Today, 35-year old William E. Wiatt, formerly a Baptist pastor in Gloucester County, Virginia and currently a private in the 26th Virginia Infantry, is appointed as chaplain of his regiment.
Little does Wiatt know that he will one day achieve the distinction of being one of few Confederate chaplains to serve for the duration of the war. Nor can he know what travails await him. During the course of the war, his son William dies, his farm is occupied by Union troops, and his wife Charlotte (living as a refugee in Alabama) dies from disease. Through it all, Wiatt maintains a diary.
Born into a slaveholding family, Wiatt on the eve of the war owns eleven slaves. He begins selling his slaves during the war, at one point accusing the remaining slaves of burning his barn to the ground. Once all the slaves have been sold, Wiatt invests the proceeds in Confederate bonds. He remains loyal to the Confederacy and an advocate of African slavery throughout the war.
Being a white preacher in the Confederate Army has its privileges and prestige and evokes the trust of other soldiers. Writes Beth Barton Schweiger of Wiatt:
Soldiers and civilians alike entrusted Wiatt as a special courier. He shuttled money from soldiers to their families, carried letters and other documents, and oversaw the regimental fund – money disbursed to soldiers for their purchases. He escorted women traveling alone and was given free railroad passes. On one sad occasion, he carried $50 given to him “in case of misfortune” to the wife of a captured soldier …
[he] found that printed tracts, books, and newspapers encouraged and sustained piety and upheld his own authority as a preacher almost daily. He purchased Bibles to give to soldiers, kept a library for his regiment, read and distributed religious newspapers, and wrote letters home for those who could not write themselves … he organized a Bible class and day school for those who could not read …
Wiatt as chaplain also attends to the sick (on the field and in the hospital), offers spiritual counsel, preaches and buries the dead, noting that:
I find nearly all our men, when sick, admit their need of religion and admit that they think about it.
At war’s end, Wiatt is present at General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. After the war, Wiatt returns to Gloucester and serves as a preacher and educator, longing for the Confederacy of old.