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A Parson’s Perspective: The 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads, Mississippi

Posted on Friday, September 12, 2014 at 8:05 am

Photograph of Rev. Caleb P. Baldwin, the 114th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry chaplain who Reyman portrays.

First, full disclosure: although I portray Rev. Caleb P. Baldwin, the Methodist-Episcopal chaplain of the 114th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry from 1862-1864, I am not an ordained clergyman; I am an archaeologist and Curator of Anthropology at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, Illinois and have been a reenactor for about 15 years. Second, I was chosen by the 114th to portray Rev. Baldwin because, out of curiosity, I asked two questions: what rank, if any, did a Union chaplain hold, and what was the pay scale? The answers from our regimental Colonel were captain and $75 per month plus an allowance for a horse, if he had one, and in the next breath, he told me that at a meeting at which I was not in attendance, I had been chosen as the chaplain of the 114th. The unit has never had someone portray its chaplain since the regiment was officially reactivated on 10 January 1969 by then Illinois Governor Samuel H. Shapiro.

Next it was necessary to obtain the proper uniform (from the Quartermaster Shop) and hat (from Dirty Billy’s). Together, they are similar to the uniform pictured on p. 16 of the November/December 2013 issue of the Camp Chase Gazette. Since my appointment, I’ve portrayed Rev. Baldwin for more than three years at 114th Regiment events – generally, for the presentations of the colors. Our signature event is the flag-lowering and retreat ceremony held at Lincoln’s Tomb every Tuesday evening at 7:00 p.m. from June through August. The 114th has conducted this ceremony at Lincoln’s Tomb for 32 years.

In addition to portraying Rev. Baldwin, I portray Benjamin Edwards (1818-1886), a Springfield lawyer, judge, businessman, and friend of Abraham Lincoln, and I also portray Thomas Condell (1863-1929) another Springfield businessman and great-grandson of Ninian Edwards, the first and only Illinois Territorial Governor. Both of these are first-person portrayals, as are most of my portrayals of various other Springfield area civilians.

With this background, I prepared for a different kind of first-person portrayal, that of Rev. Caleb P. Baldwin at the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads. I had only a rough idea of what this would entail and no idea what the actual experience would be. Reading what I could find about clergy in battle helped but little, and I knew no others to ask. Not many reenactors portray Civil War clergymen.

The Battle of Brice’s Crossroads took place on 10 June 1864 outside Baldwyn, Mississippi. More than 8,000 Union cavalry and infantry, commanded by Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis, fought against Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest with fewer than 5,000 Confederate cavalry. It was a signal victory for the Confederates and furthered Forrest’s reputation as an outstanding cavalry officer. It was a major defeat for the Union forces and a disaster for the 114th Illinois Regiment. Of the 397 114th Regiment men committed to battle, between 205 and 287 were killed, wounded, captured, or missing after the engagement.

This past June, 10 members of the 114th Regiment and several women from our affiliated Soldier’s Aid Society drove to Mississippi for the 150th Anniversary of the battle, held on 14 June 2014. Several of us had never before participated in a battlefield reenactment. What made this event special, in part, was being told the 114th would camp where the regiment had camped in 1864, and the reenactment of the battle would take place on an area of the actual battlefield. It was, as one 114th member noted, “sacred ground.” Adding to the authenticity was the weather – brutally hot and humid – as it was in 1864. The setting was right for our first time “to see the elephant.”

An officers’ call was held on the morning of the 14th. Our captain included me by asking whether I would be willing to conduct a brief prayer for all the Union infantry (about 40-50 men, including galvanized troops) prior to marching onto the field. I agreed and did so in the early afternoon. I have performed prayers before, most often the Benediction at our annual 114th

Regiment Commander’s dinner and at events held at the Old State Capitol and at Edwards Place in Springfield, but I had never delivered a battlefield prayer. It was a strange experience, starting with the Colonel’s order to the men to “uncover” (remove their headgear), a command I had not previously heard. The prayer, standing before the troops, under trees, in dappled sunlight, was short (probably shorter than it would have been in 1864) and focused on our cause – to preserve the Union and to ensure freedom for all men. I closed my eyes as I prayed and tried cast my mind back to what it must have been like 150 years earlier. Mindful of Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” and its message of unintended consequences, I offered this:

“Almighty God, Creator and source of Love and Grace. We pray You keep these men safe as they engage in battle for a righteous cause, to preserve our precious Union and to ensure all men are free. We pray You keep them from harm and return them to their beloved homes. And if some should fall, we pray You gather their souls in your hands that they may dwell by Your side in Heaven, now and forever. Heavenly Father, all this we pray. Amen.”

I’d like to think the prayer was well received, but what was the experience of it for our

troops? And was my experience anything like Rev. Baldwin’s? If he kept a diary and recorded his thoughts, it is not extant. Beyond this, would a pastor pray for the destruction of the enemy? Could he, as a so-called man of God preaching the message of the Prince of Peace, pray for such a thing?1 It’s a question I ponder but for which I have no certain answer.

We then filled our canteens from the water truck and began our march to the battlefield where units were already engaged. The sound of the cannon fire was loud but not deafening – yet. The rattle of musket fire was sporadic. Men’s voices seemed muffled, and the horses were surprisingly quiet.

From my reading about Union chaplains, their battlefield duties, if the chaplains were on the battlefield at all, were focused on tending to the wounded, offering water, praying over the wounded men and over the dead, helping wherever one could, and staying out of the way so the soldiers could move about and fight. These things I planned to do, but never realized how difficult the experience would be.

This was a small engagement, much smaller than in previous years, or so I was told. The number on the Union side, including artillery and galvanized infantry, was no more than about 60 men; the CSA reenactors numbered perhaps 250 – 275, or possibly 300. Once we arrived on the battlefield, our 114th Regiment unit of 13 men (including three galvanized members) lined up between two cannon, a 12-pound bronze Napoleon to our right2 and a 6-pound cannon to our left. I quickly learned to watch the gun crews and to cover my ears every time the cannons fired. The noise from the 12-pounder was deafening, that from the 6-pounder significantly less so, but still loud. I wondered whether many Civil War artillerymen emerged from the war with their hearing intact? I doubt many did.

Every time the 12-pounder fired, the ground shook under us. It reminded me of the frequent small earthquake tremors I had experienced years before in Mexico City. Moreover, the cannons were not firing full charges, balls, or shells. With the smoke from the cannons and the muskets, there were times I could not see across the field. It seemed the Confederate cavalry chose to charge when the smoke was thickest; sometimes we never saw them coming.

When the Confederate cannons fired, through the smoke I saw flame from the barrels. By the end of the battle, the ground in front of the cannons was scorched, and this from partial loads and no shells. What must reality have been like? I have seen “Gettysburg,” Ken Burns’, “The Civil War,” and many other Civil War movies and have read dozens of books about the conflict, but nothing prepared me for the sounds, the smoke, the fire, and the confusion at Brice’s Crossroads. It would have been worse had the number of participants been up to that of past years.

As our men fell, I tended to them; I prayed; I offered water; and I tried to keep out of the way of the maneuvering troops. The heat and humidity were punishing; it must have been much worse in 1864, if for no other reason than the battle lasted longer than the roughly hour and a half we were engaged.

One of the biggest surprises came at the end. We were routed from the field, as happened in 1864. Just before the rout began, we were in a firing line several hundred yards from the cavalry. They made a final charge and within seconds were on top of us demanding surrender. I know horses are powerful animals, and fast. I never imagined a full charge could cover the ground between the lines that quickly. It was both awesome (in the original sense of the word) and frightening. I’ve read that after the War, both Lee and Jefferson Davis wrote they had not made as effective use of Forrest and his cavalry as they might have. My experience, brief and in a reenactment, leads me to believe they were correct.

After the battle I dragged myself back to camp, my heavy, long, black wool chaplain’s uniform and all the undergarments completely soaked through, even my shoes. One thing I had done right was to purchase a wide-brimmed straw hat from a sutler the day before the reenactment. This gave me a bit of relief; my heavy wool hat would have been awful.

One last event was the most disturbing. The field was soft and muddy in places. Two mules had a terrible time pulling a cannon and limber from the field after the battle. Men had to assist, pushing the wheels. Even teams of four horses or mules had difficulty. The lead horse in one 4-horse team was bleeding profusely from his mouth; the bit had cut either his tongue or the inside of his mouth. The men worked rapidly to remove the bit and harness. Once the horse was free, it wouldn’t be led away until its teammate was also unharnessed. They could then be led away for treatment. We sometimes don’t think about what animals suffered in conflict.

Participation in the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads has given me a new perspective on the Civil War and a deepened respect and appreciation for what soldiers endured through the long and difficult years of the conflict. Clergymen also had to endure the hardships of the field camp and marches, but perhaps with a sense of futility in their work: so many wounded, so many dead, such great destruction, all counter to their preaching of peace, love, and charity. No matter how well they ministered to the troops in their charge, they must have felt, at times, almost overwhelming despair at the numbers of casualties. Did they question where God was amidst all this? If so, might some possibly have concluded that He was at the sides of the victims? Did some conclude, as Lincoln did in his Second Inaugural Address, that God’s purposes were unknowable to men, that “The Almighty has His own purposes,” and finally that “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”? Generally, parsons did not fight in battles, but most certainly dealt with the consequences of them.

Notes:

1. Leonidas Polk, a West Point Graduate (Class of 1827) and an Episcopal Bishop, was a Confederate Lt. General. Known as the “Fighting Bishop,” he was killed by an artillery shell at Pine Mountain, Georgia. Given his active service in the military and his ministerial training, I’m sure he regularly prayed for victory. I’ve also long considered his behavior aberrant among clergymen.

2. I think that’s what it was; I’m not an expert on artillery.

-By Jonathan E. Reyman

114th Regiment Illinois

Volunteer Infantry (Reactivated)