Baptists and the American Civil War: August 17, 1863

christian_commissionReaders of today’s New York Times learn of a meeting of the United States Christian Commission this week in the Baptist Church of Saratoga, New York.

The Christian Commission, created in 1861, is an organizational collaborative effort of government social services and Protestant Christians that furnishes supplies, medical services, and religious literature to Union troops.

The meeting reveals the extent of the Commission’s work in the aftermath of Gettysburg.

SARATOGA, Friday, Aug. 14, 1863.

Correspondence of the New-York Times.

There has been a very large assemblage of Christian patriots here to-day, at a Convention of the Christian Commission, which crowded the Baptist Church in this place morning and evening. President HOPKINS, of Williams College presided. After the reading of the Scriptures and prayer, Rev. GEO. J. MINGINS, a delegate of the Commission, made a most earnest and eloquent address. Some of the incidents which he related drew tears from unaccustomed eyes. In the beginning of the war he said that he had been inclined to philosophize; but he happened to be at Easton, attending a synod, when the Capital was first threatened, and the people came rushing down to meet the common enemy. There he saw a company of volunteers marching along the street and a little girl looking at them with strange earnestness. He stopped and watched her. As the company passed she clasped her little hands and they began to work and quiver, and she scanned closely every soldier’s face. Suddenly, she wrung her hands and her childish voice broke out in suppressed agony: “That’s him! That’s papa! Papa! He’s going! He’s going!” and she bowed her head upon her bosom and wept. When he saw what that little motherless girl had given for her country he could no longer stand aloof.

After a brief address by WM. E. DODGE, of New-York, the Rev. Mr. CHESSHIRE, a delegate of the Commission, related something of what the Commission had done for the wounded at Gettysburgh, more especially for the 3,500 wounded of the Third army corps, among whom he was.

In the evening, after prayer by the Rev. T.L. CUYLER, the WOOD family sang the appeal “Hear my Prayer,” which was exceedingly impressive. The Rev. GEORGE BRAYHURST, a delegate who has been sent out twenty times, and who has ministered to 38,000 soldiers, related many instances of the good effect of the work of the delegates in the hospital and on the battle-field.

GEO. H. STUART, Esq., Chairman of the Commission, was then introduced. He said that he thought the present summer gathering at Saratoga would be one of the most remarkable ever held. Notwithstanding the secession of a number of States most counted upon in past years, Saratoga was fuller than ever before. But the most remarkable incident of this gathering would be that in 24 hours after hearing an appeal for ice from our soldiers at Charleston, $3,204,62 was raised with no very great effort in 24 hours, and the ice sent on its way. This afternoon at a single hotel a few ladies raised over $100, and they had made also a very great number of articles for the soldiers. Proceeding to his subject, he said that war was a calamity, but the loss of the best Government in the world would be a still greater calamity. A soldier in hospital, suffering from seven gun-shot wounds, could not repress a groan. A lady passed by, and before she was out of his hearing, said; “Oh dear me! is the country worth all this?” “Yes!” shouted the hero, “and a great deal more!” From its small beginning on the 16th of November, 1861, to the 14th of November, 1862, but little had been done by the Christian Commission. But at that time a few brothers were sent down as skirmishers to the Army of the Potomac. They took such stores as the ladies got together for them, and a few publications, and started. They went forth in the spirit of Christ, relieving first bodily wants, and then speaking of the interests of the soul. We had nearly a million of men in the army. The Sanitary Commission was at work for them, but though it carried the bread that perisheth, it carried not the bread of life. Their plan was to organize an Army Committee in all the towns as they had already done in all the large towns. These Committees kept the people alive to the importance of this work. Last Sabbath he spoke in Philadelphia, at the 94th consecutive Sabbath meeting for the Christian Commission. Boston had raised $30,000 for the single emergency of Gettysburgh, and had sent them over 1,100 boxes of goods. They had three kinds of delegates — delegates to the army in camp, delegates to the post hospitals, and delegates to the battle-field. They had 26 delegates in the Army of the Cumberland. These men got 3 hospital tents from the Government, one of which was filled with their stores. There were no white cravats there; sometimes they had to do their own cooking; he had seen an Ex-Member of Congress pounding beef-steaks to make them tender. Every night in the week these tents were crowded for a prayer meeting. Mr. STUART gave a graphic description of one of these prayer meetings just before the march to attack LEE. Word came that a soldier was dying and wanted somebody to pray for him, and he who first went and prayed over the dying boy was that Major-General who left one of his arms on the field of Fair Oaks, the HENRY HAVELOCK of our war, HOWARD of Maine. [Loud applause.] The work of the delegates was to do everything for the soldier, — all that a father or a mother would do. The delegates to the post hospitals were doing a great work even among the rebel prisoners. Some of these said: “Oh, we can stand your cannon balls, but we can’t stand your kindness.” He had never seen such stirring religious services anywhere, though he had seen a meeting of 35,000 in Belfast, as in Camp Convalescent. The battle-field delegates were minute men; they were ready to go to a battle-field at a minute’s notice. They had even interrupted a clergyman in his sermon to go to Murfreesboro. The delegates were supplied with badges, commissions, and instructions to overcome impassables and impossibles. At Fairfax, 2,000 of KEARNEY’s corps were lying wounded when 8 of their delegates arrived. Over the whole ten acres of woodland came the cry “water, water!” Their night’s work was to get water and give it to these men. The commission had the sanction and support of the Government and of the Generals. The railroads passed their delegates free. At Cincinnati the Burnet House was free to them. Their expenses were scarce anything. All the telegraph wires in the United States were free to them, a large item, as they had sent over $150 of telegraphs from the Central Office in one day. They had received from the American Bible Society over 400,000 copies of the Scriptures, for which they had not paid a single cent. God bless the American Bible Society for its noble generosity. He once met a rebel chaplain — he had found that next to these Southern ladies the chaplains and surgeons were the rankest rebels. He asked this rebel who told him that he was the chaplain of the Louisiana Tigers, and that he gloried in it, whether they had any Sanitary or Christian Commission in the South. The answer was, “No, they had no means.” What, he asked, had they done then with the $600,000,000 which they had stolen from the North. The Christian Commission had raised for Gettysburgh, in cash and stores over $100,000. They had over 300 delegates there. The Sabbath after the 4th of July was the first Sabbath he had worked. He pressed his friends into the service, and they bought right and left, packed, invoiced and sent off all they could. The churches gave up their services. One little Baptist Church made up 100 boxes. They had several large depots in various cities, but paid very little for rent. Indeed, more than 98 per cent, of their money went to the soldiers. Mr. STUART gave an intensely interesting account of interviews with the wounded, both our own and those of the enemy. In a church in Gettysburgh, where a wounded man lay on every other pew, he held services; while he was doing it a member of the Twenty-fourth New-York breathed his last. A Rhode Island Lieutenant told him that, wounded on the field, he suffered intensely for water, but he thought of Jesus, who had only gall and vinegar to drink. Another, who had six little children depending upon him for support, was told by his wife that she could spare him to his country, but could not spare his soul. And just before the regiment started, she took him into the parlor with the children and prayed with him, and insisted that he should pray, too. He, himself, had ministered to this man, and told him the way to Jesus. This was the work of the Christian Commission. They wanted a large amount of money to send supplies, to send reading matter to these million men. These men called upon the Church to teach them the way of salvation, and to give them the bread of life. What should be the responsibility of the Church if they were not fully supplied? Mr. STUART related an instance of an Irish washerwoman who gave $30 to the Commission, and of a poor girl who gave her only ring, precious to her far beyond its worth, and all whose brothers had gone to the war. He concluded by reading the following letter dictated by a little girl only seven years old, and put in a “housewife,” and directed to “Some Sick Soldier.”

PHILADELPHIA, April 17, 1863.

MY DEAR SOLDIER: I send you a little Testament. I am a little girl, seven years old. I want to do something for the soldiers who do so much for us; so I have saved my pocket money to send you this. Although I have never seen you, I intend to begin to pray that God will make and keep you good. Oh, how sorry I am that you have to leave your dear mother. Did she cry when you bade her good-by? Don’t you often think of her at night, when you are going to bed? Do you kneel down and say your prayers? If I were you, I would not care if the other soldiers did laugh; God will smile upon you. I am sorry, very sorry that you are sick. I wish that I could go to nurse you. I would bathe your head, and read to you. Do you know the hymn,

“There is a happy land?”

I hope you will go to that land when you die. But remember, I will pray that you may get well again.

When you are able to sit up, I wish you to write to me, and tell me all your troubles.

Inclosed you will find a postage stamp. I live at No. — North Ninth-street.

Good-by. Your friend, LIZZIE S –.

This was given to a soldier in Nashville by a delegate of the Christian Commission, and there was evidence that it had been the means of his conversion. The Commission, he said, had over 1,000 delegates, had received and distributed over $200,000 in cash, $200,000 in stores, $100,000 in salaries, railroad fares and telegrams donated, 8,000 boxes of clothing, 400,000 copies of the Scriptures, 500,000 hymn books, 1,000,000 soldiers’ books, 1,000,000 religious papers, and 18,000,000 pages of tracts.

The exercises concluded by a song and the benediction by President HOPKINS.

Collections were taken up to the amount of $600, which, with the $3,200 raised at the hotels for ice within twenty-four hours, makes up a contribution from the pleasure-seekers at Saratoga, of which the country may well be proud. The ice is already on its way from Boston to the wounded heroes of the assault on Fort Wagner.

Source: “The Christian Commission,” New York Times, August 17, 1863 (link); Christian Commission information (link); Lemuel Loss, Annuls of the United States Christian Commission, Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1868 (link)