Thursday, January 15, 2015

In My Time of Dying


Every Civil War nerd knows the dying words of Stonewall Jackson. (For the uninitiated, they are, “Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.”) We know where Jackson died, when he died, and who surrounded him as he breathed his last. Indeed, we might even make an educated guess as to what was on his mind as he expired.

We are often at a loss to do the same for the other 620,000 soldiers who perished. Not all were lucky enough to have their last words recorded. I have, however, found an exception to this rule. His name was Simeon Smith. He died on November 7, 1863.

That day, five regiments from the Union 6th Corps made a daring attack against Confederate earthworks at Rappahannock Station. Although Smith’s regiment was not involved in the assault, it was close enough to the action to come under fire. During the fighting, a stray shell struck the ranks of Company I, 10th Massachusetts, mortally wounding two men. One of them was Private Simeon P. Smith, a twenty-two-year-old soldier from Meredith, New Hampshire. The Confederate shell shattered his left knee, which might have meant instant death for him, but Smith had the wherewithal to draw out a handkerchief, tie it around his leg, and then use his bayonet to create a makeshift tourniquet.

Unfortunately, the tourniquet bought Smith only a few hours of additional life. An ambulance carried him to a hospital in town, but the surgeons pronounced him a lost cause. A chaplain from the 77th New York, Norman Fox, came over to give Smith his final absolution. Fox remembered, “I found a young man of the 10th Mass. Regiment, with his leg crushed and mangled by a piece of shell. The shock had been so severe that amputation was useless, and he was sinking rapidly. I inquired concerning his religious history. It was the old story,—a bright hope, active church membership, army life and irregularities, and the abandonment of his profession. ‘And now,’ said he, if there can be forgiveness for such a wanderer, pray for me’.”

Chaplain Fox did his sworn duty, to pray for the soul of dying soldier in his final hour. He noted how the whole scene looked rather bizarre. He felt awkward about lifting up a prayer amid the assorted group of soldiers who stood nearby:

I confess I felt more backwardness than was right. There stood a circle of rough soldiers surveying the solemn scene with morbid curiosity. There stood another group, more educated and refined,—a knot of surgeons, some of whom, I knew, had no belief in God or eternity, and considered my interview with the dying man as at best but amiable uselessness. But there lay the sinking sufferer, and I wore the uniform of a minister of Christ. Bending over the table where he lay, I asked the Good Shepherd to pardon the returning wanderer. Murmured responses throughout the prayer disclosed his own earnestness in the petition; the smothered hope revived again; and faint at first, but growing brighter and brighter, there beamed on him the full radiance of that faith which supports in the stern hour.

As an aside, Smith had a family member at his final bedside. Another young soldier stood by, affectionately smoothing Smith’s hair. Initially, Fox believed he was just a hospital steward. But growing suspicious, Fox asked him, “Is this a friend of yours?”

The soldier replied, “It is my younger brother.” Indeed, Private Smith’s older brother, Corporal Hanniel P. Smith, served in the same company. His company commander allowed the older Smith to accompany Simeon to the field hospital.

At this point, Fox decided to sing a hymn, “Why Should We Start and Fear to Die?” It dated back to the 1830s, but the lyrics later became more well-known when it was incorporated into a popular gospel hymn entitled, “In My Time of Dying,” which, among other things, was commercialized by both Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. Typically, “Why Should We Start and Fear to Die?” was sung in four verses, although some versions contained as many as twelve. Fox maintained that he got to the fourth verse:

Jesus can make a dying bed

feel soft as downy pillows are

While on his breast I lean my head

And breath my life out sweetly there

 

At about this point, Private Smith tried to write out a final message, a missive written to some unknown friend. According to Fox, the dying soldier garbled a few words: “There’s—a—silver—pencil—in—pocket.” Fox recalled, “It was with deepest sorrow that he could not speak friendship’s last message. There was but one friend of whom he could speak now.” Smith soon died, although his last words represented something of a bang, not a whimper. Fox explained, “We watched him silently, while he lay for some minutes motionless; I thought all was over; but rousing suddenly, he said—‘Jesus, lover of my soul,—oh, repeat that again!’ My voice choked up so that I could hardly speak. I know not if he heard me, for before I reached the last verse, ‘the storm of life,’ was over, the ‘haven’ was reached, and ‘billows’ had died away in the eternal peace.”

It happened at 10 o’clock, P.M.

If you’re the religious sort, you’ll likely take solace in the fact that faith was the last thing on Private Smith’s mind as he parted this world. If you’re not religious, you can still appreciate this tale. I, for one, find it incredible that the final moments in the life of an ordinary twenty-two-year soldier can be told so thoroughly. How often can we be exactly certain of what a man was thinking as he died? In Simeon Smith’s case, we can be pretty sure.

This is Chaplain Norman Fox, 77th New York, the minister who watched Pvt. Simeon Smith breathe his last.

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