Project Canterbury

Turning Points in My Life.

By William Porcher Du Bose, M.A., S.T.D.

New York, London, Bombay and Calcutta: Longmans, Green and Co., 1912.

Chapter II. War Experiences

FOUR years of my educational life--from sixteen to twenty--had been spent in military training. In the Military College I had held the highest offices in my class, and had had some experience in discipline and drill. Soon after the breaking out of the war in 1861 the Governor of South Carolina called for the organization, for State defence, the protection of our coast line and railroad connections, of a command to which he gave the name of the Holcombe Legion. It was to consist of a regiment of infantry and a battalion each of cavalry and artillery; the superintendent of the State Military College was to organize and command it, and I was appointed his adjutant. The appointment found me in the middle year of my seminary course; I accepted it and spent the following fall and winter in hard drill and discipline, in skirmishing with gunboats, and in the occasional more romantic experiences of camp life. We were soon mustered out of State into Confederate service, and the battles around Richmond necessitating a general concentration in Virginia, the legion as such was dismembered, and the infantry regiment, still under the same name, was incorporated into the Army of Northern Virginia, under General Lee. General McClellan's advance upon Richmond having been effectually disposed of, we began moving, about the middle of August, to meet the new army advancing from Washington under General Pope. After several preliminary engagements, in one of which I was painfully hurt, though not disabled, by a fragment from a shrapnel shell, the terrible battle of Second Manassas, or Second Bull Run, was fought on August 30. It was a great victory, but a bloody one, and our own brigade was wellnigh destroyed. My horse was shot, I was twice wounded, and I was the only field officer of the legion who was left or able to fight through the battle. It devolved upon me to reorganize the shattered regiment and to command it in the first Maryland invasion, which immediately ensued.

Two weeks after the great battle we made a forced march back from Hagerstown to Boonesboro Gap, to delay the passage across South Mountain of the third great Federal Army of that year, 1862, now again under General McClellan. General Lee needed the time to unite his two army corps for the approaching great battle of Sharpsburg or Antietam. On the fourteenth of September we barely succeeded in preventing the crossing that day. Our own command had had a fatiguing march of sixteen miles, had climbed the mountain on the north side, had fought and been forced back into the gap, and at about 9 P.M. had sunk dead with sleep in their tracks upon the turnpike. Out of this condition I was aroused by the command to take my most available men and to connect with and extend the picket line on the side of the mountain on which we had fought. This was no easy task on a dark night in the primeval forest, and it must have been toward midnight before it was accomplished. I had just spread my oil-cloth at the centre of the line and was wondering how I, or any of us, could manage to keep awake, when another order came: it was thought that the mountain above us was abandoned and the enemy withdrawn, and it was necessary to ascertain his movements. I was to ascend to the spot of the afternoon's engagement, discover, and report. It was a heavy and, unavoidably, a noisy as well as dangerous climb; and at the steepest point near the summit I left the men in position to obey any summons and proceeded alone. Upon the plateau on top I lightly and swiftly pushed my reconnoissance to the farthest limit, and seeing and hearing nothing, was in the act of returning satisfied that there was no one there, when it came to me that, to be perfectly certain, I ought to make a detour around the plateau. In this way it came about that I quite encircled a division of troops and walked straight into their lines. Walking back, in half security but very quietly and cautiously, with pistol in hand, I was suddenly brought up with a "Halt!" I could not be sure that it was not some of my own men come to meet me, nor they that I was not one of theirs,--and so it was that we were actually upon each other before we mutually recognized each other as enemies: I had come upon a sentry of two men in the midst of a bivouac, and the woods were as sunk in sleep and stillness as if there were no life in them. A man stood before me with the butt of his gun upon the ground. As he jerked up his gun I stepped quite up to him and drew the pistol which I had held cocked under a light cloak. In the act of both doing this and protecting myself from him, my pistol was discharged prematurely, and he, thinking himself shot, cried aloud and precipitated himself upon me. In an instant the mountain top was awake and alive, and I was upon the ground in the midst, in a desperate struggle for escape. The odds were against me, and I landed not many days later a prisoner in Fort Delaware.

Many years later a reference to that night's adventure and excitement appeared in the history of some Northern troops. The friends of a faithful and deserving old soldier from Pennsylvania made my capture the ground for an application for pension, and I was requested to further his claim. After getting from him his side of the story of our momentous encounter, I gave him my testimony and he got his pension. From that time on I occasionally received letters from Cronin expressing the desire to meet me again, and saying that he could not die happy without doing so. To my utter surprise, thirty-five years at least after our first meeting, our second took place at Sewanee. He suddenly appeared there, ill and travel-worn, having made the journey across several States to see me again before he died. He said I had come near killing him, and he had come nearer killing me; for when I had twice almost got away, he had at last, being of twice my strength, got me down, and then, with my own pistol, was in the act of shooting, when some mysterious force had held his hand and prevented him. He made me sit down and write for him an account of our two encounters in war and in peace, and then as mysteriously made his disappearance.

After two or three months of imprisonment and parole I rejoined my command, then doing service in North Carolina, and just in good time to be dangerously and painfully wounded in an engagement near the town of Kinston. This was late in December. Within those four months death had three times touched me as closely as was consistent with escape; two of my wounds missed most vital parts by the merest hair's breadth. On my return to Richmond from prison I was personally informed that I was dead and, on questioning it, was taken to a reading-room and shown my obituary in corroboration.

In 1863 my service was mainly along the coasts, from Virginia as far as Vicksburg, Mississippi. During that year influential friends in Church and State, probably to preserve what remained of me for service of another kind, entirely without my knowledge or consent, procured for me a commission as chaplain, with orders to report at the headquarters of Kershaw's brigade. In the beginning of 1864 I joined my new command in winter-quarters about the town of Greeneville, Tennessee. In the little church in that place, as recently ordained deacon, I began my ministry, with the most brilliant congregations, from major-generals down to privates, that I have ever had to address. Late in the spring the campaign opened with Grant's advance upon Richmond, and after the Wilderness my duties were mainly in the hospitals, and in private ministrations. In April, 1865, the final surrender took place, and I returned home to find it a picture of the most utter desolation, having lain in the centre of Sherman's famous march. This brief sketch of war experience will give some impression of the four years' chasm in the midst of my preparation for my life's work. It may be supposed that there was little opportunity in it for study, or for systematic or progressive thought upon religious matters. Yet the war did have its contribution to make, not only in its necessary effect upon my general as well as spiritual character, but more definitely in determining and strengthening my special bent. Having as adjutant always to carry along with me something of an office, with papers and books, and having also with me always a very faithful and devoted servant who took good care of myself and my belongings, I managed to carry a very few books all through the war. In time I secured an airtight and very strong little ammunition box, which just held my books, and which, becoming well known, was always tossed into the headquarters wagon. In this box were five books, in English, Greek, Latin, and French--books that, in their contents as well as language, would not be exhausted or grow stale with constant use. Of these, those which are still with me are the Greek New Testament, Tennyson's "Poems," Pascal's "Thoughts," and Xenophon's "Memorabilia."

The only vein of living thought, investigation, or speculation I had struck in my too short seminary course was the question of the true mind and meaning of the not merely theological and doctrinal, but intensely human and real St. Paul. I had begun already to feel that St. Paul was to be approached, known, and interpreted, not on his rabbinical or doctrinal sides--these were mere accidents of tradition and training--but on his profoundly, genuinely, and universally personal and spiritual side. I have never been able to see how the modern technical and dogmatic conception of the great apostle could be reconciled with the acknowledged fact that St. Paul was, in his ·own day as well as after, the great humanist and universalist, the humanizer and univer-salizer of Christianity. How little is his Christ the unhuman, merely celestial being, his conception of the Cross the merely forensic act or transaction, his justification by faith the substitutionary, unethical, and unpsychological process they have in these modern times been described! St. Paul is the exact and inspired applier of Christianity to the universal facts and conditions of human life and destiny. Confessedly it was he alone who burst its bands, released its spirit, and gave it to the world. What, as against all this, was either his rab-binism, or his dogmatism or formalism!

In the four years of war, such as I have described them, it may be imagined that my moments of real thought and study were rare, but they were sometimes more intense and precious, and probably more fruitful, for being so difficult and so in contrast with immediate avocation and environment. And it was probably not wholly a disadvantage that my thought and life, so far as they were my own, should have been so concentrated upon a single line of interest and exercise. I acquired the habit of combining thought with life and experience: it is almost too much the case with me still that I am satisfactorily religious only in the act of thinking and studying, and successfully studious or thoughtful only as an act of religion. For four years my religious reading was absolutely limited to my New Testament and my Prayer-Book. As a matter of fact, so far as original, productive, or progressive thought or study went, it was at least focussed upon the theology, philosophy, psychology--but most of all, upon the practical religious life--of the Epistles. I learned to know Christ through the minds and lives of St. John and St. Paul, before I ever really studied Himself in the Gospels. The Epistle to the Romans was really my constant piece de resistance. Without present or previous help of dictionary, commentary, or any other source, I set myself over and over to think and live out the though t-and-life-process of that wonderful argument. I can distinctly remember lying on my back, while my men were constructing earthworks, and with closed eyes constructing for myself the vital spiritual sequence, unity, and completeness of the first eight chapters. For a long time I simply overlooked, or looked through, the mere form or technicality of St. Paul's teaching, and saw only the man and the meaning of his inner life and thought. I afterward learned to include too his peculiar form or technique, to value it at its proper worth, and to find in it, if only in the matter of definition and illustration, in the thought and language of the time, a wonderful illumination and help. St. Paul was always intent upon inward life-relations and processes: what he taught was not Christianity but Christ, not doctrine but life, not form but content and matter. He did have a remarkable technical skill of form or expression, and it was naturally sometimes rabbinical, but he made use of it only as instrument effective for the time, and to have erected his figures and phraseology into an intellectual system and form of letter and dogma, has been a wholesale perversion of his life and spirit. The modern dogmatic system that goes under the name of Paulinism is our own dogmatism read into the letter of his language. I think I may say that whatever of inspiration or illumination ever came to you through my life or teaching, came through the fact that I presented Christ and Christianity at first hand, not in the letter but in the spirit, not in traditional or conventional forms of technical language, but in living terms of actual human relation and experience. Now all that I ever had to impart in that way came to me through a peculiarly exclusive study and knowledge of St. Paul: I brought to Sewanee no other theology than his.

But if St. Paul was my only theology, fortunately theology was not my only interest or thought in my army life. I must mention another teacher of a very other sort who shared with him the domination at that stage of my life, not only of my interest, but of my distinctly spiritual and religious interest. What I might call, in its broadest sense, the romantic side of life was always more or less present with me. Up to the time that I was fully of age and very near my university graduation, I knew little of literature. I knew a good deal about the authors that made and the books that constitute literature, but it was mostly from without. I had read classics, ancient and modern, but I had read them for technical training, as language rather than as literature. It was only in my last year at the University of Virginia that there was a separate professor of literature; prior to that the professor of each language taught something of a history of its literature, but it was a very secondary matter. Just before leaving the University the spell of Tennyson first came upon me, through "The Princess": the songs were my poetic inspiration and awakening. Like music, poetry became at once with me associated with religion, and gave a side and aspect to it which made it beautiful as well as sacred and holy. This, however, came so late in life that, but for the opportunity of the war, I should probably never have had the leisure or the abstraction necessary for the really deep love of any poetry. Perhaps strict historical truth at once requires and excuses the confession that my own devotion to Tennyson, which was now to grow to a flame, was somewhat intensified by the fact that the little blue and gold copy which went with me into and came with me out of the war, and is now treasured up somewhere, was the gift in camp of one who, after the worst of the perils narrated above, became my wife. That little volume, toward the close, became a treasure to others at headquarters beside myself, from the general down to the courier. Many a day, with a leg crossed over the pommel of my saddle, as we wound our slow and romantic way through the mountains of Virginia, I drank in the music and sentiment of the "Songs,"or pondered over the mysteries and questionings of "In Memoriam." Some of the earlier students of Sewanee will remember that I knew in those days how to enter as well into the romance as into the severer, if not more serious, business of their life, and that they got through me inspiration and help from Tennyson as well as from more prescribed masters.

To come down to the more directly spiritual part which Tennyson played in my permanent history: an author, as any one else, is to us very much what we ourselves make him, or how we take him. To me Tennyson became, what I may call, the poet of the spiritual, in contrast with the prophet. The prophet speaks as from God to us, and therefore with certainty and authority; he utters God's Word or voices His Spirit to usward. The poet interprets and expresses us to Godward; he voices not divine revelation or inspiration, but human aspiration. His tone is often that of perplexed questioning or even honest doubt, but--if he is a true interpreter of the human spirit, a genuine voice crying in the wilderness of human need--always that of open and reverent quest. The muse of the poet of the spirit is Melpomene, that of the prophet is Urania. Urania speaks seldom through Tennyson, Melpomene much and with a clear, true accent--as the spirit in me attests. His voice, I repeat, is much more that of pure human aspiration than of assured divine inspiration,--but we just as much need to cultivate and refine in us the human condition as the divine power and cause of eternal life. The human soul would not so cry to God if there were no God to hear or answer; and God speaks in reply, but speaks only to the soul that wants and calls upon Him. The true poet and the true prophet, the poet who personates the true aspiration of man, and the prophet who mediates the true reply of God, are equally of essential service to us. In the rarest and highest instances, in those whom we pronounce inspired, the two offices are combined in a single person. I hold that St. Paul, at his highest, was such a one. If he had not been the poet he was, he could not have been the prophet he was: the thirteenth and fifteenth chapters of the First Epistle to the Corinthians are poetry as well as prophecy, aspiration exalted and fused into inspiration and revelation. Tennyson's is, as he himself says, "but an earthly muse"; but it neither professes nor presumes to go farther than it does, and so far as it goes it is pure and clear. For the time being he was my Bible of humanity, as my New Testament was of divinity.

It is said that life is lived only in our supreme moments. What of final impress or character I was to receive from the stern and unsparing discipline of war, was to be focussed and fixed in one such supreme experience. The brigade to which I was attached toward the close of the war was one which had been in every battle of the Army of Northern Virginia, and whose boast it was that it had never slept behind a field of battle. A time came at last when, through no fault of its own, a glorious victory of the morning was converted into a disgraceful rout in the afternoon, and that night the brigade slept some ten or fifteen miles behind its field of battle. When we finally rested about midnight, I could not sleep; the end of the world was upon me as completely as upon the Romans when the barbarians had overrun them. Never once before had dawned upon me the possibility of final defeat for the Confederate cause. That night it came over me like a shock of death that the Confederacy was beginning to break: the strain even of unbroken victory had been too long and too heavy: it would be impossible much longer to resist the force of the ever-renewed and ever-increasing pressure of new armies and inexhaustible resources. To represent the true spirit of our ranks I must add that there was quick reaction from that depression, and that when the real end did come some months later, I was almost as much surprised and shocked as I had been in that presentiment or prevision of it. But not really as much,--the actual issue was all upon me that fateful night in which, under the stars, alone upon the planet, without home or country or any earthly interest or object before me, my very world at an end, I redevoted myself wholly and only to God, and to the work and life of His Kingdom, whatever and wherever that might be. [The reverse of the above picture of disaster and defeat may be read in the poetic version of the same incident, from the victorious side, known as "Sheridan's Ride."]

Of course all was not so lost as that night it seemed to me to be. I came back to earth again and lived more in it, and less in that otherworldliness to which I had thought so wholly to give myself, than I then expected. But such an experience can never be altogether lost, and I go back to it at times for such a sense of the utter extinction of the world, and presence of only the Eternal and the Abiding, as is seldom vouchsafed ,to one.

The solitary habit of thinking out such thoughts and living out such life as came to or grew up in me in the four years of active military service, interspersed with trying adventures, wounds, imprisonment, and deeper experiences even than these, away from all help of teachers or books, cannot of course but have modified my character and fixed my mental habits and bent. I would not have it supposed that on my return to the wide world of outside life and thought, from which we had been so long shut out, I did not put myself at school to it, and have not desired to keep myself in touch with the learning and the movements of my time. I had learned to live too much, no doubt, in my own thinking, and have made great use of, perhaps, too few helps. But there are compensating benefits: one is, I think, that I can never use a commentary, or seek a help of any kind, unless or until I thoroughly need and want it--that is, until I have done all that I possibly can with the matter myself. I even try too much to be my own dictionary and grammar.

When at the close of the war I returned to my home and as soon as possible entered upon my permanent ministry, conditions with us were for some years no better than in war. My family had been a wealthy one before the war, but was now utterly impoverished; the country was stript of the barest means of subsistence; our social and political condition was unendurable and hopeless. There was little means or opportunity for a life of study or anything more than the most practical kind of thinking. Nevertheless my appetite was none the less for long abstinence, or rather lack of nutriment, and I was not loath to get back to books again. In the six years of parish work, before coming to Sewanee, my life interest and task, without consciousness or intention on my part, was being determined and fixed for me. Although by every prejudice and intention an Anglican, and unable to use the German language, most of my reading and study at this period was of German authors--evangelical, of course. And it terminated in my selecting for life study Dorner's great work "The Development of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ." In all my consequent, though later, interest in Chris-tology I was not aware, until after I began to publish, of any contemporaneous or recent scientific English thought upon the subject.

This brings me to my connection with Sewanee and the University of the South, but I must first go back and trace certain other currents in my life, running alongside and blending with that I have been describing.

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