By Richard Chumney
When the Union Army briefly occupied Lynchburg in the spring of 1864, many of its soldiers carried small religious pamphlets as they marched into the city.
The unbound gospel tracts, hymnals and pocket-sized Bibles were provided by the United States Christian Commission — a volunteer organization launched by the Young Men’s Christian Association.
On Saturday, Alan and Faith Farley, two longtime Concord-based Civil War reenactors, shared the story of the little-known commission at the 155th Anniversary of the Battle of Lynchburg, held at Historic Sandusky. The event was organized by the University of Lynchburg, which owns the property, and the Taylor-Wilson Camp #10 Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
The commission’s “primary desire was to see that the souls of the soldiers, whether they be Union or Confederate, knew for a fact that when they passed off into eternity, that they had made peace with God, that Jesus Christ was their Savior and that they were going to spend eternity in Heaven with Him,” Alan Farley said.
Throughout the course of the four-year war, the commission distributed an estimated 1.4 million Bibles, 39 million pages of gospel tracts and 7 million sheets of stationary for soldiers to write letters. Though most of the Bibles were printed for Union troops, thousands were made for Confederate soldiers. The organization raised more than $6 million worth of supplies and goods to fund the operation.
Nearly 5,000 northerners served as unpaid volunteer commission delegates throughout the war, according to Alan Farley. The exclusively protestant delegates (Catholics and Jews were barred from the commission) delivered sermons in military camps, assisted army chaplains and worked in military hospitals. Even poet Walt Whitman volunteered for a time, serving as a nurse in a Washington, D.C., hospital.
“Many of the delegates were pastors, some deacons, some elders, some Sunday school teachers, some just Christian-minded men,” Alan Farley said.
The commission also supplied the Union army with fresh food. The provisions especially were helpful for wounded soldiers recovering in hospitals. According to Alan Farley, the food helped decrease the mortality rate of Union patients dramatically.
The Farleys, who both were dressed in era-appropriate garments, are unique among Civil War reenactors in their depiction of religious figures. Several of the attendees Saturday noted their surprise at learning of the commission for the first time.
“A lot of people have no clue,” Faith Farley said. “That’s why we’re out telling the story.”
Though there is no direct evidence commission delegates were present in Lynchburg during the relatively small-scale battle, several of the Union soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. David Hunter had come in contact with the commission prior to the campaign.
Northern troops had descended on the largely undefended city in the hopes of capturing its transportation and hospital facilities. The city also was a major supply center for Confederate forces across the state and Union commanders believed occupying the city would weaken the southern cause dramatically.
Sandusky served as Hunter’s headquarters during the battle June 17 to June 18, 1864. His forces ultimately were driven back by Confederate soldiers led by Gen. Jubal Early. About 900 men are believed to have been killed, wounded or captured in the battle, with the vast majority of the casualties occurring on the Union side.
In addition to the Farleys, several members of the Sons of Union Veterans portrayed occupying troops. Lynchburg physician Charles Driscoll delivered a lecture on Civil War medicine and University of Lynchburg professor Clifton W. Potter Jr. detailed the city’s prisoner of war camp.
Kevin Shroyer, an event organizer and a member of the Sons of Union Veterans, said the battle’s anniversary provided an opportunity to reflect on the lessons of the Civil War and, more broadly, human history.
“Our history, good and bad, warts and otherwise, is what has made us into what we are today,” Shroyer said. “And when we stop forgetting those things, even the bad things that happened in our country’s history, we are essentially turning our back on those people that have somehow influenced the people we are today.”
Richard Chumney covers breaking news and public safety for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.