DeSoto Chaplains in Gray

by Tim Harrison



In my study of Confederate veterans from DeSoto County, I have discovered three ministers who left their churches and officially served as chaplains to Confederate soldiers. While there may have been others as yet undiscovered, I believe these three to be representative of those who felt called to serve in the field. Two of these men were killed in action and the third was wounded and later died as a result.

M. L. Weller was an Episcopal minister living near Hernando when the war began. He is listed in the 1860 census as 30 years of age, born in North Carolina, and single. It appears he enlisted in (old) Company K, 9th Mississippi Infantry in early 1861. Company K, known as the Irrepressibles, was originally commanded by captain (later brigadier general) James R. Chalmers. The 9th Mississippi was sent to Pensacola, Florida in April 1861 and remained there until February 1862, when the regiment was sent from Deer Point, near Pensacola, to Morristown, Tennessee and ordered forward to Cumberland Gap late in February. On April 6, 1862 the 9th Mississippi was part of the Confederate attacking force of Albert Sidney Johnston against Union forces at Shiloh, Tennessee. The regiment saw heavy fighting on the 6th and took part in several charges, driving the Yankee troops before them. During the fighting Chaplain Weller was killed. General Chalmers, in his official report, gives the details as follows:

When we had gone about a quarter of a mile we again encountered the enemy in a strong position on a hill with a deep ravine in his front, and a very stubborn fight ensued, in which we lost many gallant men, among them the Rev. M. L. Weller, chaplain of the Ninth Mississippi Regiment, a pure man and ardent patriot and true Christian...

Benjamin T. Crouch was a Methodist minister from Horn Lake. The 1860 census shows him living near Horn Lake, 30 years of age and born in Kentucky. He is married and his family consists of his wife, Mary E. (age 27, born in Missouri) and children James S. (5, CA), M. C. (female, 4, MO), Mary J. (3, MS), and Ben T., Jr. (3/12, MS). The 1870 census shows one other child was born: Emma, about 1862. Rev. Crouch was chaplain in the 7th Tennessee Cavalry. A number of men from DeSoto County served in Company A of the 7th Tennessee, which was formed in 1862. Chaplain Crouch served as acting aide-de-camp to Brigadier General W. H. Jackson, the position he was in at the time he was killed in action. This occurred on March 5, 1863 at Thompson's Station (near Spring Hill), Tennessee. On that date during a forced reconnaissance toward Franklin the cavalry of Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn encountered a large body of the enemy. About 10:00 a.m. the Union cavalry attacked the Confederate cavalry at Thompson's Station. General Jackson, in his report, states that the enemy advanced to within a few hundred yards of my position when the command opened fire, and, upon receiving orders to charge them, did so in gallant style, the enemy retiring in confusion behind a hill in front of our position. The Union forces in this position were attacked twice without success but were overcome on the third attempt. During the second attack, Chaplain Crouch, acting as aide-de-camp to General Jackson, was killed. He fell while bravely riding along the line, giving an order to the Second Brigade to charge. General Van Dorn also mentioned Chaplain Crouch, stating, In him the country lost a brave soldier and a good man.

William Benton Owen was a Methodist minister when mustered into service on June 1, 1861 as a private in Company I (Pettus Rifles), 17th Mississippi Infantry. He was appointed chaplain of the regiment on June 29, 1861. When he enlisted he was living near Cockrum and was unmarried. The 17th Mississippi moved to Manassas, Virginia in June 1861. They were stationed near Blackburn Ford and came under artillery fire in July 18th. They were also on the battlefield on July 21, 1861 when the Union army was routed in the first battle of Manassas (or Bull Run), losing 2 killed and 10 wounded. After that the regiment was at Ball's Bluff in October 1861 and took part in the Seven Days battles around Richmond in June 1862. They became part of the famed Barksdale's Brigade and were in many battles. At Fredericksburg, Virginia beginning in December 1862 a great religious revival broke out in Lee's army. The same was true of Barksdale's Brigade. Major Robert Stiles of Virginia gave credit for staring these religious meetings, at least in this brigade, to Rev. William Owen, who was referred to as Brother William. Major Stiles later wrote of the revival and the chaplains involved:

Easily the most marked man among them, however, was the Rev. William Benton Owen, chaplain of the Seventeenth Mississippi Regiment. My recollection is that he had been a private soldier and was commissioned chaplain, because he was already doing the work of one yes, of half a dozen without a commission. Of all the men I ever knew, I think he was the most consecrated, the most unselfish, and the most energetic, and that he accomplished more that was really worthy of grateful recognition and commendation than any other man I ever knew, of his ability. By this I do not mean to imply that his ability was small, but simply that I do not include in this statement a few men I have known, of extraordinary abilities and opportunities.

Brother William, as we used to call him, was also a man of the sweetest, loveliest spirit, but of the most unflinching courage as well. After he became chaplain he never felt it right that he should attempt to kill or wound a man, so he never fired another shot, yet he was seldom back of the actual line of battle. It may give some faint idea of his exalted Christian heroism to say that his regular habit was to take charge of the litter-bearers in battle, and first to see to the removal of the wounded, Federal as well as Confederate, when the former fell into our hands; and then to attend to the burial of the dead of both sides, when we held the field and the enemy did not ask leave to bury their own dead.

In May 1863 when most of Lee's army was at Chancellorsville fighting Union General Hooker, Barksdale's Brigade, which had been left at Fredericksburg, was overrun by a Union attack. Brother William rode all the way to Chancellorsville on a horse without a saddle and reported this development to General Lee, himself, who then sent troops to correct the situation.

At Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 2, 1863 the 17th took part in the attack on the Peach Orchard where General Barksdale was killed. The regiment lost 40 killed and 160 wounded in the attack, the heaviest losses in the brigade. When Lee's army retreated on July 4, 1863, Chaplain Owen stayed behind to assist with the wounded and was taken prisoner. He was finally released on November 9, 1863 and rejoined his command. On May 5, 1864 General U. S. Grant launched what would be the last campaign of the war and Lee gave him battle in the Wilderness. The 17th Mississippi took part in the fighting there on May 6, 1864 and then moved to Spottsylvania Court House when Grant tried to slide around Lee's flank. Chaplain Owen was wounded at Spottsylvania on May 11, 1864. Major Stiles provides the details:

After one of the bloody repulses of the enemy at Spottsylvania in 1864, Brother William was, as usual, out in front of our works, utterly unconscious of his own heroism or his own peril. He had removed the wounded of both sides and taken note of our dead, and was making his memoranda of the home addresses of the Federal dead, when a Minie ball struck his left elbow, shattering it dreadfully. He was at once carried to the field hospital, and some of Barksdale's (now Humphrey's) men sent word down the line to me. As soon as our guns were disengaged I galloped to the hospital to see him; but when I arrived he was under the knife, his elbow being in process of resection, and, of course, was unconscious.

Chaplain Owen never returned to his regiment. He was sent to Richmond and eventually home to recover. Says Stiles: he was never really a strong man; indeed he was one of the few small and slight men I remember in the entire brigade, and, besides, he was worn and wasted with his ceaseless labors. He never really rallied, but in a short time sand and passed away. Few servants of God and man as noble and consecrated, as useful and beloved, as William Owen have lived in this world or left it for Heaven. /p>

Notes:

Based on the entry in People's Press for May 17, 1866.

2 Official Records, Vol. X, part 1, p. 549.

3 1860 Census, p. 176; 1870 Census, p. 55.

4 Official Records, Vol. XXIII, pt. 1, p. 116.

5 Ibid., p. 122.

6 Ibid, p. 123, Report of Brig. Gen. W. H. Jackson.

7 Ibid., p. 117, Report of Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn.

8 Robert Stiles, Four Years Under Marse Robert, pp. 143-145; 176-179.

9 Ibid., pp. 143-144.

10 Ibid., pp. 176-179.

11 Ibid., p. 144.

12 Ibid., pp. 144-145.

 

Based on the entry in People's Press for May 17, 1866.

Official Records, Vol. X, part 1, p. 549.

1860 Census, p. 176; 1870 Census, p. 55.

Official Records, Vol. XXIII, pt. 1, p. 116.

Ibid., p. 122.

Ibid, p. 123, Report of Brig. Gen. W. H. Jackson.

Ibid., p. 117, Report of Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn.

Robert Stiles, Four Years Under Marse Robert, pp. 143-145; 176-179.

Ibid., pp. 143-144.

Ibid., pp. 176-179.

Ibid., p. 144.

Ibid., pp. 144-145.


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