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The following review appeared 10 February 2006 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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It is no longer a secret that the Reverend Joseph Twichell, who was arguably Mark Twain's closest friend for the vast majority of his career, was himself a fascinating character. Since the publication of Leah Strong's biography of Twichell in 1966, little serious consideration of the man and his legacy in the work of Mark Twain has appeared. Recently, a number of critics have rediscovered old Joe, and have found him to be one remarkable man. Twichell actually became fairly well-known during his lifetime, not only as "Mark Twain's pastor" (an appellation that became widely used), but also as one of the chief religious leaders in one of the chief religious centers of postbellum American Christianity--Hartford, Connecticut, a hotbed for the emerging Social Gospel.
In my own research on Twichell, I recall with some great clarity the day I was sitting in the Beinecke Library at Yale, poring over autograph letters written by Twichell and Twain, when it struck me suddenly that Twain attached himself to Twichell rather than vice versa. I guess I had assumed for so long that Twichell was a mere hanger-on, one of those kinds of people who leech onto the rich and famous. Suddenly, it seemed, I understood that Twain somehow needed Twichell much more than Twichell needed Twain. That was a fairly important revelation for me at the time, for I had often wondered why Mark Twain would allow this preacher to become so close him. On that day, another, opposite question began to dawn on me: why did Joe Twichell allow this coarse, flamboyant, and at times vitriolic character to latch onto him?
It is a good question, and of course opinions vary about the exact nature of their relationship. But the more I plowed into the little-known biography of Joe Twichell, the more I began to discern a man whose life intersected at very close range some of the more important events and personalities of nineteenth-century America. Peter Messent and Steve Courtney have presented an outstanding contribution to the recovery of these intersections by editing The Civil War Letters, and the University of Georgia Press has undertaken a real service by publishing them. The sub-title is interesting as well--they claim that these letters create "a chaplain's story," and they are correct. Here we watch as a hesitant and immature young man grows into a spiritual stalwart of impeccable faith and endurance. Along with that basic narrative, and besides the hair-raising accounts of major battles, the letters describe prayer meetings and sermons, hospital visits, matters of money and food, disease and filth, the internal politics of armies, the vagaries of weather, and the sheer pain of watching the life seep out of boys who have been mortally wounded. In addition, we receive, whether we want it or not, a quick course in some of the prejudices of educated nineteenth-century American preachers like Twichell, including extreme reservations about Roman Catholicism or mild superiority toward African Americans. However, most of these matters take a back seat in this collection to the story of the war itself.
I have often wondered, like most Twain aficianadoes, about the contents of the conversations during those long Saturday walks that Twain took with Twichell almost every week that they were both in Hartford. There is no particular evidence to back me up on this (at least that I am aware of), but from reading these letters it seems obvious that Twain must have listened for hours to the tales of the great War of Secession from his good friend. Of course, for every long-winded or glib storytelling veteran, there is another who never says a word about wartime in forty years. But these letters make two things very obvious: 1) Twichell witnessed some of the Civil War's most dramatic battles, including Williamsburg, Malvern Hill, Second Bull Run (Manassas), Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg; and 2) Twichell wrote lengthy, detailed, and at times riveting accounts of those battles. We also know that in his later career, Twichell often spoke at length in public about his experiences during the war in public sermons or in memorial services. His close proximity to General Dan Sickles, especially during the Battle of Gettysburg, was common fodder for Twichell's Civil War tales. So we do know that in later public life after the War, Twichell did feel comfortable talking at length about the battles and personalities he encountered.
Given the sheer power and pathos of many of these letters, it seems unlikely that Twichell never shared the stories with Mark Twain, a man who seemed fairly insecure about his own lack of military experience, and yet was always fascinated by the heroic exploits of the Union. While Twain was out west writing harmless comical sketches about the "Petrified Man," or about "How to Cure a Cold," Twichell was watching the Battle of Fredericksburg unfold from a nearby hilltop, or standing in a hospital tent during the Battle of Gettysburg and holding down Dan Sickles as the surgeon amputated the quirky general's right leg. Without question, Twain would have been deeply impressed by Twichell's almost incredible proximity to these and many other crucial events, along with his first-hand contact with such other illustrious leaders as General Joe Hooker.
The letters also help us reject the idea that Twichell was a man of little Christian commitment. Some critics have claimed in the past that Twichell was not orthodox, or that he believed merely in the "poetic" truths of the Bible. These letters certainly lay that claim to rest. They illustrate the convictions of a man of strong faith and perhaps imperturbable hopefulness. Furthermore, it is a faith and hope anchored in the traditional creeds of the church. Twichell emerges as a deeply committed man of the cloth, one who dearly loved his God and his faith, despite the very obvious reasons for questioning it.
Serious metaphysical questions do arise in these letters, especially about the problem of pain and evil that surrounded the young chaplain on the front lines of the war. The most painful episode arose when Twichell's father died about halfway through the war, an event that commenced a lengthy period of grief and introspection for the harried youth. But Twichell holds out through it all. Typical of his beliefs are comments like the following: "The course of Providence is often mysterious, but I think I can behold Divine Justice in this reverse"; "If I had no faith in God, and did not feel that the plan, the plan, is unfolding in ways of His appointment, I should go crazy" (163, 126). In one poignant scene, Twichell prays with a soldier condemned to death: "I took hold of the manacled hands, looked in the face, declared myself a friend, and immediately began to seek out his spiritual condition and wants. . . . kneeling on the ground we had a season of prayer together. He said that he had tried, earnestly tried, to commit his soul to Christ. . . but had not the Assurance of hope that he longed for" (240). Later, after the man's execution, Twichell is given a message from the now-dead prisoner: "Tell that chaplain that I thank him. I believe that he showed me the way to eternal Life, by leading me to Christ" (242). Throughout the story but especially as the young minister gains confidence, there is much evidence of Twichell's desire to foster revival among his "boys," a phenomenon that was widespread among the armies of both north and south: "Oh! That a Pentecost would sweep through the nation! . . . I long to see the country shaken by the Holy Ghost, and out countrymen giving in their allegiance to the Lord, until He whose right it is actually reigns in the national heart"; "I have full faith that a great work of Grace is coming to our army. Everybody appears to be stirred by sacred influence. . . . May the day hasten that shall reveal the Holy Ghost with power" (274, 278). All of these comments and dozens more bespeak the steadfast convictions of a thoroughly orthodox evangelical of his time.
It is not just orthodox Christianity at stake here, but also what we might call the "civil religion" of the Union warriors, to borrow Robert Bellah's useful terminology. Indeed, Twichell's letters provide evidence that this was, indeed, a "religious" war. The volume helps us to recognize Joe Twichell's genuine burden during the war years, and by extension, the ideological stakes of the great battles. We easily note in many of these letters a profoundly spiritual vision of not only the work of a Union chaplain, but indeed of the Union project itself. "It almost seemed as if loyalty to the Union were a recommendation to heaven," says Twichell (92). He recognizes the events of the war as under the guidance of "the Eternal Plan" (115). After Gettysburg, Twichell writes, "The Army of the Union has fought as if appreciating its Cause" (252). Like most Federal supporters, Twichell weds the Union agenda with the Kingdom of God.
The embodiment of this civil religion was Abraham Lincoln. While encamped in Virginia, the boys were briefly visited by President Lincoln, and Twichell records the event for his father. An ex-slave called Ben is awed by the presence of the great leader, who is considered to be a "half mythical, far-off omen of good": "Ise seen ole Uncle Linkum!" For Ben, Lincoln is "a visible sign of the coming of the long expected, benign reign" (165). Often Twichell's letters are interspersed with his own faith in an eventual victory of good over evil, orchestrated by God: he recounts a desire to "witness the 'great day' which will blow the trumpet of Freedom for the oppressed, and proclaim to the world that the Republic is not a failure" (140). Thus do some of Twichell's words share an affinity with the quintessential American poet, Walt Whitman, who dreamed of a day when America might be recognized itself as "essentially the greatest poem."
These letters augment what we already know about the reasons soldiers gave for fighting the war--as documented in various other volumes, including books by James McPherson, James Moorhead, Gardner Shattuck, or most recently Stephen E. Woodworth, among many others. Even more particularly, they add to the list of materials describing the lives of Union chaplains. According to Shattuck, "Most [chaplains] believed that love of country and concern for the souls of those whose lives were threatened impelled them to become chaplains. Equating the cause of their nation with the cause of God, they entered the army with clear consciences. . . . At a moment when all citizens were united in a common struggle, the duties of a minister and a patriot seemed to be thoroughly compatible, perhaps almost identical. Chaplains thought that they were in a unique position to inspire men to fight, protect them from the vices of camp, and bring their souls spotless to Christ in the world to come" (A Shield and Hiding Place, 58). Shattuck's description of these chaplains, who were popularly called at the time "Holy Joes," is perfectly in tune with the Joe Twichell revealed in these documents. Indeed, as George Templeton Strong was insisting in the nineteenth century, and as historian Mark Noll has most recently noted, the Civil War was fundamentally a "religious" war--and Twichell's commentary in this volume often underlines his religious take on it. We dislike thinking of our own Civil War as being primarily about religion. These letters, along with much excellent recent historical research, remind us of that heady (and perhaps slightly uncomfortable) reality.
Many of the letters are quite lengthy, and there is some redundancy. Although we should applaud the publication of the letters and recognize that the editors have by and large chosen wisely, one might wish that they had leaned a little heavier on the scissors in preparing the final copy. However, there is something pleasantly novelistic in how this book reads. When Twichell mounts up, he is capable of some fairly breathtaking storytelling. These are the words of a young boy slowly being transformed into a man, written mostly to his father (before his death) and later to other family members, in the midst of the most important events in our nation's history. As such, they comprise a radical experiment in the democratic voice for which the Civil War was ostensibly fought. As that great Missourian Mark Twain once put it, "my books are like water. The works of the great masters are like wine. But everyone drinks water." Like Twain, Joe Twichell, Chaplain in the Army of the Potomac, provides us here with some pretty fair drinking water--the thoughts, hopes, fears, and prayers of the fighting boys during the greatest crisis in American history. This valuable edition will be a boon to Civil War historians, scholars of American religious history, and rhetoricians interested in the meaning and purpose of the American idea. For folks on the Twain forum, in addition, the volume will tell us a great deal more about that neglected figure Joe Twichell--and by extension a little about his good and great friend. Like Mark Twain evidently was, we will also be drawn into the tales of the young chaplain. And like Twain, it will also be very hard for any of us not to love old Joe, after reading these often aching and always hopeful missives from the front.
Harold K. Bush, Jr.
Saint Louis University