June 8, 2019

The Rev. Charles A. Baer's Civil War

The Rev. Charles Alfred Baer
From album of Lutheran pastors in the
archive of LTS Philadelphia
While the Civil War has been thoroughly documented through lenses such as regiments, battles, and cities, how religious communities experienced the war is somewhat of an open question. Perhaps the minutia of congregational life and how people lived out religious commitments over the entire 19th century hasn't received too much attention, but the intense experience of the Civil War provides a natural focal point. Not long ago during a trip to the archives of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, I found a reference to the diaries of the Rev. Charles Alfred Baer conveniently published in the 1950 Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, which are a fantastically interesting account of the Lancaster native's duties and how he cared for members of his congregation in Norristown.

The battlefield-home front connections are rather direct. He visited both the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields, as well as the camp of the 122nd Pennsylvania. Trinity Lutheran Church in Norristown seems to be most connected with the 51st Pennsylvania, famous for charging across Burnside's Bridge at the Battle of Antietam. A role on the Board of Directors of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg brought him to Gettysburg after the battle, which makes sense as much planning for repairs would have needed to take place after the intense battle on Seminary Ridge on July 1, 1863. The trip to Gettysburg -- and, presumably, the time that he spent visiting battlefield hospitals -- caused his unexpected and much-lamented demise a few weeks later.

Baer was born on May 28, 1831, to John and Frances Baer in Lancaster. John Baer was a prominent publisher in Lancaster who might be best known for a farmer's almanac that is still published today. After studying in Lancaster under Prof. F. A. Muhlenberg, he went to Yale, which was actually the setting for a spiritual awakening. He proceeded to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and ended up as the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Norristown in 1859. His diaries ended up in the hands of someone named Kirke Bryan, who published selections in successive issues of the 1950 Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County. I don't know where the diaries are now. Just a few examples of the rich content that stuck out to me include:
  1. On August 15, 1862, he received a letter from his brother, Benjamin F. Baer, who was going off to war as a captain in the 122nd Pennsylvania. Charles Baer rushed to Lancaster to see him off, but missed seeing his brother. Charles Baer stuck around to visit with the Sunday schools on August 17 and preach a sermon entitled, "A Good Soldier of Jesus Christ," that evening in Holy Trinity.
  2. On August 27, he was back in Norristown talking to the Sunday school assembled for a picnic. To impress the young people, he borrowed a sword from the Schall family -- which had several sons as officers in the 51st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry -- that had seen use in Burnside's North Carolina Expedition: "The exercises opened with singing several pieces and prayer, after which I made an address. I took with me a sword which I borrowed from Schalls' which had been used in battles in North Carolina. It attracted the attention of the scholars. From the 'carnal weapon' I led them to the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, and showed them how they must use that weapon to keep them safe from the assaults of the Devil." 
  3. From Sunday, September 21, 1862: "Just as the people were gathering to churches several of our wounded men of the 51st Regiment came up the street, returning home. One of them was Mr. John Freedley, who was wounded in the battle of Antietam. He had been reported dead, but his family had the gratification to meet him alive." Also, "Evening services were well attended. I preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and made an application of it to the duty of caring for our wounded soldiers."
Some other links and notes: 

The charge of the 51st Pennsylvania across Burnside's Bridge at the Battle of Antietam
Many of Pastor Baer's parishioners served in this regiment.
Sketch by Edwin Forbes (source)

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