The war overtakes the enthusiastic and the reluctant alike, and sometimes they are both the same man. The Rev. Alexander Davis Betts of Smithville, a quiet village on the estuary
The war overtakes the enthusiastic and the reluctant alike, and sometimes they are both the same man.
The Rev. Alexander Davis Betts of Smithville, a quiet village on the estuary of the Cape Fear River, is a gentle man just three months shy of 29 years old. With a long, studious face, a high and bald brow with swept-back hair, dark chin whiskers but no mustache, resolute eyes, and a long and sharp nose, he looks every inch the preacher.
He records in the diary he will keep for the duration of the war and meticulously edit afterward: “One day in April, 1861, I heard that President Lincoln had called on the State troops to force the seceding States back into the Union. That was one of the saddest days of my life,” Betts writes. “That day I walked up and down my porch in Smithville and wept and suffered and prayed for the South.”
Betts and his young wife, Mary, have four small children. He has never imagined himself going off to war. As a farm boy growing up in Cumberland County, he once tried to ride a steer and was thrown, injuring himself so badly that performing physical labor remains difficult even as an adult. He walks with a limp ever after.
As a student at the University of North Carolina, he is stirred by the evangelical enthusiasm of Methodism — and in 1853, on one of the red-letter days of his life, he converts. He soon feels himself called to the ministry, and long before graduating Betts begins preaching.
A classmate recalls that Betts “was older than the average college student when at Chapel Hill, and his influence on his fellows was correspondingly greater. He was faithful to every duty and graduated with honor.”
Betts is acquainted with Lt. Lorenzo Cain of Company C, the 30th North Carolina Regiment, who was a teacher in Brunswick County before the war. Lieutenant Cain nominates Betts to be chaplain of the regiment, and the governor agrees to the appointment. Betts is torn between strenuous duty and the comforts of home, between his family and his calling.
After praying over the matter, Betts accepts the position of chaplain, and during the months he spends waiting for his commission to become official, he suffers his first blow of the war: In August, the day before his own 29th birthday, his son Eddie dies. At least Betts is home, and his wife is not forced to “sorrow alone.” On the anniversary of the awful event, he writes: “One year ago today, my dear little Eddie was cold in death in parsonage in Smithville … and I was almost dead.” And later: “My dear sainted Eddie! Safe in Heaven! Your father hopes to embrace you by-and-by in your angel home.”
At last Betts receives his commission on October 25, 1861 — guaranteeing that he will see the worst of the entire bloody war: the Seven Days battles around Richmond and the epic clashes at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor.
In the early encampment at Federal Point across the river, his family joins him in a rented house, and later in Richmond they manage to visit him. But for most of the war they are separated, and he endures the same pangs of longing as the other soldiers, the same anxiety for the safety of those left behind.
The post of chaplain is no sinecure. Betts could make it so — he could simply conduct regular prayer meetings on the Sabbath, comfort the sick and wounded where he is stationed, and generally keep his pious distance from hardship and the battlefield. He could choose to refrain from knowing the men too well — many of whom he will have to minister to in their wounded agony or bless into their graves. And under the circumstances, losing his son back home, few would likely blame him.
But he does the opposite. His Methodist calling exhorts him to be out among the troops, witnessing the Gospel in not just word, but also action.
He studies the names of all the men in his regiment, their loved ones, and their hometowns. He tends to the wounded, but he doesn’t confine himself to prayers. He carries bleeding men from the battlefield, coaxes one soldier to allow his arm to be amputated, follows the dire cases to Chimborazo or Camp Winder. He sleeps under wagons and in open fields, wears out horses in his constant travels to Richmond, Ashland, Mechanicsville, Winchester, Martinsburg, Strasburg — in addition to campaigning across Maryland and Pennsylvania. Time and again, he is laid low by exhaustion and fever, and on one occasion he falls off his horse unconscious and awakens in a meadow an hour later. He observes, bemusedly, “God could take a man out of this world without his knowing anything of it.”
After the Seven Days battles, he takes on one of the war’s most heartbreaking tasks, writing letters of condolence to the wives of the fallen.
Among the dead he recognizes old friends from Wilmington, schoolmates from Chapel Hill. His diary soon becomes a roll call of sick, wounded, and dying friends: Captain Sykes of Bladen; Daniel McDugold, a schoolmate at both Summerville Academy and Chapel Hill; Lieutenant Shaw, “one of the noblest men I ever knew;” Lt. Duncan E. McNair, “my classmate of many years;” another college schoolmate, Capt. S.A. Sutton; Capt. John Barr Andrews, the first person to whom — as a student — he confided his own religious conversion.
And also Lt. Lorenzo Cain, the schoolteacher who nominated him for his post as chaplain.
Betts’s little book quickly fills up with other words describing his own physical trials: hoarse, feeble, weary, sick, “suffer with cough,” “cold very bad,” “fever all day,” and “May the Lord restore me so that I may administer to others.”
He is beloved by the men he serves, a man of faith and humility. On August 25, 1862, he writes: “My birthday! Thirty years old! And yet how little knowledge I have acquired! How little grace! How little good have I done! God help me in time to come! Get marching orders at nine at night.”
On the road from Warrenton to Leesburg, Virginia, Betts encounters the enemy up close.
“I found a wounded Federal sitting on the field – a broken thigh, a rifle ball through his arm and a bruised shoulder made him right helpless. … He said he had a wife and two little children in his northern home. He told me our men had been very good to him during the three or four days he had been there. … As I was about to hurry away to overtake my regiment he asked me to lay him down! How could I? Where could I take hold? I did the best I could. As I took him by the hand and commended him to God, I think my heart was as tender as it ever was. His bones may be in that field now. I hope to meet his soul in Heaven in a few years.”
At Antietam, Betts is again pressed into service as a nurse and medical assistant: “Sep 17 — Very heavy firing in morning. Wounded coming in. God help our men to fight! Have mercy on those who are to die!”
Meanwhile, back home his little daughter Mary falls critically ill. “May now be in Heaven,” he writes, but he cannot leave the army. “Father, into thy hands I commend my child.”
As the cold weather sets in and fighting slackens, Betts is at last granted a furlough to see his family. The travel is arduous: “Nov. 20 — Six miles on saddle, twelve on wagon, five on foot.” The next day he jounces in an ambulance to a Baptist church at Mt. Crawford, where he spends the night with scores of wounded men. A stage takes him to Staunton, where he entrains for Richmond and Weldon. He misses the Wilmington train and must backtrack to Raleigh and catch a different train to reach the Port City. From there he walks to a friend’s home, where he hitches a buggy ride to another friend, who loans him a horse.
After five exhausting days, a final buggy ride brings Betts to his own front door. “Nov. 25 — Had not seen family since July 31. In going home from the army I met Lieut. E. Ruark, of Co. C. on his way home at Smithville, on sick furlough. We sat together for many, many miles, and parted at Wilmington. He went home and died of smallpox, spreading it and killing his mother and others. Narrow escape for me and mine. Neither of us thought of the danger.”
The best news of all: His daughter Mary has survived her fever.
Betts does not spend his furlough resting, however. Instead he preaches at every opportunity, and even takes his family to Raleigh to a church conference. Soon enough, his break ends and he is back in camp.
March and April bring furious gusts of rain, snow, sleet, and wind, and the army suffers constantly from exposure to the harsh elements.
“March 28 — Rain all day,” Betts writes. “Finish writing to churches for Co. G. Note: I talked with each church member in each company about his spiritual condition as often as I could. Once a year I wrote home to each church about its members and sent any message anyone wanted to send, and asked the church at home to pray for us. This was expensive, laborious work, but it was for souls whom Jesus died to save.”
In April he applies for a leave of absence to be with his pregnant wife during an “important crisis” and is heartbroken when Gen. Thomas Jackson personally denies the request. But news from home buoys Betts: “Apr. 25 — Our fifth child, a son, is born at 3:30 a.m. Mother and child doing well. Thank God!”
The carnage has not shaken his faith or dampened his zeal. On the 10th anniversary of Betts’s own conversion, Charlie Ruffin, who enlisted at 17 and “perhaps, was the wildest boy in his Regiment,” dies in his arms. “Just before he breathed his last … He sweetly smiled and said: ‘Bro. Betts as soon as I die I shall go straight to my blessed Jesus!’ That was a happy moment to me … the joy I feel pays me a thousand times for all the nights I ever slept on frozen ground, snow or mud.”
Betts builds temporary arbors for services, even a real wooden chapel at camp in Virginia. He fashions a log cabin for himself during the winter months of 1863, a place of reflection, where he can talk to one friend at a time and read in solitude. He continues writing for the Recorder, an inspirational tract distributed by the Religious Military Press. He conducts a round-robin of prayer meetings, each day addressing a different company in the regiment.
By 1864, the war has been grinding on for three years. He’s astonished by the number of parishioners, old friends, and relatives of friends he encounters in the hospital camps and among the dead.
Even the enemy no longer seem strangers. After a battle at Winchester, the regiment falls back on Strasburg. Betts writes: “Riding alone and very sad, at midnight, I overtake one or two thousand Federal prisoners. They began to sing, ‘We are going home to die no more.’ My heart was touched. I shed tears as I thought many of them would die in Southern prisons.”
Another task of the chaplains is to act as a “convenient agent” to retrieve boxes of clothing and food sent from home to soldiers in the field. Betts collects the supplies at the nearest railroad depot and attempts to deliver them. All too often, by the time he finds the intended recipient, the man is already a casualty.
Betts is on furlough in Chapel Hill when he hears the news of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender. As Gen. William T. Sherman’s army invades from the south, Betts joins the army of Tennessee under Gen. Joseph P. Johnston — until that army surrenders just a few weeks later.
Betts writes wistfully: “The night following the tidings of our contemplated surrender was a still, sad night in our camp. Rev. W. C. Willson, the Chapel Hill pastor … and I walked out of the camp and talked and wept together. As I started back to my tent — to my mule and saddle, I should say, for I had no tent — I passed three lads sitting close together, talking softly and sadly. I paused and listened. One said, ‘It makes me very sad, to think of our surrendering.’ Another said, ‘It hurts me worse than the thought of battle ever did.’ The third raised his arm, clenched his fist and seemed to grate his teeth as he said, ‘I would rather know we had to go into battle tomorrow morning.’ ”
For the next half-century, the Rev. Alexander Davis Betts preaches to congregations across the state, time and again meeting survivors from his old regiment, attended always by a company of ghosts.
The author consulted the following sources from the rare book collection, The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, available electronically through Documenting the American South: Experience of a Confederate Chaplain 1861-1864 by Rev. A.D. Betts, D.D., N.C. Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, edited by W.A. Betts (no date); for information on the 30th North Carolina Regiment, the author is indebted to The Living History Association of North Carolina, a nonprofit educational institution registered with the North Carolina Department of Archives and History, Historic Sites Section. Published sources include John Wesley Brinfield Jr.’s The Spirit Divided: Memoirs of Civil War Chaplains (Mercer University Press, 2006).
To view all stories from Our State’s Civil War Series, visit https://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series