Baptists and the American Civil War: September 1, 1862

William L. Curry

William L. Curry

Today South Carolina Baptist minister William L. Curry, born in 1836, is appointed as the chaplain of 50th Georgia Regiment.

A graduate of Furman University and with degrees from the Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (all in South Carolina), Curry is well educated. Ordained in 1860, he sought appointment as a foreign missionary, but was deemed weak of health by the Foreign Mission Board in Richmond, and thus not appointed. When the Confederate states seceded from the Union, Curry responded to South Carolina’s call for volunteers. Signing up as a private in the 15th South Carolina, he witnessed the beginning of the war at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

Upon his appointment as a chaplain, Curry remains the regimental chaplain for the duration of the war. “As there was no other chaplain in the command for a great part of the time,” Curry effectively serves as minister to the entire brigade.

After the war, he writes of his experiences as a Confederate chaplain.

I was appointed chaplain of Fiftieth Georgia about September 1, 1862, just as we were entering upon the first Maryland campaign. For several months the army was in such constant motion that little could be done besides occasional preaching.

Soon after the Fredericksburg battle, December 13, we went into winter-quar­ters. I then commenced pastoral work — visiting among the tents, holding prayer-meetings, etc. I commenced a sunrise prayer-meeting, which was attended, of course, only by the more earnest of the brethren, who were quite few in number, and kept it up for many weeks. I continued efforts of this kind — preaching, too, quite often for some six months, without any visible fruits of my labors. But about the expiration of this period, I could see serious faces in our little congregations, and we had new attendants at our sunrise meeting, and some who would hardly speak to the chaplain before would now make their way to his tent to inquire what they were to do to be saved. Oh, you can imagine what overflowings of joy I ex­perienced at these tokens of the Divine presence. It was almost the ‘first fruits’ of all my feeble efforts in the cause of the Master. The number of inquirers in­creasing, I instituted inquiry-meetings, which were held at same place as the sun­rise meeting. Perhaps I should have stated that this place was a certain tree some two or three hundred yards from the camp. We would open the inquiry-meeting with singing and prayer, and while the brethren would keep this up, I would take the anxious out to converse with them. It was not long before I had the privilege of leading a number of noble young fellows into the water, and among them one who afterwards was head and shoulders above all the others in zeal for the cause, in power for usefulness, and in humble, sincere piety. This was Brother Timothy Stallions, who, at his conversion, did not know his letters, though a man of family. He commenced to study, and in a few months, notwithstanding the hindrances and disadvantages of a soldier’s life, he was able to read the Bible quite readily, which he often did in our meetings, adding also frequently pointed and earnest remarks. He soon had a name in the whole brigade for courage and piety, which he bore untarnished throughout the war. He is still living, and when I last heard from him was preaching Jesus in his same quiet way — by his devout walk and his fervent exhortations.

The interest I mentioned above continued almost unabated for some six or eight months. It was a very quiet work, but permanent in its effects. Of course, our regular meetings were broken up when the army left winter-quarters. But all through the summer of 1863 I had the pleasure of baptizing a few at nearly every place where we remained any length of time, beside testifying to the conversion of others who united with other denominations.

Our corps (Longstreet’s) was ordered to Tennessee, you remember, in the fall of 1863, when till late in the winter we were marching and fighting almost without intermission. In the spring of 1864 the work commenced afresh. When I en­tered my regiment, and for some time afterward, there was no other chaplain pres­ent with the, brigade, and I had brigade services. This arrangement was continued after the appointment of other chaplains. At Gordonsville, Virginia, in the spring of 1864, our brigade was blessed with a considerable refreshing — about thirty from the different regiments making profession within two weeks. The most of these were baptized at one time, just in front of Dr. Quarles’s house, in a beautiful stream that runs by it. The occasion was quite a touching one. The appointment for the baptizing having been circulated, the citizens of the vicinity were present, and among them quite a collection of ladies. Dr. Quarles’s female school turned out. The ladies joined in the singing, and the bare sound of female voices brought tears to many a soldier’s eye.

When we left Gordonsville, which we did on the 4th of May, we plunged at once into the severest campaign of the war. The army lived in the trenches, as you know, all that summer. My brigade enjoyed several seasons of respite; that is, they would be relieved from the fatigue and danger of the front line, and would be kept in reserve in the rear. One of these seasons was protracted more than six weeks, during which time we held from three to five meetings a day. It was a pre­cious season. The men were relieved from all duty, even guard-duty and cooking, so that we had nothing to do but hold meetings. A prayer-meeting at sunrise, an inquiry-meeting at 8, preaching at 11, a prayer-meeting at 4 for the success of our (Confederate) cause, preaching again at night, was the usual programme of the day. Our prayer and inquiry-meetings were held under a large, sweet-gum tree, about two hundred yards from the camp. We usually had from fifty to seventy-five brethren at these, not one of whom refused to lead in prayer, and not a few would interest us with remarks and exhortations. The preaching was done in the bivouac (we had no tents except such as the men carried on their backs). The re­ligious interest of the brigade seemed more general than I had ever seen it before. I have looked around over the whole camp during preaching, and failed to see a single loiterer. Some forty or fifty made profession at this time, and I baptized them, or rather the most of them, in a pond, the only one in the vicinity, where we were exposed to the fire of the enemy; but not one of us was hurt on such occa­sions, though the bullets whistled most unpleasantly around and in the midst. Brother Campbell, of the Tenth Georgia, was my efficient co-laborer.

I have but few of my army acquaintances near me now. It will always be pleasant for me to testify to their piety and devotion in the army.

…. As well as I remember, over a hundred made profession of religion in the brigade after I entered it, who con­tinued steadfast during the war and so far as I have heard from them are pious yet.

Curry’s account is one of many that are published after the war in J. Williams Jones’ Christ in the Camp (or, Religion in Lee’s Army). Relatively few Baptist chaplains serve in the Confederate Army, due to most Baptists’ refusal to accept government salaries for chaplains, and seemingly relatively little interest on the part of Baptist ministers (pulpit rhetoric notwithstanding).

After the war, William L. Curry moves to southwest Georgia where he settles into pastoral ministry.

Sources: J. William Jones, Christ in the Camp (or, Religion in the Lee’s Army), Richmond: B. F. Johnson, 1887, pp. 503-504 (link); Samuel Boykin, History of the Baptist Denomination in Georgia, Vol. 2, Atlanta, Georgia: Jas. P. Harrison & Co., 1881, pp. 164-165 (link)