Baptists and the American Civil War: May 5, 1862

John and James Booker Letters, University of Virginia Library

John and James Booker Letters, University of Virginia Library

Upset that his plans to engage the Confederates in Yorktown, Virginia were foiled, McClellan dispatches some 41,000 soldiers to chase the retreating Rebels. The two sides clash today in Williamsburg in an inconclusive battle that results in about 4,000 total casualties. At the end of the day, the Rebels, having bought enough time for the bulk of the Confederate Army to further retreat, disengage and continue their march back to Richmond. Union forces do not pursue, as the Confederates win a tactical victory in the ongoing Peninsula Campaign.

Fighting for the Confederates this day are brothers and Virginians James and John Booker, serving in Company D of the 38th Virginia Infantry. Two months earlier, James had been hospitalized with chronic diarrhea. In April he had written home while guarding Yorktown, expressing his belief that the war would soon be over. In the coming months, James writes that he wishes he could be home for the August revival season at Mount Hermon Baptist Church near Danville, Virginia. Thereafter, he often returns to religious themes as the war progresses. As James’ prediction of a quick resolution of the conflict proves wistful, his faith provides some guidance to sorting through the suffering and desolation of war.

John, by way of contrast, seems to turn away from religion during the war, avoiding discussion of religion and faith in his letters. John does not survive the war; he dies from wounds at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff on May 16, 1864. James is also wounded in the conflict, but survives. Following the war, James marries and raises seven children, dying in 1923.

The experiences of James and John Booker are similar to many Baptists serving South and North. While faith consoles some, for others the harsh realities of war overwhelm the assurances offered by the faith they brought to the mighty conflict.

Sources: Battle of Williamsburg (link); The John and James Booker Civil War Letters, University of Virginia Library, including image of a letter (link)