Combat Chaplain

The Life and Civil War Experiences of Rev. James H. McNeilly

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M. Todd Cathey
  • Macon, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , February
     2018.
     277 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780881466379.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Combat Chaplain: The Life and Civil War Experiences of Rev. James H. McNeilly, author M. Todd Cathey immerses readers in the world of an aspiring pastor and his battlefield parish. While the past two decades have witnessed a revival of interest in religion and the American Civil War, Cathey’s aim is to highlight the personal aspects of Civil War chaplaincy. Privileging boots-on-the-ground experiences over bird’s-eye view generalizations, Cathey explores the “associations between personal faith, the everyday life of the chaplain, and his relationship with the men to whom he ministered daily” (preface).

Combat Chaplain introduces us to James McNeilly, future chaplain of the 49th Tennessee Infantry. Raised in Dickson County, Tennessee, McNeilly demonstrated academic promise from a young age. His father, a lawyer, assigned McNeilly a deputy clerkship when he was thirteen years old, and at Jackson College the faculty and student body voted him valedictorian. Heavily shaped by his parents’ Presbyterian faith, McNeilly felt a calling to ministry and received a license to preach. He could hardly have anticipated where this calling would take him. A year to the day following McNeilly’s ordination, Charleston batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter.

When war began, McNeilly recruited troops for the Confederacy, and then enlisted in December 1861. He entered the army as a private, but even after being given special assignment as a chaplain (and eventually commissioned as one), McNeilly carried himself as a workaday soldier. Rather than wearing clerical vestments, he donned the uniform of the rank-and-file soldier. He also refused to remain behind battle lines with the surgeons, and instead accompanied assistant surgeons into the fray as they provided immediate care for the wounded. As “combat chaplain,” McNeilly shared the dangers and privations of those in his spiritual charge.

Cathey anchors Combat Chaplain in primary source material, whether in unpublished autobiographical reminiscences, or in the numerous recollections McNeilly published in the Confederate Veteran magazine. Cathey’s monograph is well written, meticulously researched, and rich in detail. These details—ranging anywhere from the iron industry of Dickson County to the paltry rations of Confederate soldiers—enable readers to walk alongside McNeilly. Readers will see the war through his eyes and hear it through his words. This immersive experience Cathey executes masterfully.

In Combat Chaplain, readers are left to take McNeilly’s reports at face value. This of course raises the question: Why should we trust McNeilly? The question looms especially large when considering McNeilly’s views on race and slavery. According to McNeilly, he treasured the opportunity to preach to enslaved persons, but readers are left to wonder if these views extended beyond paternalism. McNeilly also provided a suspiciously rosy description of enslaved conditions on a Louisiana plantation, where enslaved persons were reputedly given religious instruction, sanitary cabins, and individual garden plots. That this memory is refracted through the lens of a white Southern, ex-Confederate is noteworthy. McNeilly’s father, Robert, is also an interesting figure. While Robert’s law firm at times facilitated the manumission of enslaved persons, Robert also held persons in slavery himself. One of the enslaved, Jack, apparently pleaded with Robert to purchase him and his wife so that they would not be sold to an enslaver in the Deep South (84). And there is the story of Betty, another person the McNeillys held in slavery. After the war, Betty left the McNeillys with provisions and the family’s blessing. Not long after, she returned to the home impoverished. James McNeilly concluded that “it was too costly an experiment to care for her in freedom” (168). Later, Betty upbraids Federal troops as “pore white trash who didn’t have no feeling for colored folks” (169). Again, McNeilly serves as the final interpreter of African American attitudes toward slavery.

Perhaps the most conspicuous absence in Combat Chaplain is reference to the Lost Cause mythology. This is unfortunate, since McNeilly often relies on and reinforces Lost Cause tropes such as the magnanimity of enslavers and the loyalty of the enslaved. In the postwar period, he reflects on the war as a “great conflict on principle” and concludes resolutely: “I believe in our cause just as strongly as I ever did” (171). According to McNeilly, his rhetorical defense of the Confederate cause led one federal captain to agree that—had he been a Southerner—he would have fought for the Confederacy, as well (163). McNeilly also participated in Confederate veterans’ organizations and prayed at the dedication of Confederate monuments. During one of these prayers, he committed the monument to the “memory of a glorious past, as it testifies of patriotism, of courage, of devotion to principle, of faithfulness to duty” (178). Although the focus of Combat Chaplain is on McNeilly’s wartime experiences, neglecting to highlight how his reminiscences shaped and were shaped by the burgeoning Lost Cause narrative seems a missed opportunity.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Cathey’s book is a thorough and absorbing treatment of Confederate chaplaincy, as well as a welcomed addition to the study of Civil War religion. Combat Chaplain will appeal to a wide readership, from researchers to those with a casual interest in the firsthand accounts of those whose lives were indelibly changed in the crucible of war.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher C. Moore is an instructor of history and religion at Catawba Valley Community College.

Date of Review: 
August 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

M. Todd Cathey has been a student of the American Civil War for over thirty years. His primary area of interest is the common soldier in the Western Theater. Cathey holds several advanced degrees including two earned doctorates. Cathey is executive pastor of Arrow Heights Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

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