Baptists and the American Civil War: June 21, 1864

Sherman in the trenches near Atlanta.

Sherman in the trenches near Atlanta.

Kennesaw Mountain is the focus of this week’s developments in the Atlanta Campaign. Confederate General Joseph Johnston and Union General William T. Sherman jockey for position, each striving to surround the other’s forces, with neither gaining the decisive upper hand.

One of the many officers involved in this day’s maneuvers and skirmishes is Union Captain William H. Harkness of the 89th Illinois Infantry. Born in 1835 in Scotland, Harkness, farming as a vocation, married 17 year-old Margaret (Maggie) Ann Stewart in 1860,  two years prior to enrolling as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army.

A faithful Baptist, Harkness served as a lay leader in his congregation, Pavilion Baptist Church in Kendall Township, Illinois, prior to the war. Like many of his fellow Northern (American) Baptists, he brings to the war freedom and patriotic convictions. Harkness serves with distinction, his men speaking highly of his courageous leadership.

Courage, however, does not translate into invincibility. And today Captain William H. Harkness — ironically unaware of his promotion one week earlier — having captured Bald Knob on Kennesaw Mountain from the enemy, is killed not in the heat of a pitched battle, but rather from afar by a sharpshooter’s bullet.

An account of the incident notes:

… He was shot on the Twenty first of June, the ball striking him in the abdomen and causing his death a few hours later. His usual fortitude sustained him through his last moments and enabled him to write a letter to his wife although conscious of the nature of the wound and his rapidly approaching end. It may be a consolation for his friends at home to know that he was shot at a time when he could be tenderly cared for, everything done to gratify his requests. The ground had been won on which he was shot and he was superintending the erection of barricades to shelter the soldiers who were to hold it.

As a man he was honest, constant in his devotion to his county and untiring in his efforts to perform his duties. As an officer he was retiring in his intercourse with those in authority but vigilant and efficient in the execution of orders, yet considerate of the feelings of those under his command. Brave himself, he was generous in acknowledging the merits of others and eager to award praise to all who wrought heroic purpose into gallant deeds. The proof that his services were appreciated is shown by his having been twice selected to take command of other companies in his regiment when temporarily deprived of their officers, and he occupied the position of Provost Marshal on General Willich’s staff during the absence of that officer, and himself accompanied the General last winter when he went home for the recovery of his health. His loss is felt by all who knew him and many kind expressions of sympathy are breathed by strangers to those whom he loved, yet realizing their grief from his last words concerning those he was to leave desolate.

The aforementioned letter to his young wife is composed while Harkness breathes his last. It is short and poignant.

My dear Maggie. I am badly wounded, I shall soon be with our dear little Herbie. May God bless you my dear wife. — William.

Several weeks pass before news of Harkness’ death reaches Maggie. William has died as a hero, while she is unmercifully left without child or husband. Torn from both of her life’s loves while in her youth, the blessings of God wished upon her by William seem infinitely distant.

Maggie’s church family, however, offers much-needed consolation. William’s funeral takes place at the Pavilion Baptist Church on July 24. The church building proves too small to hold the large crowd assembled, and the service is moved outside to an adjacent grove.

The lonely widow applies for a Captain’s widow’s pension, receiving the first monthly check of $15 in February, 1865, retroactive to June 21, 1864.

Oceans of blood spilled in the war are but one side of an epic tragedy. The familial sacrifices required to successfully prosecute the war against the Rebellion are far greater than mere words can adequately convey. The wrenching and tragic story of Margaret Harkness is one of hundreds of thousands.

Sources: Atlanta Campaign (link) and (link); “Letters Written by Captain William Harkness” (link); “William H. Harkness Record” (link); Bud Hopkins, “Pavilion Baptist Church” (link); image (link)