Baptists and the American Civil War: May 12, 1864

hancock_winfield_scottAs Union General William T. Sherman relentlessly pressures Confederate forces in north Georgia, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia grows more intense. General Ulysses S. Grant, having a significant numerical advantage over Confederate General Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia, continues pounding the rebel lines.

Utilizing tactics tested two days earlier, Union General Winfield Scott Hancock turns the tide of the battle to the favor of the federals by breaching a section of Confederate earthworks and capturing some 2,800 rebel soldiers.

Confederate Lt. General Richard Ewell describes what happens this day, his estimate of losses lower than the actual number:

Wednesday, May 11, it rained hard all day and no fighting took place. Toward night the enemy were reported withdrawing from Anderson’s front and were heard moving to our right. Scouts stated them to be retiring to Fredericksburg. I received orders to withdraw the artillery, which was done along Johnson’s front. Soon after midnight Major-General Johnson reported the enemy massing before him, and General Long was directed to return the artillery to the intrenchments, and General Gordon ordered to be ready to support Johnson. Different artillery was sent back, and owing to the darkness and to ignorance of the location it only reached the lines in time to be taken. The enemy attacked in heavy force at earliest dawn, and though gallantly resisted, their numbers and the want of artillery enabled them to break through our lines, capturing Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson, Brig. Gen. G. H. Steuart, about 2,000 men, and 20 pieces of artillery. The smoke of the guns and the mist kept the air dark until a comparatively late hour, thereby assisting the enemy, as he was enabled to mass his troops as he chose. They poured through our lines in immense numbers, taking possession to the right and left of the Salient and keeping up a constant fire of artillery and musketry for twenty-four hours.

While the battle is far from over, Hancock’s heroic success this day follows many prior notable battlefield accomplishments in the war. A Baptist deacon and one of the most admired of Union officers, Hancock’s leadership and courage shone brightly in the battles of Williamsburg (May 1862), Antietam (September 1862), Chancellorsville (May 1863), Gettysburg (July 1863) and Wilderness (a few days earlier).

Amidst the bloody carnage of the Atlanta and Wilderness campaigns this spring day, some Americans far from the battlefield action but no less brave than soldiers, put their past behind them and head west on the Oregon trail to new lives awaiting them in California.

By the hundreds and thousands single men and entire families, grouped into wagon trains, this week begin perilous journeys to the far west. Some are Baptists. Disease, hunger, wild animals, and Indians are among the dangers they face. Many will die and be buried along the Oregon trail. Yet the venturesome Baptists who survive the long trek will help shape the future of the denomination.

Among the families setting out from Iowa today are the Rousseaus, Earps, Curtis’es and Hamiltons. Their destination is the southern California community of San Bernardino.

The Curtis family are Baptists: Rev I. C. Curtis, wife Lucy, and ten children. The few possessions they have chosen to carry with them are carefully packed in their oxen-pulled wagon.

Rendezvousing at Pella, the families proceed to Knoxville, the old home of the Rousseaus, where they stay for several nights and get to know one another.

Sarah Jane Rousseau keeps a diary. When the journey begins in earnest, she writes:

Monday May 16th: Got up and prepared breakfast. After eating all confusion getting ready to start. I can’t describe the appearance of all things as they really are. But the weather is indeed beautiful. All nature seems smiling . The birds singing their lively song of praise unto Most High God. We started and went through Sandyville, then as far as the lower River, about ten miles from Pleasantville. So here we camped for the night. Just done eating supper and getting ready for bed. The girls are talking of fishing some tonight. Elizabeth and Mattie have been riding horseback most of the day. John has been riding his mare most of the time and Albert most of his.

Tuesday, May 17th: We did not get off this morning as I thought we should. We were detained on account of Jesse Curtis’s cow running off. I hope he will be here tonight. Jesse has come. Could not find his cow and now one of his horses has run off. Tom has started after her. He had to go to the other side of Pleasantville about one mile before he got her. Some man saw her and put her in a stable.

Reaching Fort Laramie on July 17, Sarah writes:

we have to keep close watch day and night over the stock. Mr. Earp went out to see about the guards (military guards) and found they had got up a dance. And he told them they must quit their dancing and be on duty. One of the soldiers told him to mind his own business and ordered him off. It made him awful mad and he was for killing. He used very profane language; he could hardly be appeased. But he cooled down after awhile and all was quiet.

The journey is yet far from over, and Sarah continues journaling.

On July 30 near Fort Bridger:

… Earp got angry with the whole train because they passed him, he took it as an insult, talked pretty hard to all, some thought he had taken a little too much liquor. He used very profane language and told the whole train that he would give up his Captaincy unless they would adhere to the rules he gave. After being detained an hour or more very unpleasantly we rolled on…

Near Las Vegas on November 10:

We fed five (Indians) among us. All were willing to do so but Mr. Earp. he swears and cuts up about it, although he derives the same benefit as the rest of us.

Somewhere west of Vegas on November 24:

This evening Mr. Earp had another rippet with Warren (The youngest Earp son) fighting with Jimmy Hatten. And then he commenced about all the children. Used very profane language and swore if the children’s parents did not correct their children he would whip every last one of them. He still shows out more and more every day what kind of man he is.

And the final entry, on Saturday, December 17, 1864:

A very cold freezing morning. The ground covered with snow. Started up from camp about an hour before day, got to the top of the Sierra Nevada Mountains by daylight. From the foot of the mountain to the top of the Sierra Nevada Mountains (Cajon Pass). Then we went down a very steep hill, it is down hill all the way to San Bernardino. We are now at Martin’s ranch (near Glen Helen Park in Devore), the appearance of the country is quite different from what it has been for some time back. Everything has a green lively look. The grass growing nicely, it looks like spring instead of the middle of winter. Got into San Bernardino about sun down. I don’t know yet if we’ll remain here or not. I haven’t seen the town yet. Don’t know how it looks. I wish to get settled down.

Safe in San Bernardino, the Curtis family soon begins seeking out other Baptists. Two years after the Curtis’es arrive, the First Baptist Church of San Bernardino is formed and Rev. I. C. Curtis is called as the congregation’s first pastor on December 15, 1866. The pioneer preacher faithfully preaches the gospel, his faith forming the foundation for a prosperous future for Baptists in Southern California many years hence.

Sources: Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (link) and (link) and (link); Winfield Scott Hancock (link) and (link); Sarah Jane Rousseau, “Diary of the Earp Wagon Train to San Bernardino,” by Nicholas R. Cataldo¬† (link); History of the First Baptist Church of San Bernardino (link)