Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

No "Summer Holiday": The Chaplaincy of Richmond's Walter Russell Bowie in World War I

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

No "Summer Holiday": The Chaplaincy of Richmond's Walter Russell Bowie in World War I

Article excerpt

On 15 October 1918 Jean Laverack Bowie expressed her frustration about the meager news she had received from her husband, Walter Russell Bowie. During World War I, Bowie, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, served as the chaplain for U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 45 in Europe. Jean complained that his handful of letters had barely mentioned the war. Indeed, she wrote him, "you might have been spending a summer holiday in France for all I could gather from your letters." His wife's teasing commentary turned out to be grimly ironic. Bowie's period of service in World War I truly proved to be no summer holiday for him, his unit, his family, his church, or the city of Richmond. On the contrary, it was a time of confusion, difficulty, and death, and the horrifying scenes of the Great War affected Bowie for years to come. Taken collectively, Bowie's correspondence and published works provide a rare glimpse of the personal experiences of a World War I chaplain. These documents reveal a man who kept a watchful eye on the home front even as he encountered the devastation of war and pondered its implications for the world.1

In the summer of 1917, a group of Richmond physicians organized a medical unit under the aegis of the American Red Cross and with the approval of the United States War Department. The surgeon general of the U.S. Army expanded it into a base hospital unit and placed it under the direction of Dr. Stuart McGuire, dean of the Medical College of Virginia. Often known thereafter as "the McGuire unit," it, like forty-nine other Red Cross units, would play a vital role as part of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in Europe. In 1923 U.S. Army historians concluded "that the Red Cross base hospital and hospital units constituted the backbone of the hospital service in France." Dr. McGuire invited Bowie to serve as chaplain for Base Hospital No. 45. Believing that he had a duty to join other Richmond men in the war effort, Bowie accepted the invitation and secured permission from the vestry of St. Paul's for a leave of absence.2

By 1917 Bowie had claimed a significant place in Richmond. Born in the city in 1882, he had been baptized at St. Paul's and had attended McGuire's School. After his father died of tuberculosis in 1894, the family faced economic hardship, and young Russell went to live with his aunt, Mary-Cooke Branch Munford. With her support, Bowie distinguished himself as a student at the Hill School in Pennsylvania and at Harvard College. He prepared for the Episcopal ministry at Virginia Theological Seminary but made special arrangements to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York for most of one academic year. After graduation in 1908, Bowie became rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in rural Greenwood, Virginia. In 1911 he accepted a call to St. Paul's, where he would enjoy a remarkable eleven-year tenure.3

Consecrated in 1845 and located near the state Capitol, St. Paul's already boasted a celebrated heritage. Its previous rectors had played prominent roles in the city, and Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate leaders had worshipped there. With the articulate and popular Bowie as rector, St. Paul's flourished. A deeply rooted Virginian, Bowie expressed respect for tradition, yet he championed social Christianity and religious modernism. From the pulpit and as an editor of the Southern Churchman, he repeatedly challenged conventional religious and social views. Early twentieth-century Richmond was an ideal arena for him. Though still carefully commemorating the Confederacy, the city embarked upon a period of dynamic growth, industrialization, and progressive reform.4

Despite grim, detailed news reports about the conflict that began in 1914 in Europe, World War I at first remained largely distant to Richmonders. More immediate matters such as a statewide prohibition referendum, a local police scandal, a vice investigation, and the city's public health campaign claimed the attention of citizens in 1914 and 1915. …

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