- Combat Chaplain: The Life and Civil War Experiences of Rev. James H McNeilly, Army of Tennessee by M. Todd Cathey
In this curious book, M. Todd Cathey aims to reveal connections among "personal faith, the everyday life of the [Confederate] chaplain, and his relationship with the men to whom he ministered" (p. ix). Cathey attempts to achieve this goal by narrating the story of James H. McNeilly (1838-1922), who, as a newly minted Presbyterian doctor of divinity, enlisted as a private in the Forty-ninth Tennessee Infantry in October 1861 and then served as its chaplain from September 1862 until the Civil War's end. Afterward, McNeilly pastored various churches, mostly in Tennessee, until he retired in 1911, and, beginning in the 1880s, he actively memorialized and defended the Confederate cause.
Chapters 1–3 describe McNeilly's ancestry and upbringing in Middle Tennessee, providing extensive details about his genealogy and boyhood experiences and about the region' s topography and architecture. The heart of the book comes in chapters 4–9, which recount McNeilly's wartime experiences; on display is McNeilly's involvement with ordinary soldiers through his common participation in camp escapades, preaching, praying, leading revival meetings, going without adequate food and clothing, assisting surgeons, and coming under fire in the battles of Port Hudson, Jackson, Kennesaw Mountain, Franklin, and Nashville. A final, tenth chapter very briefly summarizes McNeilly's postwar life. Cathey has indeed told McNeilly's story by detailing much that is interesting and humorous and by placing him in the thick of the "action with the boys" (p. x).
In that sense Cathey fulfills his stated aim, but as a work of history the book has several problems. Cathey relies almost entirely on McNeilly's early-twentieth-century reminiscences, which come from an unpublished manuscript (1909) and a small collection of articles from Confederate Veteran magazine (1911–1922) and the Nashville Banner newspaper (1911). Through paraphrase and numerous, often lengthy block quotations (some a page or longer), Cathey uncritically recapitulates, sometimes superfluously, McNeilly's nostalgic telling of his own (often self-aggrandizing) story set within an Edenic Old South victimized by Yankee invaders. The book is completely devoid of [End Page 178] historiography—of the Old South, slavery, southern evangelicalism, Civil War soldiers, Reconstruction, Civil War memory, sectional reunion and reconciliation, the New South, and, perhaps most significant, the Lost Cause. Cathey never informs readers that McNeilly's postwar involvement "in Confederate veteran affairs"—working with the United Confederate Veterans and writing for Confederate Veteran—meant that he was contributing to two of the most significant vehicles of Lost Cause ideology (p. 176). Moreover, Cathey never discusses McNeilly's justification of the Ku Klux Klan's postwar activities (in a Confederate Veteran article that Cathey cites) or McNeilly's apology for southern slavery (published in 1911 under the title Religion and Slavery: A Vindication of the Southern Churches). The "combat chaplain" went to his grave as a staunch, unrepentant defender of the Lost Cause, though unsuspecting readers might not fully realize that from reading this book.
Despite the book's shortcomings, and although McNeilly is not unknown to scholars of the post–Civil War South and the Lost Cause, Cathey helpfully has put a historically interesting figure before us. McNeilly's story, however, awaits substantial, scholarly treatment from several historiographical angles.