“Where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty”: The Bible as a Vessel for Remembrance, Guidance, and Self-Understanding during the Civil War

By Savannah Labbe ’19

bible
The Bible of Lewis Tway

 

Courage, guidance, family, strength, self-understanding, and survival: These are just a few of the things that this Bible represented to the soldier who carried it. For Private Lewis Tway of the 147th New York Volunteers, this Bible provided a tangible link to all these things—a way to make sense of the at-times non-sensical chaos and carnage of war, a way to grow, learn, and adapt to the infinite physical and spiritual challenges of soldiering while still firmly rooting Tway in the foundational people and principles that gave his life meaning. Tway’s engagement with this Bible was never static; the evolution of that engagement, coupled with the multiple meanings that this Bible took on throughout the course of the Civil War were instrumental in shaping, and re-shaping, the man who carried it.

21-year-old Lewis Tway enlisted in the 147th New York in July of 1863, shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, and was discharged in July of 1865. The 147th saw heavy fighting in between: The Battle of the Wilderness, the Mine Run Campaign, Cold Harbor, and the Siege of Petersburg were just a few of their major engagements. This Bible was carried through the carnage of those battles in Tway’s pocket. Soldiers had to carry everything with them wherever they went. Though merely a palm-sized New Testament, this Bible would have meant extra weight for Tway to carry, but he found it important enough to do so. Its black leather binding worn to brown in some places from constant use, the Bible conveys a sense of constant companionship and consultation for Tway. It has a latch in the front that Tway would have to consciously remove to open it, but he did so time and time again. On the front page, he wrote his name and his regiment, which would have served as a type of dog tag in the case of his death—no doubt a comforting notion to a soldier who would be fighting hundreds of miles away from home and family. It also had blank pages in it which Tway could use as a sort of journal and a place to reflect on his experiences of warfare.

The text of the Bible is very small, but Tway marked up a lot of the passages in it that resonated with him, even writing notes in the margins. Tway’s notes bear witness to the emotional and spiritual challenges he confronted as well as his evolving perspective on those challenges. For example, he circled in pencil, 1 Corinthians 15:20, which refers to the resurrection of Christ, and he writes the word “easter” next to it. He may have been reading this and remembering the comforts of home and how he attended Easter services before the war began, as well as how he celebrated the holiday with his family. Making such notations may have also been a way for Tway to get his mind off the horrors of war, by really thinking about and examining each verse and attempting to understand what they meant in the broader context of the Bible as well as the context of his life as a soldier. From instances like these it is obvious that Tway dedicated time to reading the small text of the Bible and reflecting on it and how its message intertwined with the realities of his daily life. As exhibited in Tway’s notations, Tway appears to have turned to the Bible for self-understanding and as a coping mechanism during some of what were likely the darkest, most confounding days of his life.

For men like Tway, the Bible was not simply a holy book, but a piece of home they could carry with them. Many men received their Bibles as gifts from family members or dear friends. While it is unknown how Tway received his Bible, he most likely got it before leaving home. Judging by how worn and well-loved the Bible looks, it was one of Tway’s most cherished possessions, perhaps one that was a reminder of who was waiting at home for him. While he was not married until after the war, he did have a sister that he was very close to and who was one of the few people he wrote to during the war. The Bible was a piece of home for Tway, a reminder of his sister and other loved ones for whom he was fighting, and who were waiting for him to come home. Along with this Bible, he also carried a picture of a little girl, possibly his sister, which would have complemented the Bible as a visual reminder of whom he was fighting for.

The weight of the Bible in Tway’s pocket also served as a reminder to keep the faith and resist the many temptations of army life, such as alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. Religion, especially Christianity, was a powerful force in the lives of most 19th century Americans. They went to church every week and looked to the Bible for all forms of moral guidance and teaching. It was essential not to stray from those teachings, which was why so many soldiers, such as Charles O. Varnum of the 40th Massachusetts, were warned by their parents to be wary of temptation in camp. Such calls for caution were not unique to the Union. On the Confederate side, Carlton McCarthy’s likewise father said he would rather see his son dead than hear tales of his immorality. The army had long been known as a place of temptation and these fathers were correct in voicing concern over their sons’ moral health. The physicality of the book in Tway’s pocket served as a constant reminder from home to never stray from the teachings of the Bible that so strongly undergirded so many elements of Victorian society.

Tway also probably found himself looking to his Bible often for religious advice or guidance in the midst of a war where God often seemed quite absent amidst the constant and horrifyingly brutal deaths of friends and comrades, who succumbed not only to battle wounds but to debilitating diseases. Tway wrote in a blank page of his Bible, “where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.” He may have been trying to fortify his own courage by reminding himself that constant faith in the Lord would liberate his own soul, both to perform great acts of courage in battle and to reach the gates of Heaven. However, by writing this notation in the midst of war, Tway may have been suggesting that he believed the spirit of the Lord was with the Union and on the side of liberty, and thus also with Tway, as a soldier in blue. His notation also may have referred to the liberation of slaves, as he joined the army after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Thus, Tway may have been reflecting on the political aims of the war through the lens of the Bible which, for many, imbued the Union cause with a comforting sense of sacredly ordained responsibility.

Like Tway, people on both sides of the conflict used the Bible as justification of their cause. The South tended to take a literal approach to the Bible, citing its many references to slavery as proof that God condoned slavery. The North tended to interpret the Bible less literally, saying that the characteristics of God as depicted in the Bible proved that He would not condone slavery. Due to passages found in the Bible, both sides believed that God was on their side and that He supported their cause. Indeed, not only soldiers, but entire armies felt that they were carrying out God’s will. For example, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a Civil War song, is a deeply religious song written by a northerner who believed that the Union Army was doing God’s work. The North was on a Christ-like mission, according to the song: “As [Christ] died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” The Bible was proof that the war and the killing necessitated by it were acceptable to God. Thus, the Civil War transformed the Bible into much more than a book that one looked to for moral guidance. It became a moral justification for all the killing and carnage that went along with the war. For the North especially, the war took on an increasingly religious cause, with the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of the slaves raised to a holy mission. Many northerners thus ultimately interpreted the war as a conflict fought under God’s will for the North and the Union’s great “democratic experiment ” to win and the oppressed to be freed, not merely a war to reunite the states.

Similarly, Tway seemed to have looked to the Bible for constant reassurance that his actions on the battlefield were indeed compatible with, and justified, by God. He marked Mark 10:17-20 in which a man asks Jesus what he has to do to achieve eternal life and Jesus answers that he must keep the commandments, one of which is not to kill. Tway was unable to keep this commandment during the war, but he seemed to have reconciled this fact both with the comforting knowledge that the cause in whose name such killing occurred was morally justified, and with other, specific verses in the Bible that gave more personal comfort. One of these, was Luke 15:7, which reads “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” As long as he repented, Tway knew he would still have a place in heaven. Tway was not the only soldier who worried about the apparent contradiction between soldiering and moral living; many dealt with immense guilt over the fact they had to kill their fellow human beings, even if they were the enemy. For these soldiers, the Bible provided moral guidance on how one could still achieve salvation.

In addition, the Bible also provided soldiers with temporary salvation from their present mental hell. Soldiers were constantly aware of the fact that they could die at any moment, which caused immense anxiety and depression for many. Tway became so preoccupied by the eventual reality of his own death, that he even wrote his own obituary after the war was over. This suggests that the war changed Tway by awakening him to the reality and eventuality of his own death. With death being a possibility every day during the war, Tway realized that it was similarly possible after the war and he made sure to take control of how he would be remembered. Many soldiers faced this same reality of possible death, especially before a battle; some looked to the Bible, praying that they would make it through safely, or praying for the strength to accept the Bible’s teachings about the preordained nature of death. Others looked to it after battle, as a way of coming to terms with the horrors they had witnessed and the carnage in which they had participated. For those on the verge of going into battle, carrying a Bible provided a sense that God literally was “by their side,” especially if one made it out of that battle alive and in one piece, which often caused immense gratitude towards God. The moral fortitude and sense of peace that many soldiers derived from the Bible also gave soldiers courage and the strength to face the prospect of death. This was especially necessary in a society where displays of cowardice could impugn both a soldier’s masculinity and sense of honor. Although Tway survived the war, he was wounded badly enough at the Battle of the Wilderness to receive a furlough so he could recover at home. The fact that he survived such a terrifying experience likely would have filled him with gratitude toward God and deepened the sense of personal closeness he felt to his Creator. Indeed, Tway likely clung to this very Bible not only during, but after his recovering as an act of devotion to God, who had saved his life.

Bibles were also used as momento mori, objects proving the soldier had died a “good death.” Achieving the “good death” was essential for 19th -century Americans. One was supposed to die at home, surrounded by family, and demonstrating a preparedness for death. It was believed that the last moments before death were reflective of what that person’s afterlife would be like. For instance, it was thought that if a person were to die screaming, they would be sentenced to perpetually scream in the afterlife. Screaming was a sign that the deceased was not prepared for death nor resigned to God’s will, so their place in heaven was uncertain. With soldiers fighting hundreds of miles away from home, and facing unimaginable horrors and prolonged suffering , the good death was hard to come by on the battlefields of the Civil War. Thus, surviving soldiers constantly struggled to justify the death of a fallen comrade when writing to his family. Families wanted to hear that their soldier had died a heroic death, and was calm and serene at the end, accepting of his fate. When no one was around to see how the soldier died, momento mori served as hints as to if the soldier faced death with bravery and acceptance or cowardice and denial—hints that fellow comrades could convey to family to comfort them in their grief. A Bible was an important momento mori because it showed that the deceased was a believer and had held onto his Bible until the last second, proving that he had accepted God’s will. If Tway had died during the war, his Bible would have helped assure his family that he had a place in heaven. Although Tway survived the war, his Bible likely still played an important role in how he remembered and internalized his wartime experiences. An active member in postwar veteran’ organizations, Tway clearly derived great pride and meaning from his military service. Such meaning was deeply shaped by the religious lens through which he had understood his soldiering experience and the war, its causes, and its consequences. His Bible had helped him, physically, morally, and spiritually survive the war and ensured that he could help contribute to the restoration of the Union and the liberation of four million souls.

Tway
Lewis Tway

As is evident, the Bible took on many meanings for Tway and many other Americans during the war, and it helped shape the wartime experiences and worldviews of soldiers in camp and on the battlefield. Tway used the Bible, as many other soldiers did, as a lens through which to view his experience and explain what was happening to him. The Bible was able to affirm for him that, while what he was doing was technically a sin, he could still earn a place in heaven should he kill in the name of liberty, and repent sufficiently for taking a life. For many other soldiers, the Bible provided the same comfort in the face of battle and possible death. It provided them with courage to face the ensuing carnage and an explanation as to why they deserved to live when so many of their friends had died. For these soldiers and Tway, the Bible helped shape their wartime experiences and provided them with hope, courage, and guidance amidst a kind of carnage and death they had never experienced before.


Sources:

Faust, Drew Gilpin. “‘This Is My Last Letter to You’. (Cover story).” Civil War Times 47, no. 1 (February 2008): 28-35. Accessed September 3, 2017.

MacDonald, G Jeffrey. “Gettysburg Museum Looks at Faith Roles in Civil War.” The Christian Century 130, no. 17 (August 21, 2013): 17. Accessed September 3, 2017.

Miller, Randall M. “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis: A Comment.” Fides Et Historia 39, no. 2 (Sum 2007): 13-22. Accessed September 3, 2017.

MS-011: Lewis Tway Collection. Gettdigital: Civil War Era Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, PA. Accessed September 10, 2018.

“The Vegetables Really Get More Tender Care”: An Introduction to Death and Dying in the Civil War

By Zachary Wesley ’20

The Victorian world was one of ceremony and order, even in death. Deathways–the practices of a society regarding death and dying–in 19th century America focused on elaborate rituals that earned the country the grisly distinction of possessing a “culture of death.” The American Civil War presented a four-year window in which many of these traditions were radically challenged in both the North and the South, as loved ones died anonymous deaths far from the embrace of kin. Nevertheless, the warring populations attempted to maintain important traditions even as the horrors of war surrounded them, thus allowing the deathways of the antebellum years to survive even into the early days of the 20th century.

“The Good Death” and the ars moriendi (the art of death) are two common names for what was expected of a “proper” death during the Victorian Era, a concept that drew heavily on themes from Protestant Christianity. Ideally, the dying individual would be surrounded by loved ones in their final moments, speaking inspirational words and repenting of any sins that they might still harbor. When death finally came, it was to be faced fearlessly and calmly, once more inspiring all who were present with the promises of a reunion in heaven. From the point of death, the rituals of mourning began. Clocks were stopped at the time of death, blinds and shutters were drawn, and mirrors were turned to face the wall (or at the very least covered) to prevent the spirit of the departed from becoming trapped or dooming a user of the mirror to certain death. Black mourning dresses became the standard dress for women during this time, while men donned black suits or perhaps mourning armbands.

The women of the family often prepared the body for burial, though undertakers might be summoned by wealthier families. Viewings and vigils often preceded the funeral, with vigils lasting a full twenty-four hours. If a family had them, servants watched over the body during the night. Candles remained lit and flowers were often placed near the body in part to mask decay.  The course of the funeral ultimately depended on how well-to-do the deceased individual was, as funerals “held with tasteful decorum were a sign of good breeding.”  One example of such a funeral early in the war can be found in the July 22, 1861 issue of the Richmond Dispatch. Lieutenant Humphrey H. Miles had been killed in action four days earlier near Manassas Junction while leading soldiers of the First Virginia Infantry and was laid to rest on Saturday the twentieth in Hollywood Cemetery. The newspaper account describes the funeral procession “evinced the respect with which the deceased was regarded.” As a member of the Masons, he was buried with full Masonic honors, while his wife and children were left to “to mourn the sad fortune of war.”

rose woods
The above photograph, taken by Alexander Gardner, depicts dead of the Second South Carolina Infantry in the Rose Woods at Gettysburg. Note the shallowness of the grave. Photo credit: Gettysburg National Military Park. https://npsgnmp.wordpress.com/2012/07/26/what-happened-to-gettysburgs-confederate-dead/

As Lieutenant Humphrey’s death occurred so early in the war, his family was fortunate enough to receive his corpse for burial, though Northern and Southern families alike faced the terrifying reality that they would not know a loved ones’ final resting place or hear their final words as the war progressed. In some cases, doctors, nurses, chaplains, and other soldiers might record the final words of a dying soldier, sending it on to the family he left behind. These “proxy” relatives became essential middle-men in the wartime disruptions of accepted deathways, providing closure to families. Expected final words or knowledge of how death came became a grim luxury for countless Northerners and Southerners, who often brooded on the same question: did he die a “good” death? Heroic battlefield exploits confirmed for many that a soldier in question had died well, fully embodying the Victorian virtues of romantic masculinity. Nevertheless, loved ones’ thoughts often returned to fears of an anonymous death on the battlefield, where the likelihood of recording a soldier’s final words–nevermind providing a proper burial–was slim.

In the aftermath of battle, the sheer volume of the dead often overwhelmed the armies’ burial parties preparing to march again. At Gettysburg, for instance, some estimates placed the weight of human and animal corpses awaiting burial parties on July 4, 1863 at a staggering six million pounds. Although some “fortunate” cases saw comrades retrieve dead friends or family members for burial at home, far too many soldiers lacked this luxury. Common burials in  the form of mass graves marked the battlefields. Even when individual burials were possible, the standard marker of a “decent” burial, the coffin, was a rarity. Shallow graves eroded by wind and rain often yielded their inhabitants to the air. Hogs who searched for the rotting corpses of fallen soldiers became a ghastly and frequent sight in the months after a battle. One Chaplain described the treatment of the dead as a process similar to how farmers “cover potatoes and roots to preserve them from the frost of winter; with this exception, however: the vegetables really get more tender care.” Soldiers and civilians alike were appalled by the conditions their heroes faced in death, ultimately sparking the movement that led to the creation of the first national cemeteries. This sense of unity in honoring the Union dead, however, reached its most powerful expression following Abraham Lincoln’s death on the morning of April 15, 1865. Returning wounded continued to fill Northern cemeteries as ministers across the Union sought to provide context to the shocking loss of the president, declaring him the “last casualty of the Civil War,” even as personal losses continued to mount. The victory of the Union cause coupled with the death of Lincoln created a powerful fusion of civic duty and Protestant Christian deathways.

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President Lincoln’s funeral procession depicted in Harper’s Weekly. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

 

During the uncertainty of war, countless loved ones at home turned to the traditions of death and mourning for a sense of closure. The comforting familiarity of these rituals fostered “a belief they could move through their despair.” Mourning attire also represented a sense of larger unity, with many Southern women seeing the black folds of mourning dresses representing the grim reality of Southern losses in the conflict. In the North, too, the toll of death was felt in countless households. The death toll of the war numbered greater the entire male populations of Alabama or Georgia or more than twice the entire population of Vermont at the time. The formerly-Protestant traditions of death and dying customs expanded into Catholic and even non-Christian households as loved ones and soldiers searched for closure with the loss of loved ones and brothers in arms. Lincoln’s death became the ultimate, national example of how the nation understood mourning customs, and indeed did much to formally cement these traditions as part of American culture at large for at least half a century after the war.


Sources:

Bell, Caryn Cossé. “A Black Patriot and a White Priest: André Cailloux and Claude Paschal Maistre in Civil War New Orleans (review),” The Catholic Historical Review 88, no. 3 (2002): 618-620. Accessed January 25, 2018. https://muse.jhu.edu/.

Bell, Clyde. “What Happened to Gettysburg’s Confederate Dead?,” From the Fields of Gettysburg:  The Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park, July 26, 2012. Accessed December 6, 2017.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.

Hodes, Martha. Mourning Lincoln. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

Lieut. Humphrey H. Miles.” Richmond Dispatch. July 22, 1861. Accessed February 15, 2018.

Loeffel-Atkins, Bernadette. Widow’s Weeds and Mourning Veils: Mourning Rituals in 19th Century America. Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg Publishing LLC., 2012.