Monday, January 1, 2024

Kindness and Honesty Change Lives in the 33d Illinois Normal Regiment

In the midst of the danger and the drudgery of war, do little things matter?  Is sending a box with some gifts and books worth the effort?  Is striving to live out one’s faith in Jesus worth the effort?  Here is a description of how a woman in Chicago helped encourage the Union soldiers through a box of gifts she sent to them.  And also a description of a young servant boy’s determination to keep serving Christ even as he served the officers of the 33d Illinois Regiment from Incidents of the U.S. Christian Commission [pp 58-60]:

    The first Delegation to the West, from the central office, was to the Cumberland Army, immediately after the Stone River battles, December 31st, 1862.  Earlier in the war, much valuable work was done in the Western armies, upon every principle battle-field, by various “Army Committees,” organized in Chicago, Peoria, St. Louis, etc.  (These “Army Committees” were appointed by the Young Men’s Christian Associations of the places named.)
    The war in Missouri was a succession of forced marches, toilsome retreats, and desperate battles between comparatively small armies.  Gens. Fremont and Hunter were successively displaced from the chief command, and Gen. Halleck, in November, 1861, assumed charge of the Department.
    Among the troops campaigning in Missouri was the famous “Normal School” regiment, the 33d Illinois.  Mr. B. F. Jacobs, of Chicago, (Secretary of the Chicago Army Committee, and of the Northwestern Branch of the Christian Commission, until the close of the war) gives the story of a Friday evening prayer-meeting, held in the First Baptist Church of that city, in the Fall of 1861, which is connected with the history of the regiment:
    Towards the close of the meeting, an officer rose and said: “I am a stranger to you, and in this city.  My reason for speaking is that I have a trust to execute.  Our regiment, the 33d Illinois, in the early part of its campaign, at a town in Missouri, received a box containing a few hymn-books and Testaments, some papers, housewives, and other soldier comforts.  A little ticket within the box informed us that it came from a lady of the First Baptist Church, Chicago.  So anxious were the men for the hymn-books that on account of the short supply, they loaned the precious volumes to each other, and more than one hundred committed to memory the principal hymns, that they might be able to sing readily at the meetings.  The books penetrated into the hospital.  One of my men sent for me to visit a dying soldier there.  His words were few but full and precious:
    ‘Captain, I am dying.  I long to see my wife and children, but I know I shall die without that.  I’ve been trying to think what I could send my wife.  I have nothing except these books,’ and taking one of the Testaments and hymn books from under his head, he added ‘Send these; and Captain, if you are ever in Chicago, I want you to go to the First Baptist Church, and tell the lady who sent those hymn books that the 27th hymn has led me to Jesus.  I am going home to wait for her.’”
    The story of the stranger Captain deeply impressed the audience.  There was a pause in his talk for a moment, when he went on again: “Among others in the regiment, there was a little boy, the servant of one of the Captains, who on account of his known religious principles was nicknamed ‘Little Piety.’  The Christian soldiers of the regiment organized a prayer meeting; and were holding it one evening in a tent, near the quarters of the officer of the day, a very profane man, who hearing the singing, started out, exclaiming with an oath, ‘I’ll stop that noise.’  As he approached the tent, the fly-door was up; Little Piety was speaking, standing near the cracker-box which served as a desk, so that the light of the only candle in the tent lit up his face.  The little fellow was telling of his mother’s last counsel to him as he went away from home: ‘My son, there are a great many men who don’t love Christ, and who will tempt you to swerve from your fidelity and purpose.  You may be subjected to trials on account of your faith; but, my son, I want you to promise that whatever else you forget, you will not forget your mother’s Savior.’  With tears in his eyes the little fellow told how he was trying not to forget Him.  The sight of the boy and the tone of his voice stopped the Captain. He listened till the meeting closed, when the leader asked –
    ’Where shall we hold our next meeting?’
    Stepping forward out of the darkness, the Captain responded, ‘In my tent.’
    That Captain was afterward converted to Christ, and since that time has been one of the most earnest Christians in the regiment.”
    The stranger sat down; and we felt in our prayer meeting, that night, our hearts somehow knit closer to the men who had gone out from our midst, and we owed them thenceforth more of prayer and more of work.

33d Illinois Normal Regiment was organized at Camp Butler, Springfield IL and mustered in on Sept. 3d 1861.  
    It was also known as the “Teacher’s Regiment” because many of its initial recruits were both teachers and students from Illinois State Normal School.  The school founded in 1857 chose that name because it was established to prepare teachers.  The term “normal school” is based on the French ├ęcole normale, a sixteenth-century model school with model classrooms where model teaching practices were taught to teacher candidates to prepare them for teaching on the elementary level in public schools.
    Once officially mustered into the Federal Army, the 33d Regiment was sent to serve in the Missouri-Arkansas territory.  During the fall of 1861 they were stationed at Ironton, MO.  In October they were involved in the battle at Fredericktown in southeastern Missouri.  They would later also fight at Vicksburg in 1863.  

The box of gifts explored

What are “Housewives”?  
    It is a Civil War tag for a soldier’s sewing kit.  Civil War soldiers did not have many extra items of clothing, so the clothing they wore took a lot of wear and tear.  When a soldier left his home, he left behind often needed help he had typically depended upon to fix a fabric rip or a lost button.  The “housewife” became the soldier’s tag for his sewing kit. Not being government issued, each one varied in design and content.  These compact fabric strips were made to be folded or rolled up to keep the spools of thread, thimbles, needles, pins and spare buttons from falling out of the pockets attached along the main strip.  Some were plain.  Others were made fancy.  Some even had leather for the main outer strip.  The compact flexible construction of the “housewife” allowed the men to roll them up and stuff them in their pockets or knapsacks for easy storing.
From Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, carried by Captain John C. Landis,
Missouri Light Artillery, CSA

John Billings has an enjoyable description in his book Hark Tack and Coffee [p.85-86]:
    “In the department of mending garments each man did his own work, or left it undone, just as he thought best; but no one hired it done. Every man had a “housewife” or its equivalent, containing the necessary needles, yarn, thimble, etc., furnished him by some mother, sister, sweetheart, or Soldier’s Aid Society, and from this came his materials to mend or darn with.
    Now, the average soldier was not so susceptible to the charms and allurements of sock-darning as he should have been; for this reason he always put off the direful day until both heels looked boldly and with hardened visage out the back-door, while his ten toes ranged themselves en echelon in front of their quarters. By such delay or neglect good ventilation and the opportunity of drawing on the socks from either end were secured…
    Then, there were other men who, having arranged a checker-board of stitches over the holes, as they had seen their mothers do, had not the time or patience to fill in the squares, and the inevitable consequence was that both heels and toes would look through the bars only a few hours before breaking jail again.  But there were a few of the boys who were kept furnished with home-made socks, knit, perhaps, by their good old grandmas, who seemed to inherit the patience of the grandams themselves; for, whenever there was mending or darning to be done, they would sit by the hour, and do the work as neatly and conscientiously as any one could desire. I am not wide of the facts when I say that the heels of the socks darned by these men remained firm when the rest of the fabric was well spent.”

    You have to appreciate Billings’ humorous description of the need for and the use of the sewing kits by the soldiers.  While many of the men might have gotten a housewife from family when they marched off, the sewing kits could get lost or used up.  So the ones in the box the lady sent the 33d Illinois would have been treasured.  
    On personal note, my wife in the 1990s made up housewife kits for the men in our reenacting unit which we handed out at one of the events we were at.  She put in needles, thread, buttons etc.  Some of them actually got used occasionally, usually to sew on a button that came off.  She did this to represent to the men something the US Christian Commission had done during the war.  She invested time and creativity in sewing and assembling the housewives.  Knowing my wife’s heart to help and encourage the reenactors, I can honestly appreciate the heart of this unnamed woman who assembled the box shipped to the soldiers of the 33d Illinois.

Here is a copy of instructions given out by the US Christian Commission for making "housewife" kits to be passed along to the soldiers.  Obviously it is a more basic version than the one pictured above.  But it would hold the essentials needed to do the mending.

How valuable would a little book of religious songs be?  
    I would expect you should be able to understand that the New Testaments would be treasured, but did you ever think a hymn book would also be considered precious?  Remember this is before you could just hit a button and listen to music. You had to make you own music.  The scan of the hymn book attached is of a U.S. Christian Commission hymn book that I have (3” by 4”).  The paper cover is so badly worn that you can barely see the printed picture on the front, and you can barely make out the USCC tag on the back cover.  The soldier’s name is C R Taylor.  I don’t know any more details than it was purchased in an estate sale in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.  Am not sure if he wrote his name in the book, or someone else in his family wrote it in memory of him so it would be a treasured family memory.  Because it’s covers are so badly worn, he must have kept it with him a long time.  God made us to enjoy and respond to music.  Singing songs together is something that can unite us in focus.




    The officer’s description of how the hymn books were used by the soldiers of the unit shows how little things can be most precious.  I also think that the captain who shared this information valued the hymn books and Testaments since he made the trip to Chicago, which was not his home town to share how encouraging the small box of gifts was to the men in his unit.

In tough situations do little things matter?  
    More often than we might think -- “yes”.  A small gift, a simple gesture, a kind word might be the encouragement needed to enable someone struggling to “get through it”.  Share what you have, not for fame or glory, but to be helpful and God honoring to others.  “Little things” really can make a big difference.

Children Projects
1. Explore how the unknown woman’s gift box with the hymn books and housewives shows how little things matter.  Maybe then move on to discussing what “little things” your children could share or do for others today that might be encouraging and helpful.  And challenge them give things or help not to benefit themselves, but to encourage the one they are giving to.

2. Explore how Little Piety made an impact on his Captain’s life.  Remind them that long before the speech in the tent that his Captain responded to came many days of showing his faith in actions.  Remind your children that “talk” can be affirmed as true or shown to be fake by the “actions” of our lives.  Yes, actions do speak louder than words.

3. Discuss how and why music is important in our lives.  Explore the fact that the content of songs we listen to and sing can either positively or negatively affect our lives.  Will knowing this challenge your children to evaluate what music they listen to?  It should.