliness and homesickness. He expresses affection for his faithful horse, deep concern for family back home, and frustration when he does not receive letters. His father's sudden death in 1863 dealt him a severe blow. "O, my Father! My Father, where are thou? Is it I, or is it he that is lost? … Now with unutterable yearning I grope round the shadowed world after him, and find nothing but fresh grave … . I shall never write 'Dear Father' again—never." Is the style grandiloquent, grating on 21st-century sensibilities? Yes, but the emotion is real, the sense of loss universal.

Twichell believed that the Union cause was right. The North's commitment to preserve the union and abolish slavery was noble, even redemptive. He condemns the South, vilifies Copperheads (northern Democrats who opposed the war and advocated withdrawal), and extols the "magnificence" of the Union army. Yet there is a Lincolnesque quality to his writing, too. He speaks of an "Eternal Plan" that no one could ultimately fathom. On occasion he admits doubt:. "I pray continually that God in pitying mercy will end these dreadful times. I often am inclined to think that, after all, liberty [may] cost too much. If you could see what I have seen you would be thus tempted also." At such times only faith sustains him. "If I had no faith in God, and did not feel that the plan, the plan, is unfolding in ways of His appointment, I should go crazy. I thought yesterday that I should not much care if I had done with earth, so full of violence."

Both a revivalist and a social reformer, Twichell would find it hard to understand why anyone might imagine that those commitments were antithetical. He believed that the war presented a rare opportunity to preach Christ: "I do not know that I shall ever again be placed where I can preach the Gospel with such an advantage as here and certainly I shall never be placed where it is more needed." He endorsed the cause of temperance, favored strict Sabbath observance, and, above all, opposed slavery, which was an evil that had to be stamped out, no matter what the price:

So far as slavery is concerned, nothing could deepen my hatred of it. All that I have personally seen and heard has only confirmed what had before been told. My abhorrence of the system goes beyond my commiseration of its negro victims. I think sincerely that it were better that the present generation of slaves be exterminated than that the Curse of another generation of Slavery rest upon the shoulders of the nation … . Something must perish utterly, not in its relations but in itself.

This is a strange and troubling notion—"it were better that the present generation of slaves be exterminated than that the Curse of another generation of Slavery rest upon the shoulders of the nation"—which suggests that, despite his genuine sympathy for the slaves, they were finally less real to Twichell than the moral drama of a nation facing divine judgment, as Israel did in the Old Testament.

Twichell's letters capture the trauma of the war as no standard history could, tracing the loss of innocence, easy optimism, and confidence in America as a Christian nation. He matured as the war progressed. His enthusiasm was tempered, his indignation softened, his convictions sharpened, his easy answers moderated. He was still the same man who held to the same convictions. But there was greater depth in him, too. The war grew him up without making him disillusioned and cynical.

This rare book reminds us that history does not consist only of great events splashed on a huge landscape but also must be faithful to the lives of ordinary people who believed, however rightly or wrongly, in a cause for which they were willing to die. And it testifies that it is possible to endure catastrophic suffering and come out the other side the better for it.

Gerald L. Sittser is professor of theology at Whitworth College. He is the author most recently of Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (InterVarsity).

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