I have the honor of serving as National Chaplain to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. I was appointed to that position at the 138th Annual Encampment on August 11, 2019, in Independence, Ohio. One of my first duties was to lead the Sunday worship service at the close of the Encampment. The Scripture for that sermon was taken from the Gospel of St. Luke. I read the Scripture from a bible that was once owned by the Rev. Arthur Buckminster Fuller, who was Chaplain to the 16th Massachusetts.
The bible was a gift from Rev. Fuller to his nephew George Channing Fuller-Wright and bore an inscription from Rev. Fuller dated 1846. The inscription states that “although you are too young to understand…. One day these words will be a support to your life.”
With the start of the Civil War Fuller resigned his pulpit at the Unitarian Church in Watertown Massachusetts. He signed on as the regimental Chaplain with the 16th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and prepared to serve in the field with his unit. When asked whether he had a sense of the danger he could face, he responded, “I am willing to peril life for the welfare of our brave soldiers and in our country’s great cause. If God requires that sacrifice of me, it shall be offered on the altar of freedom, and in defense of all that is good in American institutions.”
Chaplain Fuller was not like other Regimental Chaplains and was found at the side of his soldiers on the battlefield. He did not carry a weapon of any kind, but there he was, right next to his troops, praying and offering what assistance and encouragement he could during the battle. “I know no holier place, none more solemn, more awful, more glorious than this battlefield shall be” he would write in his journal.
When the 16th was relieved of duty on the battlefield, Chaplain Fuller was sick, and he needed time to rest. Chaplains, for the most part, were much older than the average soldier he was forty-one years old at the date of the battle and were not accustomed to the harsh life of the soldier. Chaplains were tireless in their service and support of their soldiers, often sacrificing health for that of their troops. That is what happened to Chaplain Fuller. He was finally convinced to take leave, and he returned to Massachusetts for some rest and recuperation, but that was to be short-lived.
Chaplain Fuller returned to his regiment in October of 1862 and was greeted warmly by the soldiers of the regiment. Chaplain Fuller would remain behind and offer what service he could with the troops in the rear. His illness was such that in December of 1862 he was declared unfit for duty, and he would have to resign as Chaplain.
He preached his final sermon to the regiment on Sunday, December 7, 1862, and was discharged from the Army, and he prepared to return to Massachusetts. Writing again to his wife, “If any regret were mine, it would be that I am not able to remain with my regiment longer, but this is, doubtless, in God’s providence.” His only consolation was that a place had been found for him as a hospital chaplain so he would be able to continue to serve.
As the assault on the City of Fredericksburg started, Rev. Fuller lingered with his regiment. Perhaps he was not quite ready to leave their side, or maybe it was God telling him to stay, we shall never know. The engineers building a bridge across the Rappahannock came under fire from Confederate snipers, and it was decided that an assault would be made across the river. The call went out for any available man to help row the boats across the river, and Fuller was right there to volunteer.
Reaching the other side of the river, he found himself with the men of the 19th Massachusetts. He stayed with them as their Chaplain had long since abandoned them, and he was of the firm belief that the men needed a minister by their side during the battle. He secured permission from the regimental commander to stay and stay he did; he was shot and killed instantly. He died doing what he was called to do, and he died serving his men to his last breath.
It is an honor to have a bible once owned by Chaplain Fuller, and I use it in my duties as Department Chaplain for the Department of Massachusetts. Each time I hold that book in my hands, it reminds me of the sacrifice that so many made to keep the Union together.