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Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Letters of Chaplain Thomas K. Beecher - 141st New York Volunteer Infantry

By George R. Farr
Copyright © 2021 All rights reserved by the author.

 

Rev. Thomas Beecher of Park Church and Congressman Alexander Diven came together with other prominent citizens of Chemung, Steuben, and Schuyler counties to raise an infantry regiment in the summer of 1862. Diven, along with Congressman Robert Van Valkenburg had been asked by President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward to go home and raise such a regiment. As a result of this effort, the 107th NY Volunteer Infantry was raised and sent off to Washington in August with Diven as it's Lieutenant Colonel and Congressman Robert Van Valkenburg as its colonel.


The raising of the 107th had resulted in having an excess of 400 men that could not be included in that regiment. As a result, recruiting efforts continued, and a second regiment was raised, the 141st, and sent off towards Washington in late September with Beecher as its Chaplain.


The 107th participated in the battle of Antietam on September 17th and by the time the 141st arrived it was camped at Maryland Heights near Harper’s Ferry. The 141st, on the other hand, went into camp near Laurel, Maryland almost directly north of Washington and some distance from the camp of the 107th. Diven and Beecher would not see each other again until October when Beecher visited the camp of the 107th NY on Maryland Heights.


During the time Beecher was chaplain of the 141st he wrote letters to Charles Fairman for publication in the Elmira Advertiser. He wrote often and the letters were long and full of goings-on at the camp and Beecher’s personal feelings about many facets of camp life. The following are excerpts from those letters.


Visitors to his tent:

My tent flap is my front door, and a very dirty door it is getting to be. At least fifty times a day when the door is closed and tied on the inside, a pair of sunburned hands part the opening and an honest face looks in.


“Say helloa! Is this _____” Beecher cuts the man off in mid-sentence. “Shut that door”,   says the Chaplain abruptly.

“Did you knock?”

“Didn’t know the rules sir. Sorry.”

“All right call your name and wait for an answer, and never enter a tent until you have leave. Now come in.”

Let any man go through this dialogue forty times a day and toward the end it begins to get funny.


And he went on to write.

I should be mortified if you suppress my letters as unworthy to print. So then dear Fairman, if you ever get a stupid letter from me, too stupid too print, just insert an item; “We have received a long letter from Chaplain Beecher, which after reading, we conclude not to print.


Sunday in Camp:

Shall I tell you of our Sunday? At first dawn you may easily hear that ‘tis Sunday for the camp is far quieter than usual, even though a soldier’s duty does not cease on any day. Indeed, a duty that begins with a solemn enlistment oath may well be counted a religion and have its place even upon the Lord’s day.


At quarter of ten our adjutant forms parade while the Chaplain fixes a box pulpit out in a neighboring meadow. Then the battalion marches out and forms in front of the Chaplain—close compact and attentive. A short prayer of invocation—a hymn—a passage or two from the articles of war –a short lesson from scripture, with very few words of explanation or reminder—a prayer—and the song doxology complete a catholic regimental service.


Our Sunday is over—the Drum Major has executed what he calls a “Flammer doodle” to call the Companies into line for roll-call. I hear a half-dozen Orderlies calling names and men answering. This finishes the daily duty. In a little time, the lights will be out and the camp dark, all but the officer’s tents.


‘Tis past ten. The walls of our tents are black with flies, driven in by the cold. We may have our first frost by morning. We three tent-mates will have to snug up close together and keep warm as little pigs do, for we have no extra blankets. The whole camp is dark, save the light of the guard’s fire. Let me hasten to fold this sheet, put out my candle, shut my eyes and see the procession of my dear friends at home, and pray for them as they pass. God bless and keep you—keep you strong and single-minded.


Swearing:

Will you ask the clergy of Elmira to send me a recipe, a good moral tonic to cure swearing? There’s not a man in the regiment, but is willing to quit. I’ve read the commandment of God by Moses and the general order by Colonel Hathaway. One of our guards said to the colonel the other night after trying to stop swearing two days faithfully, “Just wait a bit colonel, give me some time to get some other words handy like and I’ll get done swearing at all, I will by God I will.”     

Now you have to understand that the humor in this story is that “I will by God I will” was considered swearing.


The Experiments:

Being of an investigating nature, I’ve been looking experimentally into the subject of beds. Laying aside all traditions and prejudices, I began with first principles and have this night finished my round of experiments. Shall I report? Our soil here is a stiff light-yellow clay with a few gravel stones mixed in. There was a grass stubble on its surface.


My first experiment was to lay a sheet of rubber down, then a blanket double, then the Chaplain and over him shawl and blanket. Sleep was good, but crickets peopled the grass and made bad noises and crept with prickly feet up and down the flesh. Grass not good, clean it out.


Exp. 2. Drive three stakes in a line, set up a narrow board on edge, throw straw between the board and tent wall. Rubber sheet, blanket, chaplain, $c., as before. Result,--pleasant sensation at first reminding one of beds at home, but by and by the chaplain feels like meat boiling in too little water; raw and cold above the straw, moist and steaming in the straw. Throw out straw, clean up tent.


Exp. 3. Bare, hard dry ground, blankets, chaplain, as in the last experiment. Slept well, except dreams of bridge building and strength of materials. One’s body touches at three points—head, thighs and heels. The trunk presents a fixed arch, the limbs a drawbridge. The strain is too great, the abutments crush and settle. Sleep is good, but not much rest. 


Exp. 4. Take axe and spade and make up a bed by artificially moulding the ground to the form of the Chaplain. Consider a well used hog wallow recently deserted, and how nicely it fits and welcomes the occupant’s return, and you have the archetype of the chaplain’s fourth bed. Result satisfactory, perfectly so, except that an old man campaigner says that the ground is unhealthy.


Exp. 5. A Manilla hammock such as the natives sling up between two trees, and swing in the wind therein, held the chaplain for four nights. Slung between two tent poles the slack was excessive and the narrowness oppressive. One seems to shorten at both ends, and to be perpetually “dressing on the center.” When first tucked in, the reminding is of a mummy or a patient in pack at Watercure. Fault—one cannot turn over, nor get out of bed without help. Send back the hammock to the courteous Colonel.


Exp. 6. A sacking bottom, well stretched, blankets, chaplain, &c. as in Exp.’s one, two and three. Result—very cold. Wind sucks under and blows up through. Mem.—Plan a good one if one can have five blankets and a shawl. Otherwise very bad in cold weather. Last night water froze a quarter inch at my tent door.


Exp.7. The floor, the modelled ground a la hog hollow. To this I return from all my experimenting. The ground—the bare ground. Bring me the axe and the spade, let me make my bed. Lie down chaplain, make your mark. Friend Bailey scrape away where he touches, copy the curves,--ease off that lump—pick away that stone,--there that fits. The wallow is perfect. In five minutes more it will hold.


Visiting the 107th NY at Maryland Heights near Harper’s Ferry:

There have been twenty-two or twenty-three deaths in the 107th and sick ones in far larger numbers. In my judgment the sickness has been due to over-marching and over-eating combined. Few men know the ravenous appetite that is bred by an outdoor life. And fewer still are ever wise enough to “stop hungry.” But experience is a very faithful teacher, and if God please, the Chaplain will discourse good counsel tomorrow morning, touching the same subject. (Beecher was not aware of the fact that the ground on which the camp was situated was in fact almost solid rock and adequate latrines could not be established. This fact was responsible for the spread of disease in the camp and the resulting in the deaths of many soldiers.)


This afternoon in company with Dr. Beadle, the chaplain experimented with Col. Diven’s black horse a riding. I insist that equestrianism is a most unnatural and semi-barbarous accomplishment. —It is a shame to “put upon” a dumb beast such duty, and a greater shame to put men to such uses. —Call the “human frame divine” a log, the horse a wedge and mother earth a beetle or maul, and you have the essentials of horseback performances. —Had man been intended for such performances, he would have been created with an angle iron to withstand the strain. But war creates necessities, and necessities are their own law. Round these mountain roads men must ride who never road before. —And so, behold the chaplain wandering forth in search of the 64th regiment.


We found it and many times the chaplain had to stop his horse and chat with unexpected friends. He found that to stop one’s horse is easier than to stop one’s self. The rider is apt to gone on after the horse is halted dead. If he goes on too recklessly, he is sure to go off. I overheard the chaplain asking Dr. Beadle how he looked and whether anybody was laughing.


I am now sitting on a stone wall amid the ruins of Harper’s Ferry. An hour or so I was by the graveside of Marcus Dawson of Co. D. There upon a point commanding a view of the Shenandoah valley for miles lies the graves of fourteen men of the 107th fallen by fever now at rest. I know nothing of Dawson save as a Christian I have assisted in burying him. But I saw in the hospital the body of a young man, three days dead, whom I myself enlisted. I have his name in one of my old books, as I looked upon his blanket shroud, I earnestly tested myself, was I right in telling him to enlist. I called to mind my speeches and my pleadings and my statements of July. Thank God I have not one word to repent of.


Reverend Beecher was also something of a poet as the following lines of free verse illustrate. While visiting the camp of the 107th NY that overlooked the village of Harper’s Ferry from Maryland Heights he made the following observations.

 

Scenes of waste everywhere, everybody on the move and nobody knowing anything or able to tell you anything.   Through the elegant cast iron sash of the arched windows is seen the long drawn vacancies of the old armory buildings burned with fire.  Deserted, doorless and sashless houses.  Horses eating hay in parlors. Enterprising photographers set up their cameras in ownerless houses.  Aetna insurance plates stand over doors long since burned.  Sutlers peddle soft bread, tobacco and sausages from deserted dwelling houses where children played, hospitals fill with sick breaths rooms where beaux have visited and sweethearts charmed.   Cavalry horses gnaw in the young orchards.  And over all floats and clings the grime and dust where 10,000 feet each day do the pulverizing and constant winds the distribution.   


Spelling:

There’s a need of schoolmasters in the 27th District still. Shall I give you specimens of what I daily read in the shape of literary murder of captain’s names? Captain Tuttle figures as Tuthill, Tutil, Totel, Tuttell.  Your friend Captain Baldwin, and by the way camp agrees with him better than your office. He is plumping rapidly enough to suit a Fejee gourmand. Where was I, oh yes! Captain Baldwin is written down on letter backs as Balden, Bawlding and Bolden. Captain Logie is transmuted into Loga, Logy and Logah. And Captain Claugharty is the worst. A man with such a name ought to live bachelor and afflict none of the next generation with such a name to misspell.  


Chaplain’s Duties:

The readers of your paper have had rest long enough. It is time that Chaplain’s drill should begin again. By the by speaking of Chaplain reminds me of Fred Burritt, your correspondent, and his private letter about chaplains. Abating something for the easy style of the letter, I wish to say amen to the general sentiment, as to the uselessness of chaplains in military service. Of work properly belonging to a chaplain there is not enough in six regiments to employ one man. I should not work two hours, if I confined myself to my proper official duties.


Much more I might add, but I do not purpose an essay upon army religion. I intended at first merely to say that in my judgment the army would gain by dismissing all chaplains and trusting to the voluntary acts of officers and men. I would this day prefer to have my commission revoked and my stay with the regiment, and my support made to depend upon my military parish.


And yet even while enjoying the most advantageous social position in my regiment of any chaplain of whom I have yet heard of, I am clearly persuaded that as a chaplain I am nearly or quite useless. Were it not that there has been a world of other work, I should long since have relieved the regiment of my presence—and the treasury of my support.


This letter went on and on in the same vein, and it was obvious that Beecher had become uncomfortable with his position as chaplain of the 141st.


He had a falling out with Colonel Hathaway most likely over his brother’s James’ recent appointment as Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment His appointment was viewed as having been unduly influenced by the chaplain and had resulted in the current and popular Lieutenant Colonel William E. Bonham leaving the regiment. 


It was during this period that Beecher wrote to Hathaway’s superiors and accused him of trying to overthrow the government. This type of activity ultimately resulted in his resigning from the regiment on January 10, 1863. His brother James remained for a short while, but was rescued from his predicament by his sister who helped him obtain an honorable discharge from the army shortly hereafter.  




This article was taken from the letters published in the Elmira Advertiser


About the author: George R. Farr grew up in Horseheads, NY, and presently lives in the town of Elmira (West Elmira). He is a graduate (1957) of Upsala College and also studied at Rutgers U., Seton Hall U., Elmira College, and Corning Community College. He has lectured extensively on the American Civil War and local history.






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