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The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell

A Chaplain's Story

Edited by Peter Messent and Steve Courtney

Publication Year: 2006

In 1861 young Joseph Twichell cut short his seminary studies to become a Union Army chaplain in New York's Excelsior Brigade. A middle-class New England Protestant, Twichell served for three years in a regiment manned mostly by poor Irish American Catholics. This selection of Twichell's letters to his Connecticut family will rank him alongside the Civil War's most literate and insightful firsthand chroniclers of life on the road, in battle, and in camp. As a noncombatant, he at once observed and participated in the momentous events of the Peninsula and Wilderness Campaigns and at the Second Bull Run, as well as at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania.

Twichell writes about politics and slavery and the theological and cultural divide between him and his men. Most movingly, he tells of tending the helpless, burying the dead, and counseling the despondent. Alongside accounts of a run-in with slave hunters, a massive withdrawal of wounded soldiers from Richmond, and other extraordinary events, Twichell offers close-up views of his commanding officer, the "political general" Daniel Sickles, surely one of the most colorful and controversial leaders on either side.

Civil War scholars and enthusiasts will welcome this fresh voice from an underrepresented class of soldier, the army chaplain. Readers who know of Twichell's later life as a prominent minister and reformer or as Mark Twain's closest friend will appreciate these insights into his early, transforming experiences.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

The Civil War letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell—nearly nine hundred pages are held by the Yale Collection of American Literature in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library—provide the basis for the selection that follows. We thank the Library, and especially Steve Jones, for access to the letters and for help in having them copied. We also thank Joseph Twichell’s descendants, ...

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pp. 1-14

Joseph Hopkins Twichell was just two years out of Yale and studying for the clergy when he enlisted as chaplain of the Jackson Regiment of Daniel Sickles’s Excelsior Brigade in Lower Manhattan. The irony of a small-town New England Congregationalist minister-in-training shepherding the souls of tough Irish Catholics from the brickyards and tanneries of this neighborhood was not lost on Twichell. He wrote to his father on 22 April 1861: “If you ask why I fixed upon this particular regiment, ...

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1 April–July 1861: “This . . . regiment, composed as it is of rough, wicked men”

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pp. 15-44

Joseph Hopkins Twichell graduated from Yale College in 1859 and entered Union Theological Seminary in New York City that fall. There, he roomed with his closest college friend, Edward Carrington, a student at the Columbia School of Law. Other classmates from Yale College living in New York included Eugene Smith, always known by his college nickname “Mons”; Henry “Billy” Boies; and Robert Stiles, whose Southern background and political sympathies contrasted with that of his abolitionist friends. ...

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2 July 1861–March 1862: “Battle fields are not far off ”

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pp. 45-106

The knowledge that the war would not just be a matter of a long vacation had struck the United States government cruelly on 21 July 1861. Thirty miles from Washington, General Irvin McDowell moved his thirty thousand men to attack twenty thousand Confederates defending the crucial railroad junction at Manassas, Virginia. Despite Union gains early in the battle, lack of coordination and officers’ and men’s inexperience in war turned Bull Run (named for a nearby stream) into a disaster. ...

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3 April–August 1862: “ ‘Sin entered into the world and death through sin’ kept ringing through my brain”

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pp. 107-171

General George B. McClellan, named general in chief after Scott’s retirement in November 1861, conceived a plan to approach and capture the Confederate capital at Richmond via a long feint to the left, in an area called the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers. To McClellan, well supplied with maps and intelligence showing easy terrain and only token opposition, it seemed a speedy route to victory. ...

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4 August–December 1862: “If I mistake not there is a general falling back”

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pp. 172-206

The battle of Cedar Mountain marked the beginning of the Second Bull Run Campaign. As Twichell surmised in his letter of 21 August 1862, McClellan’s star had indeed waned. To reinforce General Pope as he opposed General Lee, the troops that had spent the long, hot summer at Harrison’s Landing were ordered to the area near Manassas Junction, where the first Bull Run had been fought. ...

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5 January–April 1863: “I come face to face with the hard, bitter Fact”

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pp. 207-231

After the disaster of Fredericksburg the army returned to its camps across the river in Falmouth,Virginia. As the winter wore on, Twichell concerned himself with political matters. In a letter to his father on 15 March, he makes clear his advocacy of a military takeover if need be to deal with perceived traitors in the Northern states. “The strong Life of the Nation is under canvas tents to-night,” he writes. With spring came changes in army leadership, a visit from his father to camp, and an unexpected personal tragedy. ...

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6 May–July 1863: “Thousands of souls have been called to sudden judgement”

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pp. 232-256

In January 1863, Hooker was named commander of the Army of the Potomac, replacing Burnside. During long preparations for action, Lincoln advised Hooker to direct his efforts at Lee’s army rather than attempt yet another overland campaign to capture Richmond. Hooker moved across the Rappahannock in late April and engaged Lee at Chancellorsville. On 2 May, in the course of this battle, Confederate forces under Jackson made a surprise flanking movement that caused a rout. ...

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7 August–December 1863: “Never can we forget the year 1863”

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pp. 257-289

General Meade, credited with a great victory at Gettysburg (though not by Sickles), did not pursue and destroy Lee afterward, as Lincoln had wanted him to. In the Bristoe and Mine Run campaigns late in 1863, very little changed in the comparative position of the two armies. Twichell was granted a leave that he used to visit his family in Plantsville and to travel to New Haven, probably for the Yale commencement. ...

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8 January–July 1864: “I have been up to my elbows in blood”

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pp. 290-310

Unlike other Civil War battlefields, Cold Harbor, Virginia, is a grim place, with few monuments. It is not a place the veterans wanted to remember. By the time the new general in chief of the army, Ulysses S. Grant, reached that desolate and oddly named place, men were dying in slaughterhouse numbers as he relentlessly pressed Lee’s army.Grant did not get what he wanted in the Overland Campaign and in early summer settled in to long-term trench warfare in front of Petersburg, Virginia. ...

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Afterword: The Lee Ivy

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pp. 311-318

At noon on 22 June 1896, the president and corporators of Yale University climbed the steps to a wooden platform erected between two rows of elm trees on the Old Campus. Before them, ready for unveiling,was a block of red Maine granite supporting a statue of the late president of Yale, Theodore Dwight Woolsey, in mutton-chop whiskers and academic robe, his bronze eyes staring toward Phelps Gate. ...


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pp. 319-322


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pp. 323-333

E-ISBN-13: 9780820342047
E-ISBN-10: 0820342041
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820326931
Print-ISBN-10: 0820326933

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 16 b&w photos, 1 map
Publication Year: 2006