The Last Supper in a Confederate Hospital

Years ago I arrived early to officiate at a graveside funeral in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, and had plenty of time to walk alone through a nearby section with more than 18,000 graves of enlisted Confederate soldiers. Even though I do not embrace or glorify the Confederate cause, as some of them who were conscripted also surely didn’t, I just stood there silently, overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all.

South of Richmond, in the City of Petersburg, is a less well-known burial ground called Blandford Cemetery, second in size in that commonwealth only to Arlington National Cemetery. In the section for Civil War soldiers there at Blandford are buried about 30,000 Confederates, of which only about 3,700 have names and other information attached to them. Those burials are grouped by the states from which they came, row after row of mostly anonymous graves, and row after row of grief.

Even the identified graves at Blandford have the same generic headstones as the anonymous graves, without any names on them. They look like this one, which marks the grave of Thomas B. Powell, who is my great-great-great-grandfather. On March 14, 1862, he enlisted and served as a private in the “Caswell Rangers,” which later became Company C, 3rd Regiment, North Carolina Cavalry (also known confusingly as the 41st Regiment, North Carolina Troops). He was buried here on August 23, 1864, which was the same day he died in a hospital during the Siege of Petersburg.

Powell had been a patient at the Confederate States Hospital, only one of numerous Confederate hospitals in Petersburg that cared for wounded soldiers. Inside that hospital were hundreds of beds across three floors of a building that had previously been a tobacco factory. This photograph of it was taken at some point in 1865.

Nearly six months after Powell died in that hospital, a Confederate cavalry officer named George William Beale was admitted there. After the war, he wrote a book that included a chapter about his experience as a patient. This is what he saw:

. . . there were those in every stage of convalescence and others in every stage of physical decline and approaching dissolution. Many from horrible wounds were suffering intense pain, with no heart-rending screams, but with clinched fingers and grim writhings of face and heavily suppressed moans and groans that bespoke horrible agony.

Beale, who later took his meals at his bed, finding that his appetite decreased daily, describes in the quote below his first — and last — communal supper there:

That which impressed me most during this meal was not its poverty, scantiness and meanness, so much as the feeble motions, trembling limbs, wan and cadaverous appearance of those who partook of it. Sidney Smith tells of a corpulent person, who, suffering from the intensity of the heat, wished that he might divest himself of his flesh “and sit in his bones.” Most of my comrades at that hospital table had nearly reached the attenuated state of such a wish. Their cheeks were hollow, their eyes sunken, their countenances dejected and forlorn, and a ghastly pallor appeared in their faces. A few feeble candles lit up the gathering darkness of the long room, cast a pale and sickly light on the group, and made me feel much as though I had entered some dim Plutonian chamber and was breaking bread (that was all there was to break) with pallid shades of the dead.

As an Episcopal priest, I cannot read these words without imagining it as a kind of prelude, however strange, to the heavenly banquet, with an unexpected guest list — all of them wounded and sitting in the shadow of death, many of them very much ungodly and unloving in the cause for which they fought, some of them desiring freedom from earthly tortures while still believing the torture of enslaved Africans was divinely ordained within the pages of the Bible. Good Lord, deliver them and us from ourselves, and be our guest at this table that we, however undeserving, might be guests at your Table, the wrongs within us and around us having been righted.

I know that sounds offensive not only to those who refuse to see white supremacy woven into the fabric of the Confederacy but also to people who are only able to conceive of God’s justice purely, without mercy and forgiveness and the power to dismantle, destroy, and conquer forever the evil that resides within a human heart. Yet this passage from the Epistle to the Christians in Rome often comes to mind:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then . . . will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.[1]

Beale observed that when a patient had taken a turn for the worse and was deemed almost certain to die, a yellow card was placed on his cot over his head. When death had become the last visitor to a such a man lying in great weakness, four black men, enslaved or free, would bring a stretcher and bear the body away for burial. He said that once, late at night, a soldier dying near him asked them to sing hymns so that, as Beale described it, he would depart from this life “on the wings of holy songs that he loved.” I have to wonder if those singing could imagine true freedom not only in the world to come but also in this world — for themselves and their families.

Another time, closer to the early morning, Beale was awakened by the rattling of the apothecary bottles that were stored near him on shelves. A delirious man lying on the cot next to his own, with a yellow card hanging over his head, had apparently decided to take matters into his own hand. By morning’s full arrival he was dead. Then, as they did for saint and sinner alike, for patients who treated them well and those who didn’t, the usual crew of four came to take away his body, finally at rest.

I don’t know how my great-great-great-grandfather died within those walls. But I do know a lot of other things about him. That’s because of a legal case, Powell v. Cobb, adjudicated by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1856. One of the rulings in that case about striking “scandalous, impertinent, and irrelevant matter” appeared in legal footnotes as late as 1961 in Rules of Practice in the Supreme Court of North Carolina. And here’s a reference to it from 1950 in The North Carolina Law Review:

So, yes, it’s true what you’re thinking. There is indeed scandalous behavior by Powell that shall be revealed in my next post, which I am delighted to know you will now read in its entirety. The whole situation was unseemly, even biblical. Yet in the spirit of 16th-century reformer Martin Luther, I think it is important to see things not as we wish them to be, but as they really are, including things in our own lives today.

BACK TO POST Romans 5:6-10.

The Sound of Sirens and Helicopters

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter Day, April 12, 2020

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

On one of the first days we started recording these services in the church without anyone in the pews, I saw something that’s haunted me ever since. I was about to walk through the side door at the bell tower when I happened to look out toward Main Street, through the bars of the locked gate. Near the front of the church, I saw a solitary man standing there, looking unsure of himself. He was wearing a hospital mask over his face and seemed, understandably, a little lost in this strange new landscape. I mean, I was too. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to figure out if our church was open, or how to get somewhere in the medical center, or just waiting for someone to join him as he stared down the street. I don’t know if he was a patient or the loved one of a patient. I don’t know if he believed in God or would’ve understood anything about the meaning of Easter Day for Christians around the world.

Of course, Christians around the world, including us, are having to wrestle with the meaning of this day in circumstances that last year would’ve seemed unbelievable. Maybe that’s unsettled you. Maybe you or someone you know is plagued by doubt or filled with fear or overwhelmed by sadness like Mary Magdalene must have been as she came to the tomb, “while it was still dark,” on the first day of the week. Maybe we’re afraid these words from a poem by Erika Takacs, harkening back to the beginning of our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday, will be a description of reality, a description of the truth, as we walk in the dark with Mary to the tomb of Jesus:

They say there will be no Easter this year.
No hats.
No hunts.
No hymning.
No lilies to fill a bright room
with a fanfare of pollen.
No garden, no angel,
no victory.

They say that our journey
born in sackcloth and ashes
will lead us at last
to nowhere.

And so we sit worried
that the tomb, this year,
will be found, for once,
still full.

That Mary and the others
will leave with their spices
and come back home with nothing.
That this year the women will finally end their work —
anoint and then
leave empty.[1]

Mary went to that tomb to complete the funeral. Like those who’ve died in recent weeks around the world, the circumstances under which Jesus died meant he had to be buried without all of the proper rites of his religious tradition. Left undone were things meant to treat his body respectfully after it had been so mistreated by those who tortured him, after he had been abandoned by his disciples, after he had been forsaken, hearing only divine silence in response to his cry from the cross.

In years past — or “the before times,” as one of my friends put it — I’ve always been struck by the jarring transition from our quiet and solemn reflection in worship inside these walls on Good Friday to what happens afterwards as soon as the front doors of the church are opened wide onto Main Street. There’s the rush of traffic coming in and out of the medical center, and not infrequently the wailing of a siren from a passing ambulance. But that’s only a contrast in sound, not in significance. Then as now, many of those people heading into the medical center are having their own experience of Good Friday, or fear they might feel abandoned by God if things don’t improve for themselves or for someone they love but cannot help.

Casey Cep, writing in The New Yorker magazine two Sundays ago, recalled watching her father serve as an usher in the rural Lutheran church where she was raised. He handed out bulletins to those who arrived for worship, of course, and passed the offering plates to them in the pews. He also rang the church bell, not only before and after the service each week but also in the middle of it, during the Lord’s Prayer. When she was old enough to wonder why he did that, why he rang the bell, and asked him about it, he reminded her of farmers who were absent because of the harvest and also of those who were homebound because of age or health:

We ring the bell for them, he told [her], so that they know when we have gathered and when we are sent back into the world, and so that, no matter how far they are from the [church], they can join us in reciting the words that Jesus taught us to pray.[2]

And so that became a powerful message for her. It can be a powerful message for us too — Christians being called together in prayer by the sound of church bells when they have to be apart from one another, often for reasons beyond their control. Years later, when Casey Cep was living in a city, a pastor offered her something to ponder each time she heard the blaring sound of ambulances in the streets:

Think of it as a kyrie, he said: a plea for Christ to have mercy. Many of us will be hearing more of those sirens than church bells in the weeks to come, [she writes,] but perhaps those, too, can call us to prayer, and to one another.[3]

Even though I hate what is happening in the world around us at the moment, I love that sense that we are being called together in prayer, even when we aren’t together here in the pews. We are surrounding the world with the love of Jesus, a simple way to think about what Christian prayer is, with many people from many nations.

In addition to sirens and our own church bells, there are others sounds that are heard daily here at Palmer. On the very same Sunday that Casey Cep’s essay was published in The New Yorker, some of you may have heard on the video of our worship service a Life Flight helicopter either landing or taking off across the street at Memorial Hermann Hospital. I’ve said to myself many times that I never want the sound of those helicopters to fade into the background like wallpaper. And now I think I’ll never hear it as anything less than “a plea for Christ to have mercy.”

That haunting sound, that heartfelt plea, came at the very moment I repeated the words that Jesus said at his last meal with his friends, while I was holding up the bread and the cup at this Holy Table. It came in the middle of a prayer called the Great Thanksgiving, which recalls the story of our salvation. That prayer is a reminder that God’s mercy enfolds not only us but also the whole world. And while we cannot feast together until we meet again face to face, we can receive God’s mercy on this, the holiest day of the year for Christians.

Each of us needs a love that casts out fear. Each of us needs forgiveness, a lot more than we realized before living under a stay-at-home order. Each of us needs for something to happen, something that’s unexplainable to happen, before we walk to the tomb with Mary Magdalene today in the dark. Otherwise, our cry, our plea for Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, to have mercy will have no effect, will not mean love is stronger than death, will not assure us that God has the last word. If God doesn’t, the ringing of Palmer’s bells tonight during the daily evening shift change for those walking into and out of the largest medical complex in the world will only be an act of thanks to them for their work but not also an act of prayer to the God who is present with them, with those who are suffering, with those living and dying.

But I believe it’s true, that love is stronger than death and has destroyed death, that hell’s gates have been trampled down forever by the risen Christ. I believe the stone that separates the living from the dead at the tomb has been rolled away. I believe the terrifying and confusing sight of that is given meaning when the emptiness of Mary’s heart is filled with divine love as the risen Christ calls her by name. And I believe the risen Christ will have the last word on the last day, calling us by name.

Erika Takacs believes that too. Her poem — the one I quoted earlier — is titled “A Coming Alleluia.” That’s a hint that it doesn’t end with despair and disappointment. It reminds us rather that whatever Easter is, it is God’s doing, and God’s alone. Our own belief or lack thereof doesn’t change it. And that is good news for all of us.

As she asks us in the voice of the risen Christ:

Did I not once prove
once for all
that there is nothing you can do,
no decision you can make
(for good or for ill)
that can stop
me
rising?[4]

That question is left for the reader, for us, to answer as we ponder with amazement that since the first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene, apostles, martyrs, and saints, including the saints here at Palmer, have said, “Yes, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

AMEN

BACK TO POST Erika Takacs, “A Coming Alleluia,” Earth & Altar, April 2, 2020.

BACK TO POST Casey Cep, “The Gospel in a Time of Social Distancing,” The New Yorker, March 29, 2020.

BACK TO POST Cep.

BACK TO POST Takacs.