December 4, 2014

'Set Your House in Order for Death': A Pastor's Letter to a Soldier

Location: Spring Grove, PA 17362, USA
Envelope for Letter from Frederick and Rebecca Conrad to Lieut. Peter A. Filbert
(Sold on Ebay in 2006)

While Civil War soldiers' private letters are a scarce resource that we treasure for the factual details and the opinions that they contain, even rarer are letters to Civil War soldiers from family members.  I am aware of very few in Lancaster: one to William T. Clark of the 79th PA from his father just before returning home to try to recruit a company during the Gettysburg Campaign ( collection) and one to 1863 militiaman William H. Torr just before Gettysburg (in my collection and likely the subject of a future post).

The Rev. F. W. Conrad
(Holy Trinity Archives)
In this post, I will transcribe and comment on another such letter related to several individuals from Pine Grove, Schuylkill County, with an important connection to Lancaster's Civil War history.  The recipient was Lieut. Peter A. Filbert, 10th Pennsylvania Infantry, and the writers were his sister Rebecca and her husband Rev. Frederick W. Conrad -- whom you might recognize as the ardent abolitionist/unionist who was pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster between 1862 and 1864 (see post).  Believe it or not, I stumbled across this letter when it was sold on Ebay for $270 in 2006.  For family details, see their biographies on pages 321-323 of The History of Schuylkill County, Pa.  Filbert's diary, letters, and photographs are part of the Harrisburg Civil War Roundtable Collection at USAHEC in Carlisle, and were apparently the subject of master's thesis by Kurt Emerich at Penn State Harrisburg.

The letter was written six weeks after the war's outbreak.  The Rev. and Mrs. Conrad were in Dayton, Ohio, where he had been pastor of First Lutheran Church since 1855.  Lieut. Filbert was at Camp Slifer near Chambersburg helping to lead Company D, 10th Pennsylvania Infantry, which he had joined on April 23.  News was just spreading of the shooting of Col. Ellsworth.

The first three of the letter's four pages were a letter from Rebecca to her brother.  She expresses her concern for him, reacts to Col. Ellsworth's murder, and provides an update on her status.  I have added paragraph breaks to enhance readability.  See the original here.

Dayton, Saturday morning 25th/61

Dear Brother,

Your very welcome letter was received on friday the 24th, and read in a great hurry, as I was very anxious to know where you were, and how you are getting along.  I am much relieved to hear that you are so well satisfied that you are in the path of duty, and hope that you will ever be faithful to your God and country.  Remember that a Sister's heart beats in this bosom, and that a Sister's prayers ascend to the Throne of Grace for your protection and success in your effort for the once happy union.  

God grant that the seceding States may see their error before it is too late.  This morning brings the sad tidings of the murder of Col. Ellsworth.  He had hauled down the Secession flag from the market house in Alexandra and with flag in hand was shot by a concealed foe.  If that be Southern chivalry, let it be added to the dastardly assaults of the Baltimore mob, and pray that the North may never be guilty of so mean an act.  

In your letter you said nothing about brother Will.  I am very anxious to hear how he is getting along. If he were a Christian, how great a burden would be taken of my heart.  I long to hear that he is a Soldier of the Cross.  Then only can he be a faithful Soldier of his country  

The unsettled state of our Country has changed my arrangements for the present.  I am anxious to go home if Mr Conrad can make up his mind that it is best for me at present he seems inclined to think that it will be best for me to remain here.  I wish I could be where I could add to your comfort.  I often think of you, and the many privations you must have in camp, and would willingly share my comforts with you.  

Mr. Conrad has treated himself with a fine Horse, Phaeton Harness and Sadle which makes him feel a little more as in bygone days.  We call the horse Bonnie.  I will leave a little space for Mr. Conrad.  Farewell God bless you.  Be faithful.  Write soon.  Tell me what your hopes are for eternity so that I may pray for you with an understanding heart, and if I should never see you again in this world may we meet in heaven is the heartfelt prayer of your anxious Sister R.

I am much obliged for the Photograph and if I do not go home shall ask them to send it.

Monday morning

Much love to William from us, and tell him we would like to hear from him soon.  Write whenever you can.  We are very anxious about you. Many hopes and much love from your affectionate Sister Rebecca.

The part about the new horse is actually somewhat funny, as it would tie in to the Intelligencer's unfriendly characterization in 1870 of his time in Lancaster: "His penchant for preaching political sermons, a la Beecher, and driving fast horses, a la [Robert] Bonner, soon disgusted the greater portion of his congregation, and would have disgusted all of them, had it not been for the angry passions stirred up by the great rebellion."  Pastor Conrad followed his wife's comments with his own one-page pastoral exhortation for his brother-in-law.

Dear Peter,

Rebecca has left his side for me to fill, but as I must go to Springfield in the cars his morning (Monday) I can say only a word or two.  While we sympathize with you in your hardship and danger, we feel that you are in the path of duty.  There never was a better cause to fight for than that of the Government, the Constitution, the Union.  And as God was with our fathers in establishing them, so too will he be with us in defending them.  But you must not forget that your lives are daily in your hands and may be sacrificed any hour.  Your soul's salvation is worth more than the whole cause gained for which you entered.  While you show yourselves good soldiers of the U.S. don't neglect to show yourselves good soldiers of Christ.  You must be ready not only to meet the enemy, but your maker in judgment.  Prepare to meet God!  Set your house in order for death!  Be ready for in such an hour as you think not the Son of man cometh.  We can bear the loss of your life on the altar of your country, but not the loss of your souls on the altar of impenitence.  Yours prayerfully and encouragingly, F. W. C.

No comments:

Post a Comment