HENRY MCNEAL TURNER
Black Chaplain in
the Union Army
Edwin S. Redkey
The Civil War marked a radical transformation in the lives of all African Americans. This was especially true for the young black men who fought in the war: they saw new places, met new people, thought new thoughts, and for the rest of their lives remembered the war as the Great Event. Few of those men, however, became well known to the public, either white or black. Their regiments, such as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, or their white officers, such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, became heroes for a while. And in some of their battles, such as Fort Wagner, Olustee, Milliken's Bend, and Port Hudson, they won praise for showing that blacks could and would fight to defend the Union. But most of the men themselves remained anonymous. One exception was Henry McNeal Turner.
For Turner (1834-1915) the Civil War became an intense, invigorating crucible for his energetic talents. He served a black infantry regiment as chaplain. In that role he developed some of the ideas, attitudes, and skills that became manifest in his later career, in which he became a Reconstruction politician, a powerful churchman, and a national race leader. While serving in the army, Turner refined his thinking about the African race and its future. He worked with the freedmen and wrestled with the problems of their new status. Two specific activities propelled him to wide attention among both blacks and whites in both North and South. First, his newspaper letters from the battlefield attracted many readers and admirers in the North, and they launched him on a lifetime of journalism. His frequent letters and articles helped elevate him in church and public affairs. Second, in