September, 2007

Sorry for being quiet the past few days. I’ve been slowly but surely plugging away at getting the retreat from Gettysburg manuscript finished. I’ve made some excellent progress, but I’ve still got a way to go. I’ve still got a bunch of new sources to plug in. This evening, I’ve been incorporating material from one of my very favorite sources, The National Tribune, a veterans’ newspaper that was the forebear of Stars and Stripes. I still have a number of those articles to go, as well as the material from a number of books. If all goes well, I should finish some time this week.

In 1998, Gregory Acken published the letters of Capt. Francis Donaldson of the 118th Pennsylvania. This book, titled Inside the Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, is one of the best first-person accounts of the Civil War published in the last ten years. I recommend it highly.

Donaldson participated in the entire Gettysburg Campaign. After the conclusion of the Campaign, he wrote a very lengthy letter home describing his experiences. A portion of it is so funny, and so enlightening, that I decided to share it with you.

On July 12, 1863, the opposing armies occupied positions at Williamsport, Maryland. Lee’s army had the interior lines, his 7 mile long position extending along a prominent ridge line. With the swollen Potomac too high to cross, Lee had carefully selected a defensive position, and was waiitng to see whether Meade would attack.

July 12 was a Sunday. During the afternoon, General Meade and his staff rode over to reconnoiter the position occupied by the 5th Corps. After the general sent some skirmishers forward, the chaplain of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry approached him. With his head uncovered, the chaplain asked Meade whether a battle couldn’t be fought as well the next day, instead of on the Sabbath. Meade, known for his terrible temper, good-naturedly replied that “he was like a man who had a contract to make a box—he had the four sides and bottom made & was about to put on the lid, hence the fight would take place,” recorded Capt. Francis Donaldson of the 118th Pennsylvania. “Then,” said the chaplain, “as God’s agent I solemnly protest and will show you that the Almighty will not permit this to be done. Look at the heavens, see the threatening storm approaching.” Sure enough, it started raining a few minutes later, and the rain continued all night. “The skirmishers, both sides, covered themselves with their blankets & stood looking at each other & trying to keep dry,” drolly concluded Donaldson.

For sure, the power of nature can overwhelm the power of man. This episode stands in stark contrast to an incident of World War II.

On December 8, 1944, when the Third Army Headquarters were located in the Caserne Molifor in Nancy, France, the Third Army’s chaplain, Msgr. James H. O’Neill, received a telephone call: “This is General Patton; do you have a good prayer for weather? We must do something about those rains if we are to win the war.”

Unaware of any such prayer, Chaplain O’Neill wrote the following on a 3×5 card:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations.

The prayer worked. The clouds broke as Patton’s army raced to the relief of the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne, thereby freeing up Allied air power to bring its full force to bear and to help break up the German offensive in the Ardennes.

The contrast is stark and amusing.

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