Baptists and the American Civil War: November 24, 1864

Rev. Elijah Marrs

Rev. Elijah Marrs

Today is an appointed National Day of Thanksgiving in the United States, the second official annual holiday that in the years to come is known simply as Thanksgiving. Union battlefield successes in 1863 led President Abraham Lincoln to set aside the last Thursday in November as an official holiday of national thanksgiving, and further military victories this year solidify the public’s embrace of this special day.

The day is marked by speeches in public venues and sermons in churches, including a discourse in the First Baptist Church of Bennington, Vermont, delivered by pastor William S. Apsey and entitled “Causes for National Thanksgiving.”

The successful push for freedom for all Americans is the hallmark blessing for which Northerners are thankful. While freedom for all has not yet been fully realized–as the slave-based Confederate States of America, while tottering, yet refuses to surrender–Baptists and other Christians of the North joylessly realize, in the wake of Lincoln’s recent reelection and further Republican gains in Congress, that the triumph of freedom is inevitable and near.

Basking in thanksgiving to God and Lincoln this day, while not truly knowing what lies ahead in his own life, is Private Elijah J. Marrs of Company L, 12th U.S. Colored Artillery.

Born in January 1840 in Shelby County, Kentucky, to a free black father and an enslaved mother, Marrs grew up, by his own account, as a slave under a mild-mannered master. During his youth, he converted to the Baptist faith, the denominational choice of most Christianized slaves in the South.

As a young Man Marrs, with both the encouragement and caution of his master, learned to read and write (educated slaves were viewed with suspicion in much of Kentucky). When the war broke out, slaves and free blacks alike in Shelby County turned to Marrs as their scribe and reader for letters to and from family and relatives who escaped slavery by fleeing North or behind Union lines.

Education fostered the freedom impulse in Marrs, and soon he ran away and, taking a number of enslaved friends with him, joined the Union Army.

For two months now the former slave has been serving in the 12th U.S. Colored Artillery, only recently completing his initial training at Kentucky’s Camp Nelson, a Union military camp in Nicholasville. While in training, Marrs received permission from authorities to teach music and English to his fellow freedmen.

Today the 12th, deemed sufficiently prepared, breaks camp and marches away to where Marrs supposes his company will be involved in front line action. Of this time the former slave recounts:

After a stay of some weeks at Camp Nelson, we were ordered to Russellville, Ky. It was thought now that we were on our way to the front. Many of us would have preferred remaining at Camp Nelson, but the command was to march. We began to pack up on the morning of November 24, 1864, and we were marched on foot to Lexington, there being no railroad. I shall never forget that day. It was my first long march, and I had to carry my knapsack, my gun, my sword, and army equipments. Though late in the year, the sun seemed to shine with equal force as in the hottest days of July, and the heat was oppressive and overpowering. The roads were inches deep in dust, and it filled my eyes, mouth and ears. Our thirst was intolerable, and no water was to be had save the stagnated water we would find along the line of our march. To this we would drive the horses, and of it fill our canteens. The use of this water so weakened me that I became completely prostrated and had to cry for help. Lieut. Bossworth, who was an old soldier, and who took pride in aiding and assisting his men, came to my relief, took my equipments, transferred them to his own back, and resumed his march with as light a foot as he had started with in the morning.

By sunset we arrived at Lexington, tired and fagged out, having marched a distance of nineteen miles. We expected to get our usual rations of bread, and meat, and coffee, but we did not get it. No provision had been made for our arrival, and nothing could be had but hard tack and water, off of which we made our supper.

After supper I retired. My sleeping apartment was an old hog car, but I was so stiff and so worn out from the effects of the march of the day that I was soon asleep and dreaming of home and friends. I thought I had returned–I saw my father’s fond looks of delight–felt on my cheek my mother’s warm kiss–even the cows that I was wont to drive from pasture seemed to welcome me back. I again strolled along the stream on whose mossy banks I had often laid and fished–again was in the old church listening to Bro. Bullitt’s farewell sermon–once more on my march to freedom and the army–again with beloved Emma.

The morning’s drum-beat dispelled the happy vision, and the stern reality of my situation was before me. But little time elapsed before we were off for Louisville, where we arrived about 2 P. M. On arriving we were met at the depot by an army of women of all classes, white and colored, each with her basket. They had hams, chickens, pies, and everything that was good for the inner man, but unfortunately for us they were all for sale and we unable to buy. Our Captain finally came among us, and told us to “Press it.” It was not long before we understood what he meant. We were like hungry wolves, and so soon as the idea of “pressing” dawned upon us the eatables disappeared like magic. Each man helped himself to such dainties as suited his taste. As for my part I was more modest than many others and contented myself with some ham and bread. Some, to use the common expression, “went the whole hog,” and took basket and all. It was the first time I had ever been guilty of anything of this kind, and was extremely awkward at the business, but my hunger urged me on, and I only did that which the others did, and that with the connivance of our Captain.The next morning at six we took up our line of march for the Nashville Depot, the boys singing as we marched through the streets of Louisville, “I wish I was in Dixie’s land.” Many of our old friends, as we marched at the tap of the drum, watched us with tears of sorrow in their eyes, while their lips muttered prayers to God that we might be able to return and enjoy that liberty which had for so long a time been hoped for by our fore-parents, and for which we were now to imperil our lives.

In due time we were on board the train and off for Russellville. We were in open cars, hence we had a very good view of the country through which we passed, and as I gazed upon the hills and dales, the fields and forests, I could not keep from thinking of the beautiful part of the State in which I was reared, its green fields and pastures, and as to the probabilities of my ever seeing them again.

We arrived in Russellville all safe and sound. We marched up into town and took up our quarters in an old stable. By this time I began to realize the fact that for a man to be a good soldier, he must subject himself to innumerable hardships. Each man at once set himself to work to make for himself a sleeping bunk, which was indispensable. It was in this sleeping-place I had my first spell of sickness, which lasted some three weeks. During my sickness I prayed to God for aid and comfort in my affliction, and it seemed that my prayer was granted, for there visited me a kind lady in the person of Miss Henrietta Forees. She, with others, had sought the camp to render aid to any who should be sick and needing help. She and others visited me regularly, supplied me with nourishing food, and to their kind offices, and the hope they inspired within my heart, I believe I am indebted for my recovery. I frequently offered up thanks to God for leading unto me such ministering angels, and thought of how good the Lord is to those that loved Him–to those that put their trust and faith in Jesus.

Though the life of a soldier is a hard and rugged one, full of temptations, yet I tried ever to keep God and his teachings before me, though I found it often an up-hill business. In the company I belonged to there were only two professed Christians beside myself, viz.: George Thomas and Jacob Stone. They, like myself, had been brought up by Christian parents, and the moral training they received had left its impress upon their minds. We frequently communed with one another, and resolved that however evil our associations we would remain steadfast to the principles and teachings of our parents, come what would. I have already passed over my childhood days, yet I hope it will not be thought out of place here to say that in all my life I never swore an oath, never danced, never played a card nor got drunk–save in one single instance, and then there was extenuating circumstances connected therewith. It was on a Christmas morning, the beginning of the week of the year that all bound men looked forward to for rest, frolic, and pleasure. I was but a small boy, and in company with one of about the same age. We were persuaded by an old man to drink some whisky. Its effects soon told upon us, and on our road home there were but few mudholes that we did not tumble into. It was my first and last attempt at drinking.

At camp in Russellville I was surrounded by men whose daily habit was to brag, bully, and brow-beat, and it illy fared with anyone who was too timid to stand up for himself. They spent most of their leisure hours in jumping, wrestling, and playing marbles. In my younger days I was very fond of athletic sports of all kinds, and in the matter of jumping and wrestling very few could be found who were my superior, and I have never yet met with a man who could put me on my back. Of course, to vary the dull monotony of camp life, I indulged in these sports, and attained quite a reputation as a wrestler, so much so, that when any new wrestler appeared, the little red-shirt Sergeant was immediately hunted up to down him. I wore a red shirt while at camp in Russellville. One instance I will relate.

here was a man in camp by the name of Nick Kiger. All the men feared him in a rough and tumble wrestle as we used to call it. Now-a-days they have designated it as catch-and-catch can. Without my knowledge a match was made between him and myself. I was sent for, and at once responded to the call. He looked upon me with as much contempt as did Goliath upon David, and hooted at the idea of my being able to cope with him. Nevertheless we took our positions, and the signal being given we commenced the contest. In almost the twinkling of an eye he was sprawling on his back some five feet in my rear. I at once walked away, leaving our Company boys to rejoice over my victory. I think this was my last play of that kind.

Sunday was our day for rest, pleasure, and religious exercises, we being free from the labor of regular drill. It was, however, our general inspection day, and each man was up by daybreak and busily at work brushing his clothes, cleaning his gun and other equipments, so as to be ready for general inspection at half-past nine o’clock A. M. His non-appearance in the ranks, or even if there, his dress and arms not being scrupulously clean and coming up to a certain standard, he could certainly reckon on the guard-house as being his home for the balance of the day. No excuse, no explanation would be taken in palliation of the offense–he was marched off, his voice uttering all the oaths known to his vocabulary.

After the best portion of the Lord’s Day having been spent as before mentioned, the men are marched back to their quarters, when some five or six passes are given to a company by its captain, when the rest were required to attend chapel services. This latter duty was one that gave me infinite pleasure in performing. The inspection drill I would have gladly omitted, but I was a soldier, and stern duty required that I should be present.

In the months to come Marrs records many adventures and happenings during his military service. Surviving the great conflict, Marrs becomes first a teacher and then, in 1873, a Baptist preacher. He is best remembered in the Baptist world as the first pastor of the Beargrass Baptist Church of Louisville, Kentucky.

Sources: Abraham Lincoln, “Proclamation 118 — Thanksgiving Day, 1864” (link); “Thanksgiving Day Sermons, 1860-1865,” from “Religious Aspects of the American Civil War,” Andover-Harvard Theological Library (link); William S. Apsey, Causes for national thanksgiving: A discourse delivered in the First Baptist Church, Bennington, Nov. 24, J. I. Cook, 1864 (link); Life and History of the Rev. Elijah P. Marrs, First Pastor of Beargrass Baptist Church, and Author, Louisville, Ky: Bradley and Gilbert, 1885, pp. 28-30, digitized by Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (link)