Years after the Civil War ended, T. D. Witherspoon penned an essay recalling his experiences at Gettysburg for the Southern Historical Society Papers. The journal was among the leading publications promoting the Lost Cause narrative of the war. Though his story clearly established sympathy for the Confederate view, it also revealed how religion had divided north and south before the war and how faith supported each sides’ view of morality and true religion.
At Gettysburg, Witherspoon served as the chaplain of the 42nd Mississippi (Joe Davis’s Brigade, Henry Heth’s Division) and was one of the chaplains who volunteered to stay behind to care for Confederate wounded after Lee’s Army retreated. As he put it, “On the evening of the 4th of July, 1863 …. I found myself in the midst of three or four hundred men of the brigade in which I served, who were too severely wounded to be transported to the rear.” Witherspoon, after obtaining permission stay with the wounded men, soon “stood by the roadway waving adieu as the little remnant of the gallant brigade tramped silently and sorrowfully by.” Soon the old Rebel hospitals were broken up and the surviving wounded were moved to United States Army hospitals. The Confederate surgeons and chaplains were then transported to Northern prisons.
Shortly before the hospitals were transferred, however, Witherspoon set out on distinctive mission. The 42nd Mississippi’s colonel, Hugh R. Miller, had been mortally wounded and was near death in a private home in Gettysburg. Col. Miller called for Witherspoon so he could have pastoral care as he made his “dying expression of faith in Christ and his readiness to depart.” Miller died soon after a brief conversation with his chaplain.
Col. Miller’s son, Edwin, and Witherspoon received a pass to accompany the remains through the lines to Baltimore. They bore with them “a letter to General Schneck, the Commandant at Baltimore, requesting that we should be permitted to accompany the remains by flag of truce to Richmond.”
They arrived in Baltimore and presented their pass “to Colonel Fish, General Schenck’s Adjutant.” Fish turned to a subordinate and said, “Go and get that body and have it buried. ’Where shall I bury it?’ asked the surprised official – to which the answer was in substance that he did not care where, so as the body was put out of the way, adding that he had stood all he was going to stand of this paying honors to Rebel dead.”
Once Miller was interred, Fish ordered the colonel’s son and Witherspoon “down to the guard-room.” The lieutenant charged with carrying out the order gasped “But the man is a minister of the gospel; you won’t send him there. ‘Why not’ Fish replied, “the preachers are more to blame for this war than any other. The best I think we could do would be to hang a few of them when we capture them.”
This week, Seminary Ridge Museum launches a weekly living history program that explores the religious life of the Army of Northern Virginia – including a look at how involved southern ministers were in creating the Confederacy. The 30-minute program leaves plenty of time for question and answer sessions as we explore a long-neglected aspect of Civil War America. Visit seminaryridgemuseum.org for scheduling.