The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell: A Chaplain's Story

The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell: A Chaplain's Story

The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell: A Chaplain's Story

The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell: A Chaplain's Story


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.


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, composed as it is of rough, wicked men, I answer, that was the very reason. I saw that the companies of the better class of citizens were all attended by Chaplains, but nothing was said about these. There, I thought, is a place for me. … I should not expect a revival, but I should expect to make some good impressions, by treating with kindness a class of men who are little used to it.”

Twichell consequently accompanied the regiment through three years of war—through the Peninsula Campaign, the Second Bull Run Campaign, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and the Wilderness. Almost 150 years after the event, the letters he wrote back home describing the three years of his wartime experience are both powerful and emotive, carrying the present-day reader back to the actions, thoughts, and feelings of that troubled but momentous time. Twichell’s letters, unlike those of many soldiers (and indeed of a good number of chaplains), are written in the style of an educated young man of the era and describe battles, hospitals, the religious life of the troops, internal regimental politics, national politics, and issues of slavery and race. They are highly literate and descriptively vivid. But they also use a variety of other devices to convey their meaning and message effectively, including plain speaking (“so far as slavery is concerned, nothing could deepen my hatred of it”), homely but striking simile (“regiments … as plenty as blackberries”), and forceful vernacular expressions (“the Army is boss of this job”; “I can no more supply advice … than I could teach a horse to knit”). If at times Twichell gives way to the overrhetorical verbal flourish, at others his use of heightened language works to genuine emotional effect, as when he looks down from a raised position on a battle below to describe how “I … felt all free America beating in my one heart, as I saw our standards plunged . . .

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