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Posted on Nov 6, 2003 in Stuff We Like

Bibles and Bullets

By R. Lee Hadden

Historical reenacting is a serious pastime that has gripped America by storm. Since the first major reenactments at the turn of the 20th Century, reenacting has become more authentic, sophisticated and popular. For most reenactors, the thrill of being a part of living history and carrying on the memory of fallen heroes or villains, or just plain slick-sleeved soldiers, is a great personal reward and worth the cost, effort and study necessary to be true to this new pastime. Each edition, my series of articles will discuss this world of reenactment and living history.

The purpose of the reenactor is to show today’s generation the similarities and differences of people in the past. One of these differences and similarities is in front of me now as I write this article — a reproduction of a New Testament Bible for Civil War soldiers. Neat, pocket sized, with small text, many of these Bibles were printed for the soldiers on both sides of the Civil War to take with them when they went into battle. Designed to read in camp they were often carried in the soldier’s breast pocket.

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There were mixed ideas concerning the distribution of these small, pocket-sized Bibles, Testaments, and prayer books. Some distributors hoped to make the owners into Christian soldiers by having the Word with them to influence their life. Tracting and colporterage (giving away copies of Holy Scriptures as part of their Christian ministry) were also active endeavors by many during the war. The Civil War was the first war in which so many tracts were passed out to so many soldiers.

Most soldiers spent more time in camp than in battle and the Bibles gave the soldier something to read in the tedious days in between engagements. Certainly the books gave comfort and inspiration to the men in times of trial, fear and despair. This is what they were intended to do, but they were also used for other purposes. Many of these small books were thought to be "bullet-pullers," in that a bullet aimed at a soldier would swerve and hit the Bible held in the breast pocket instead. Many tales were told, re-told and exaggerated by superstitious or religious men whose lives were saved in this miraculous way. Indeed, this was one of the great "old chestnuts" of the Civil War, and was used to either bore or thrill (depending upon the story-telling abilities of the veterans) generations of grandchildren, often with the mute remains of the Bible held in triumphant evidence. Many men kept their small Bibles as a kind of supernatural good luck token, and as something to rely upon in the chaos of battle where they had so little control over the fearsome forces around them.

Bullets fired from muzzle loaded muskets of the Civil War era did not have the penetration power of today’s high-tech rounds. Cynical soldiers and sailors of the Civil War remarked that a deck of cards or even a piece of hardtack in the left breast pocket of the uniform jacket would stop a bullet just as well, and in the case of the hardtack, perhaps even better. Other soldiers kept their Bibles throughout the war as special keepsakes from their mother, wife, sweetheart, sister or daughter. Inscriptions in these books often reveal the desperate heartache of women sending their men off to a brutal war with the very real consequences of death or capture. These inscriptions were sometimes read more often than any single text in the Bible. These sentiments kept the bonds of affection tighter for those loved ones who went into harm’s way.

The types of Bibles varied according to the family circumstances. Those who were well-off could afford expensive copies with good paper and leather bindings. Those less wealthy would often get cheaper paper editions from the home church or the chaplain. When that staunch Presbyterian elder, Colonel John Wood of the 4th NC, was killed in action at Snicker’s Gap, Virginia, his will bequeathed $500.00 to buy small Bibles and Testaments for the soldiers of his regiment.

One story of a young Confederate lieutenant from early in the war tells of these beliefs.[1] In late June or in early July of 1861, nineteen-year old Lt. William Preston Mangum made his last trip home to Durham, NC, before going into battle. His sister had given him a Bible to carry with him to war, but it was too big and heavy to carry easily. Preston wanted a smaller Bible to carry in his breast pocket. His sister mentioned the request to her cousin, a minister who was also the chaplain of Preston’s regiment. But his sister or the preacher could not find a small Bible anywhere in Raleigh or Durham. The pocket Bibles had all been bought up by other soldier’s families, and none were to be had for love or money.

During the battle of First Manassas (Bull Run), it was said of the young officer, "When the charge was ordered, he bravely passed to the onset and with waving sword and thrilling voice, cheered and rallied the heroic column as it staggered before the fiery storm." Lt. Preston Mangum and his men captured a Federal artillery battery. When the action was all over, and as Preston "sat down beside or under the shadow of one of the deserted guns" to catch his breath and to collect his thoughts after his first taste of battle, an enemy minie ball slammed into his chest. His comrades opened his jacket and found a large wound in his left breast. They also found a Bible shredded by the musket ball. The large Bible he had carried was spread open and stuffed in his jacket in place of the small pocket-sized one he had asked his sister to buy.

The open Bible deflected the bullet away from his heart, but had not stopped it from entering his chest. Instead of dying immediately on the battlefield, he was taken to a nearby home for care. But only a week after the battle, and riddled with gangrene, young Preston died.

Perhaps a small pocket Bible, instead of the spread open larger volume, would have saved his life. Today, there is a small marker placed at the Manassas National Battlefield Park to show where young Lt. William Preston Mangum was killed.

I told this sad story from the Civil War to a World War II veteran. My friend was intrigued and the next time we met he gave me his "Bible for Victory" that he carried in Europe. This Bible, a "Heart Guard," was a gift from his father’s secretary that she gave him just before he left to serve overseas in 1942. The Bible was exactly like the pocket Bibles used by the soldiers and sailors during the Civil War. This one also had a steel plate slipped over the front cover, to give additional protection from the bullets of the enemy when worn over the heart. It was still in its original cardboard presentation box, and obviously hadn’t been read or used.

A Korean War veteran, a friend and neighbor that I knew while growing up also had a similar brass plated Bible that had been given to him by his mother before shipping out overseas. Unlike the other Bible from World War II, this one had been read and re-read many times, and was falling apart from overuse. Yet it was always kept in the center drawer of his desk at work, where he would see it and touch it every day, in memory of his Mom.

Today, history repeats itself. There was a recent article in the local newspaper that spoke of the religious materials given by families and churches to the men going off to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Families and others still give small Bibles and Testaments to their soldiers going into harm’s way. The Bibles are still pocket-sized, but instead of brass plates and leather bindings, today they have camouflaged cloth covers. I know this, since I sent one to my nephew. I hope this old custom of American soldiers, from many wars, will keep him safe from enemy bullets.

Amen.

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[1] Taken from: Dennis Rogers "A Soldier Denied His Rest"

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