In honor of Pvt. Nathan R. Oakes, CSA

150 years ago, my great grandfather, Nathan Richardson Oakes, served as a private in Company D of the distinguished 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in the Army of Tennessee. He participated in the great Civil War campaigns, including the battles of Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Atlanta, Franklin, Nashville, and Bentonville. I am writing about his engagements as well as some details about fighting for the Lost Cause. I hope to honor him and commemorate the events and individuals that contributed to making this a renowned unit in the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Ministering to soldiers' spiritual needs

Through the early months of 1863, the Army of Tennessee, entrenched around Tullahoma, Tennessee, had been recuperating from extensive fighting at Murfreesboro in the last months of the previous year. The health of the men improved as they were better fed, clothed, and received needed medical care (although all of the above remained in short supply). Their fighting readiness also improved as commanders regularly drilled their men and instilled military discipline in the ranks.

Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowrey
often preached to his troops.
Morale improved, too, as soldiers' spiritual needs were addressed. Army chaplains and local pastors regularly preached to gathered troops. Bibles and Christian publications were freely distributed. Tullahoma and its surrounding camps were but one example of several locations of great spiritual revival as the Christian gospel was regularly preached. A fascinating and edifying account of the teaching and evangelistic work of these godly ministers is contained in W.W. Bennett's, The Great Revival in the Southern Armies. Here is one excerpt about the ministry among Gen. S.A.M. Wood's Brigade, in which Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes, served. On this and many other occasions, his own commander, Baptist minister Col. Mark Lowrey, participated:
In General Wood’s brigade a meeting of great interest has for several weeks been under the supervision of Rev. F. A. Kimball, chaplain of the 16th Alabama, assisted mainly by Colonel Reed, Chief of Provost Marshal Department, in Hardee’s corps, and Col. Lowery, of the 45th and 32d Mississippi, the result of which has been one hundred conversions. In the same brigade, Chaplin Otkin, of Col. Lowery's regiment, has been conducting religious services, which, from the best information received, has been productive of great good in restoring many wanderers to their former enjoyments and inducting abut forty-five souls into the kingdom of Christ. 
On another occasion, British observer Col. Arthur Fremantle, who published a journal of his tour of the Southern army in his Three Months in the Southern States, April-June, 1863, witnessed a similar meeting, this time another service in Gen. Wood's camp, led by Episcopal Bishop Stephen Elliot:1 
I was present at a great open-air preaching at General Wood's camp. Bishop Elliott preached most admirably to a congregation composed of nearly 3000 soldiers, who listened to him with the most profound attention. Generals Bragg, Polk, Hardee, Withers, Cleburne, and endless brigadiers, were also present. It is impossible to exaggerate the respect paid by all ranks of this army to Bishop Elliott; and although most of the officers are Episcopalians, the majority of the soldiers are Methodists, Baptists, &c.
In one of these Christian services, no less than the commander of the Army of Tennessee, Gen. Braxton Bragg, came under the influence of Bible teaching and was baptized at the First Presbyterian Church in Shelbyville.

It is also well documented that (Reverend) Col. Lowery frequently exhorted his 32nd Mississippi Regiment from the Scriptures, often in the moments before leading them into battle. I have read such accounts, not only referenced here around Tullahoma, but also in the Atlanta Campaign, and again at the Battle of Franklin, the latter two occasions as a brigadier general.2 How different from the secular pre-battle scenes in America's present War on Terror!

But evangelistic preaching wasn't the only means of spreading the Christian gospel throughout the army. According to one author and observer, James D. Porter (Vol. 9 of Confederate Military History), during the war, Bible societies were organized for the publication, sale, and gift of Bibles for dissemination in the Confederate army. Christian newspapers were published in many places and thousands of copies were regularly circulated. Tens of thousands of religious tracts and books of "Camp Hymns"were also distributed. Even the American Bible Society, headquartered in New York, donated thousands of Bibles and smuggled them through a Confederate agent to Rebel troops.

With the presence of many Christian denominations represented in pastors and chaplains in the Confederate army a trans-denominational institution was established whereby preachers of different denominations could administer the sacraments and receive new members into the fellowship of the church. The organization was named "The Army Church," and its articles of faith represented a charitable attempt toward spiritual unity among the disparate Christian groups. In "The Army Church," professions of Christian faith—or "joining the church" as many soldiers at the time referred to Christian conversion—were recognized by all ministers as authoritative and acceptable, regardless of denominational preference. Sunday schools and Bible classes abounded to train men in the faith. In these classes many men also learned to read and write with the Bible as their text.

Is it any wonder, then, that in the midst of the disappointments and deprivations of war, morale in the Southern army actually improved.

1 Capt. Daniel Coleman probably described this meeting in his diary for Sunday, May 31, 1863: "Heard a fine sermon today from Bishop Elliot of the Methodist Episcopal Church - It was full of deep piety & lofty patriotism - Our whole brigade was present - Genl Bragg - Genl Polk -Genl Hardee & other Generals were there - I pray that it may yield much fruit - to the honor and glory of our Heavenly Master" (Huntsville Historical Review, Vol 26, No. 2. 1999: Transcription of Diary, Univ. North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
2 Gen. William J. Hardee once commended Lowrey for being "the parson soldier, who preached to his men in camp and fought with them in the field with equal earnestness and effect."

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