Ringside Seat to Carnage

Just now I’m poring through “The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell,” which contains amazing stuff, like for instance this fragment of letter written immediately after the battle of Gettysburg (July 5th, 1863):

… Of a sudden, from the left, … a battery opened up on us the most terrific fire I ever witnessed. The first shell struck not more than two rods behind where I was standing. We all retired precipitately to the partial shelter of a brick barn hard by, and there remained until our artillery silenced the guns that had opened. It was awful. For half an hour it raged incessantly. Grape, canister, solid shot and shell whizzed and shrieked and tore past us. The trees nearby were torn and dismembered. A fragment of shell killed two chickens a rod from where I sat. …

Joe Twichell was a twenty-four-year old army chaplain who enlisted as a “three year man” in July 1861, and left the army thirty-six months later. He witnessed battles, ministered to thousands of wounded soldiers, and was under fire a hell of a lot, even as a non-combatant.

After the war, he became pastor at Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford Connecticut. He met and became friends with Mark Twain at the beginning of Twain’s literary career and remained a close chum to the end of Twain’s life. (He turns up as a character in several Twain books under other names. Mark Twain found him a compelling talker but less adept “when taking up the pen.”)

But Twichell was (is) sufficiently compelling in these letters. The book offers a riveting first-hand account of the war, which became the touchstone of Joe Twichell’s life:

Much of Twichell’s time was spent in hospitals, ministering to the spiritual needs of sick,  wounded and dying men but also serving as a nurse, litter bearer and gravedigger …
“I find that I am getting, not hardened, but accustomed.  I shrank from witnessing  operations.  At length I have overcome all this. …I have acquired a skill and handiness which enable me to act as an assistant in an operation.” …

As Twichell writes, he is  “in blood up to my elbows” much of the time.  Then there is the reverend’s letter recounting time spent with a union deserter waiting to be executed for desertion.  Rev. Twichell makes it clear that he is a reluctant participant, since the man wasn’t from Twichell’s regiment. But Twichell is the only minister available, so he stays with the man before and during the death by firing squad.  And describes the whole gut-wrenching episode.

Powerful reading, particularly if you’re interested in the Civil War.


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