It has been a great honor in the past two years that I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel across the United States in ways that I previously wasn’t. Some of it was for work or family, but other opportunities came just as a chance to finally stretch my legs after 26 years of living a quiet life in the suburbs of Chicago. Among those blessings was being able to visit roughly eight major Civil War Battlefields: Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Shiloh, Corinth, Appomattox, and most recently Stone’s River.
America’s Civil War Battlefields are managed by the National Park Service and kept as living monuments to the moments that defined them. Most of them are very well managed, offering a tour of the surviving parts of the battlefield with explanations for the flow of the battle and how each campaign affected the tide of the war. Not all of them have survived, naturally. Fredericksburg, Virginia was rebuilt after the war and all that remains of that brutal battle is a portion of the sunken road where the Confederate soldiers rained metal and death upon the valorous union lines, in one of the most crushing defeats of the war. The fortress and trenches at Corinth are completely gone. Other Battlefields like Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Vicksburg are almost totally preserved though, with notable emissions.
Time does that though and human contact hasn’t helped. Gettysburg was a particular victim of this in 1917 when the American Army used the hills of Pennsylvania to train tank crews and accidentally destroyed most of the original foxholes and battle lines. Most of the original buildings and key locations from the battle such as the Lutheran Seminary and downtown though have been very well preserved though.
Visiting these places though, one almost senses a strength melancholy at how much these places have changed. The grasses are green, the trees are sturdy, and the air is clear. The woods surrounding most of these parks have an eerie silence. The historian in me is sometimes disappointed by this. When visiting these places, one yearns to sense the smell of gunpowder, to see the battle lines on the field, and to witness what made these places of such horrific tragedy. One almost senses that nature has encroached too deeply onto these sacred places. The scarred ground has healed too much.
It is a deep and strange yearning of mine that at times I wish I could’ve experienced the tragedies of history firsthand. As an adult born in 1995, I scarcely remember even recent tragedies like 9/11. When I read of moments in history like Pearl Harbor or Gettysburg, part of me wishes that I could be there firsthand to see the shock and horror of these events; to understand what made them so shocking in their moment, to share the collective fear and determination that arose from them.
There is a melancholy to living in more peaceful times, not being called to suffer as our grandparents and their grandparents did before us, and I almost feel a need to find penance in that blessing; to deserve the peace we’ve been gifted. I’ve always wished for that reason to visit the beaches of Normandy one day, that I might simply pray for the souls of men who were called to give much and gave everything; that I might be determined to earn their sacrifice and those that came before them.
Shy of being able to afford a trip to France in this economy, I settled on a less expensive option of late and simply attempted to do the best I could here in Nashville, to meditate on sacrifice and death on a more local battlefield.
Stone’s River National Battlefield ended up being my choice. There are other local battlefield memorials and surviving Civil War sites, including some very intensely preserved historical sites in Franklin, TN, but this was the largest battlefield within immediate driving distance. Shiloh National Battlefield is three hours away, and Nashville’s Battlefield is mostly relegated to a monument and a handful of historical signs spread around downtown and the suburbs. Stone’s River though has open fields and clear markings for the flow of the battle. It was a place I could absorb myself into.
Fought from December 31, 1862 to January 2, 1863, the Union and Confederate armies collided in the fields west of the town of Murfreesboro, TN. More than 80,000 soldiers descended on the cotton fields to determine the fate of the western campaign of the war. Confederate Soldiers pushed the Union line back three miles towards the Nashville and Chattanooga railroad line, running parallel to Nashville Pike, where the union had dug in and prepared cannon batteries. After three intense days of fighting and 25,000 casualties on both sides, the Confederate Army of Tennessee retreated, and Union General Rosecrans would begin building a fortress on the site to further supply the western campaign.
In late June, the fields of Tennessee are nothing like they would be in December. The sun is blisteringly hot and the fields are roaming with unpleasant creatures like Cotton Mouth Snakes, discouraging departure from the beaten pathways. The soldiers of that battle would’ve struggled with very different conditions in the dead of winter; mud, hunger, cold, and anxiety as they awaited their marching orders.
Walking the path from the visitor’s center, one finds themselves on the battlefield itself within moments. Only a few square miles of the enormous battlefield still exist along a 2-mile circular hiking trail, but the parts that remain show the battle’s crescendo. As you walk across the Cotton Fields, you can see the incline of the railroad and the street in front of it. You can see the fences that mark the battleline where the Union fired down into the fields. You are in the position of the Confederate soldiers, charging towards the line of blue uniforms, and you are standing in the spot you likely would’ve died in.
One almost feels the urge to sprint towards the fence, to feel a semblance of that adrenaline (that is if you don’t mind rattlesnake bites and sunburn).
There were no benches on the walking path, so I found a storm drain on the side of the path with a stone artifice, where I could sit and look out onto the field, and took a moment to reflect on the vast space. A storm cloud in the distance threatened rain, so I knew I didn’t have more than an hour before I needed to be back at the visitor’s center.
I pulled a small booklet out of my pocket, “The Soldier’s Prayer Book”, a small trinket I purchased at the gift shop at the Gettysburg National Battlefield. It was actually an abridged edition of a Union Soldier’s “Arrangement from The Book of Common Prayer with additional Collects and Hymns”. The book’s inner cover credits it as having been assembled by the Episcopalian Bishop of Pennsylvania in June 1861. It would’ve obviously been one of the dozens of pocket prayer books, devotionals, and Bibles created specifically for Christian soldiers going into battle.
Both the Union and Confederacy maintained religious observance throughout the war, and both sides had considerable populations of former English Anglicans, now American Episcopalians, who needed to have a connection to their traditions at home, keeping to their daily prayers.
Both sides would print several versions of The Book of Common Prayer for Episcopalian soldiers to use, with some obvious differences given that they were fighting over slavery. Still, the content of Confederate and Union Books of Common Prayer was more or less the same, reflecting Episcopalianism’s tendency to honor liturgical unity in the face of political division.
Resources here on different editions of the Confederate Book of Common Prayer or read an archived 1863 Confederate Prayer Book here.
If you’ve ever read a modern Book of Common Prayer, you know what to expect. The pocket book gives its readers a small selection of daily readings, a small selection of psalms, and hymns, funeral instructions, and provides special prayers and blessings for specific occasions or intentions. All of the selections are related to war, politics, and soldiering, with special intentions noted “For the President”, “For Congress”, “Before a Battle”, “Deliverance from Enemies”, and “For a Sick Person”, and so on.
The one that most stuck out to me though was the “Soldier’s Prayer”, for its simplicity.
“O God our Father! Wash us from all our sins in the Savior’s Blood, and we shall be whiter than snow. Create in us a clean heart, and fill us with the Holy Ghost, that we may never be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under His banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; looking to Jesus the great Captain of our salvation. We ask it all, because he lived, died and rose again, and ever liveth to make intercession for us. Amen.”
It is such a simple and earnest summation of prayer, that the soldier’s final thoughts on life might be the hopes for his eternal reward in Heaven. The Psalm and Hymn selections similarly affirm this theme, capturing the hope and sweetness of heaven to comfort the anxious and fearful.
“When languor and disease invade this trembling house of clay, ’tis sweet to look by faith abroad and long to flee away. Sweet to look inward and attend the whispers of his love; sweet to look upward to the throne when Jesus pleads above. Sweet on his faithfulness to rest, whose love can never end; sweet on the promise of his grace, for all things to depend.”
This sweetness really stands apart from the reality on the ground of the war though. As one walks the field, it is hard to imagine the sweetness of Heaven through the grass and the distance between you and the enemy, as bullets speed around your head. One Confederate soldier had apparently described the carnage by saying, “the artillery opened up on us … and it seemed that the heavens and earth were coming together”. Death descended on those fields and took tens of thousands of lives with him, leaving suffering in his wake.
Reading the prayer booklet offered little insight into the battle itself, but it did shed some light on the melancholy of the days leading up to and following the brutal battle. Soldiers on both sides spent the evening of December 30, 1862, waiting for the darkness to lift. The wind was cold and soldiers would occasionally break the silence of night with a rousing song or discussing the morning’s plans. Many knew this was the last night, the last song, and the last few moments of peace in their lives.
One can imagine a cold young man sitting against a frozen treat, the air chilled and his breath fogging his glasses. He pulls out his pocket prayer book, already torn from a year of repeated reading and use, and contemplates his fate. The gates of Heaven may open up before him, but not before he makes his pilgrimage across the hellscape where he can expect to have his limbs blown off, his blood drained from a bullet, or his body ran through with a bayonet. He has no reason to expect a swift death, or an easy life, following the battle. His only comfort is the promise of eternity.
He reads, as his hands shiver:
“Let thy fatherly hand, we beseech thee, be over us; let thy Holy Spirit be with us; let thy good Angels have charge of us; with thy good angels have charge of us; with thy loving kindness defend us as with a shield, and either bring us out of our peril in safety, with a heart to show forth thy praisers for ever or else sustain us with glorious hope, by which alone they servants can have victory in suffering and death; through the sole merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
There is a reason the American Civil War was the most brutal war in American history. Between 600,000 to 800,000 people died in four years, in a country with a population of 31 million. 2-3% of the entire population died of wounds, disease, or starvation. Entire cities’ worth of young men were fed to mechanical death traps. Advancements in technology only made the conflict worse, as now armies were capable of pouring hundreds of tons of shrapnel onto a slowly marching army and watching as hundreds of men suddenly disappear into clouds of gore and mangled remains.
The proficiency of modern methods of death only festered the underlying feelings of the two sides. C.S. Lewis famously speculated in Mere Christianity that if two opposing soldiers in World War I died in battle that they would awaken in heaven to laugh about their deaths. Such comforts though feel dishonest in regards to our own war though.
The Civil War was a bitter war, not an arbitrary one. It bore the kind of scars and hatred that only come from two brothers two have come to hate each other to their very bones. It is a deep hatred that still rings heavily in the American South today, where Confederate flags and resentment towards the Federals are still very much alive and common (a resentment their Northern friends still indulge themselves with as well, if the cultural portrayal of ignorant, hateful, country bumpkins clinging to their skygod and boomsticks is any indication).
America is in a complicated place, as it was in 1862, 160 years ago. As I finished my tour of the battlefield, I drove down Nashville Pike, only to realize the road that once stationed the Union line was also part of the historic Trail of Tears. If those woods and streets could talk, they’d speak of the horror of Native Americans being marched to their fate.
A place can contain multitudes… as can it’s people.
As our own country stares down the threats of renewed political hostility, political violence, and the possibility of very serious fractures in our culture, one ought to meditate on the fear of those moments as men prayed for peace in the fields of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Tennessee, as they waited to march against their own countrymen, their brothers, expecting a slow and painful death in the muck.
There is hope in the trenches and sweetness in eternity. There is valor in men who fight for what is right. Be brave and pray for peace and unity in our present national troubles.
“Deal not with us according to our sins, neither reward us according to our iniquities; but stretch forth the right hand of thy majesty, and be our defense for thy name’s sake. Shed upon the counsels of our rulers the spirit of wisdom and moderation and firmness and unite the hearts of our people as the heart of one man in upholding the supremacy of law, and the cause of justice and peace. Amen.”