Discipleship during the Civil War

On Sept.15th, 2007 I had the honor and privilege of speaking at the Spotsylvania Presbyterian Church's Men's Ministry Breakfast. The overall theme of my presentation was "Faith under Fire" and this talk was a prelude to the church's new 'Discipleship Challenge' program that was starting for the fall. Beginning with a short commentary on Civil War memory, I then presented the definition of a 'disciple' followed by six Christian stories of varying degrees of discipleship. The transcripts are below:


First off, I want to thank John for inviting me here today and Stan for assisting with my PowerPoint. It is truly a privilege to speak to you guys and I hope to make it worth your while. This presentation in particular is very special to me, as I finally get an opportunity to speak at my own church. The food was great, thank you Peter, and the fellowship with you all is truly a blessing. I can't think of a better reason to be up this early on a Saturday morning.

I do a few of these talks on religion and its role in the Civil War for various history and heritage groups. One is titled 'For God and Country' and focuses on the bio of Stonewall Jackson. Another one is called 'Christian Cavalier' and presents the spiritual life of JEB Stuart. I also speak about what I call the "double-edged sword of theology" in war and how faith can be perverted for the justification of atrocity. This of course can be seen in the state of Islam over in the Middle East.

This time however, I wanted to do something new that fit the upcoming 'Discipleship Challenge' theme. After talking to Stan about the fall program that is starting here at SPC, I tried to come up with some stories of people that practiced discipleship-like qualities during the War Between the States. So I went back through my stuff and selected a few of my favorites. I've chosen to call this one… 'Faith Under Fire: Discipleship during the Civil War.'

Now all of the people that I'm speaking of today are featured in my upcoming devotional "The Southern Cross," which I will shamelessly plug at the end of my presentation. I've also figured in time for questions so if you have any, please save them until I'm finished. I'll stay as long as you like.

Some of these people that I'll be talking about today will no doubt be familiar to you. Others may not, but the one bond that ties them together is the fact that they were all believers. Some were saved long before the war, some long after. All of them started out as ordinary people, just like you and I, who later became extraordinary during the direst of times in our country's history.

Just out of curiosity, by a show of hands, how many native-Southerners and how many transplanted-Northerners do we have here today? I'm originally from Western PA myself. OK, Great. I made a point of trying to put together something for both Yanks and Rebs, so it's good to have some balance here today.

As you know this war remains a very controversial and personal event in our nation's history, even to this day. After all, we can't even seem to agree on what to call it. It's been referred to as The Civil War, War Between the States, Fight for Southern Independence, War of Northern Aggression, the Great Divide, and my personal favorite, the Late Unpleasantness.

Whatever you call it this war killed more Americans than all of our other wars combined. Over 620,000 people died in this conflict. It was a war unlike any other in our nation's history. You had brothers killing brothers, citizens under the same flag, families with the same heritage, and the same God. It was a terrible time to say the least. Imagine your relatives or neighbors suddenly becoming 'the enemy.'


It's far too easy for us to look back today, especially here in our little piece of Central Virginia known as the "Crossroads of the Civil War," and forget the carnage that took place here. People come from all over the word to tour our hallowed grounds. And when they get here, everything is perfect. The grass is neatly trimmed and the markers are polished. The freshly painted cannons are all lined up neatly. Yet they are standing in the 'shadow of death.'


Can you imagine the stench of rotting men and horses, or the millions of flies that littered the air? Try to picture the nightmarish scenes that were witnessed by the townsfolk following the battle. So the next time that you find yourself touring one of these postcard-pretty places, remember that although our local National Parks appear romantic, the war that took place on them was anything but that. I've been obsessed with battlefields since the age of 7, and I am just now starting to realize the harsh realities of them.

Still in the middle of all this death and destruction, in the midst of all this ugliness were countless examples of God's glory. War brings out the worst in people and the best in people. Christianity after all is the one-true religion that is founded on the premise of doing good unto others, not ourselves. It's one of the few faiths today that is not self-serving. So here are some examples of God's grace and providence that he's blessed us with, and how we can choose to use it. I'll be sharing 6 disciple-stories with you. Some from the North and some from the South.

I also wanted to give you something with a little more substance than just a straight Civil War speech, so I have also included some associated Scripture passages with each subject for you to reflect on. These are my versions of Pastor Alan's 'Covenant Connections.' I have handouts here if you like, and I'll be posting them with the transcripts on my web site later this week.

Let's start by asking what is a disciple?

Now for those of you who don't know me, I don't like anything that was made after the turn of the century, so I went back to an old copy of Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary. According to Easton the definition of a 'disciple' is: Disciple (n): A disciple of Christ is one who: (1) believes His doctrine (2) rests on His sacrifice (3) imbibes [receives] His spirit (4) imitates His example.

Sounds pretty simple. So how does one become a 'disciple?'

I call these the 'Building Blocks of a Prayer Warrior:'

FAITH: Believe in the Word of God
COURAGE: Take strength from it
HUMILITY: Humble yourself before Him
WITNESS: Share the 'glory of His story'
SERVICE: Use your time and talents
MERCY: Be kind and live by example

Please keep that list in mind as I go through these individual's stories.


First up today, I want to talk about a man who truly had the 'Luck of the Irish.' This gentleman was not a soldier, but a chaplain from the Union Army who is probably the most famous priest not only of the Civil War, but of this entire period in history. His name is Father William Corby. For those of you who have been to Gettysburg, you may remember a statue of a man that stands a few hundred yards from the large Pennsylvania Monument. That's him.

Now according to Catholic doctrine, one of the most important duties that a priest performs is administering the sacrament of "Last Rites," which is a form of absolution from sin that is given to a dying person. During wartime, men will obviously fall on the battlefield, mortally wounded and without the benefit of having a priest nearby. In order to compensate for this absence, Catholic chaplains would perform a universal form of this sacrament prior to the battle. This service was extremely important to brigades that were made up of strict, traditional Catholic immigrants such as the Irish and German contingencies.

Just as the Protestant soldiers would gather for a service prior to engagements, the Catholics would hold a mass and sometimes they would even take Communion.

Perhaps the most courageous of these was the Union Army's "Irish Brigade," who deployed with the priest. The good Father extended general absolution to all soldiers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. He was also known to administer Last Rites to those dying on the field, while under fire. Prior to the conflict in the Wheatfield, on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Father Corby offered general absolution to the Irish Brigade. He probably did the same before their disastrous charge here in Fredericksburg in December of the previous year.

As I mentioned, his statue stands at Gettysburg where he held an impromptu mass for the Irish just before they plunged into battle. Despite the loss of 506 of their men during that day's fight, one soldier stated that, because of Father Corby, he felt "as strong as a lion and had no fear," although his comrade was shot down beside him.

After the war, in 1865, Father Corby returned to Notre Dame where he was made vice president. Within a year, he was named president and at the end of his term at Notre Dame in 1872, Father Corby was sent to Sacred Heart College. He returned to Notre Dame as president in 1877, where he became known as the "Second Founder of Notre Dame" for his successful effort in rebuilding the school's campus following a devastating fire.

In a book of his recollections entitled "Memoirs of Chaplain Life," Father Corby wrote: "Oh, you of a younger generation, think of what it cost our forefathers to save our glorious inheritance of union and liberty! If you let it slip from your hands you will deserve to be branded as ungrateful cowards and undutiful sons. But, no! You will not fail to cherish the prize-- it is too sacred a trust-- too dearly purchased."

Father Corby was a shepherd for Christ who showed courage through his faith, a courage that spread throughout the ranks of his flock. When he died in 1897 and as he was being buried, surviving veterans of the Federals' Grand Army of the Republic sang this song: "Answering the call of roll on high. Dropping from the ranks as they make reply. Filling up the army of the by and by."

Now when I hear them say, 'filling up the army' I think of him filling their spirits up with hope, faith, and the promise of salvation. Father Corby was certainly strong, and his faith led to others coming to Christ. In other words he lived as a disciple and in turn, created more disciples, both on the battlefield and off.


By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name: (Romans 1:5)

Only fear the LORD, and serve him in truth with all your heart: for consider how great things he hath done for you. (1 Samuel 12:24)

And his name through faith in his name hath made this man strong, whom ye see and know: yea, the faith which is by him hath given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all. (Acts 3:16)


Next up is a guy you'll all recognize. Every road in the Old Dominion is named after him. Of course this is the one and only Jefferson Davis. Now J.D. is one of those guys who most people remember incorrectly. He did not 'officially' volunteer for the position of president in the Confederate States. He was nominated and later appointed. In fact, there is a story on his History Channel bio that tells of a messenger riding up and informing him that he was just made president.

Now from what I understand, Davis did not necessarily want the job at first, but he took it as he was a man of duty. He had been what most historians today consider to be the greatest Secretary of Defense in the history of America. At the time the position was called the Secretary of War. Davis established many of the roots of the Department of Defense that we have today. He revolutionized the navy, weapons development and defense contracting. He developed new tactics to go with the new weapons and was a tremendous leader. Unfortunately, he would not have the same success as the CSA's President.

On a side note, if you ever have a chance to go down to Richmond and visit the Confederate White House, which was Davis' during the war, do so. It is a magnificent residence to say the least and although it is completely engulfed in urban sprawl, the exterior and interior of the building is breath-taking.

Anyway back to Davis. Now he was a protestant, a man of humble origins, who began his formal education at a small, one-room, log cabin school in the back woods of Mississippi. (similar to his counterpart U.S. President Abraham Lincoln from Illinois.) Two years later, his family moved and he entered the Catholic school of Saint Thomas at St. Rose Priory, which was operated by the Dominican Order of Kentucky.

At the time, Davis was the only Protestant student in the entire institution, but his own acceptance, as well as an introduction to a different denomination, made a lasting impression on the Episcopalian.

Later, as a West Point graduate, Davis prided himself on the military skills he had gained in the Mexican-American War as a colonel in a volunteer regiment and as U.S. Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. After rising to the highest chair in the newly established Confederate government, Davis made a concerted effort to bridge the spiritual and social gaps between citizens of different faiths.

During the 19th Century, Catholics and Jews were often held in contempt and discriminated against by the country's Protestant majority. President Davis did not share this sentiment and following his appointment to power, he set a precedent when he assembled the first administration in American history that integrated Protestants, Catholics and Jews. This included his Secretary of State/ Secretary of War/Attorney General: Judah P. Benjamin (Jewish) and Secretary of the Navy: Stephen R. Mallory (Catholic).

Davis' unorthodox and courageous decision went against all previous political practices and ultimately sent shockwaves through all of the county's governing bodies, as not even his contemporary, Abraham Lincoln, had appointed anyone other than Protestants to a high office.

In his article 'Jefferson Davis, Religion and the Politics of Recognition,' D. Jason Berggren stated that, "Davis practiced the politics of recognition by appointing individuals identified with persecuted religious minorities. In this regard, contrary to conventional wisdom, Jefferson Davis was a remarkable president, a president ahead of his time."

In the end, Davis was simply a disciple who respected other Christian-Judea faiths and gave them legitimacy in the community that he governed. He once said, "Never be haughty to the humble; never be humble to the haughty." Haughty of course meaning arrogant.

This kind of humbleness and acceptance of fellow Christians of different theologies bred a fellowship that spread among the southern states. It took guts for Davis to do that and our politicians today seem more bent on dividing the country's believers instead of bringing them all to the table. His choice was very risky and very unpopular, but it was the right thing to do. So although he 'lost' the war and the country, Davis did have a positive impact on the citizens around him.

Washington could certainly use a lesson in discipleship. Believe me. I spend all my time studying the Confederacy and have really come to accept that the United States government has never really been 'for the people' or 'by the people'. Instead of bringing people together, they always seem set on driving them apart in order to further their agenda.


Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13)

Arise; for this matter belongeth unto thee: we also will be with thee: be of good courage, and do it. (Ezra 10:4)

And Joshua said unto them, Fear not, nor be dismayed, be strong and of good courage: for thus shall the LORD do to all your enemies against whom ye fight. (Joshua 10:25)

Continued Here