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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 10 Feb 2006 14:43:37 -0600
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Hal Bush.

Messent, Peter and Steve Courtney, eds. _The Civil War Letters of Joseph
Hopkins Twichell; A Chaplain's Story_. University of Georgia Press, 2006.
Pp. 338. Cloth. $34.95. ISBN 0-8203-2693-3.

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions
that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Harold K. Bush, Jr.
Saint Louis University
<[log in to unmask]>

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