When I began my study of the chaplaincy during the time of the American Civil War, the first person I came across was the Reverend Arthur Buckminster Fuller. He graduated from Harvard College in 1842 and then Harvard Divinity in 1847, but it was the fact that Chaplain Fuller was one of the 66 Union Chaplains killed during the war.
Arthur Buckminster Fuller born August 10, 1822 to the family of Congressman Timothy J. Fuller and Margaret Crane and settled on the family farm in Middlesex County Massachusetts. Fuller received a classical education at Leicester Academy and Harvard College graduating in 1843. He then moved on to Belvidere Illinois where he ran an academy and that same year became a lay preacher in the Unitarian Church. The school closed 18 months later and Fuller returned east and entered the Divinity School at Harvard. He served several churches over the next years and was well known as an outspoken evangelist for his plain speaking that was attractive to the “regular” folk and farmers in the area.
He practiced what he preached and was active in the temperance movement and was also an outspoken abolitionist. He served on the Boston School Board and was an advocate for free public education for all. In the mid-1850’s he published two sermons advocating the replacement of all “foreign” influences in the Boston School System. Believing that only Protestant theology should be taught in the school system, this was a direct attack on the Roman Catholic Church. Fuller was a progressive thinker for his day, and he believed that it was proper for a woman to pursue a professional career outside of the home.
With the start of the Civil War Fuller resigned his pulpit at the Unitarian Church in Watertown Massachusetts. He signed on as 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 the defense of all that is good in American institutions.” As a Unitarian, he believed he was required every day to make it a holy day and that salvation demanded not only to serve God but service to his fellow man.
The 16th Massachusetts was not engaged in the war straight away, and Chaplain Fuller busied himself visiting soldiers in the post hospital, preaching, and teaching soldiers and former slaves to read and write. In 1862, he witnessed the Battle of the Ironclads the Monitor and the Merrimack. He would later write in his journal about the fight, “David had conquered Goliath with his smooth stones or wrought-iron balls, from his little sling or shot tower.”
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. Along with that, chaplains were tireless in their service and support of their soldiers often sacrificing their health for that of their troops and 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. From that point on the regimental surgeon would not let him go into battle with his troops, his health being so fragile the doctor did not want him to be a liability on the battlefield. 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 un fit for duty, and he would have to resign as chaplain. In a letter to his wife he wrote, “You can hardly realize the pain I felt when I found I could not share the field campaign without throwing away health and life.” He was willing to sacrifice all he had but the Army would not let him.
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 his 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.
His funeral was held in Boston where he was given grand eulogies by several ministers that knew him and his work. The funeral procession brought the flag draped casket to the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston for its final resting place.
Located at the grave is a simple stone that marks the place where he rests. Along with the dates of his birth and death as well as those of his educational achievements, is this quote, “I must do something for my country.”
Chaplain Fuller loved the Union but he loved his fellow man more and he believed that his place was on the battle field alongside those who had answered the call to duty. He paid the ultimate price for his devotion not only to duty but to his soldiers. His story can teach us about what it takes to truly be a shepherd of our flocks. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11