NORTHERN VIRGINIA —February 23, 2011 — As the 150th commemoration of the Civil War (1861-1865) unfolds over the coming four years, travelers in search of the war’s human drama can find plenty of absorbing faith stories.
One of the best ways to follow the history is to meander the Journey Through Hallow Ground, a 180-mile corridor from Gettysburg to Charlottesville. It’s a location for national battlefields, presidential homes, and other historic sites on a landscape that one historian said “soaked up more of the blood, sweat, and tears of American history than any other part of the country.”
Here’s a war story with messages for us today—about reconciliation, forgiveness, and getting beyond the bitterness of politics and war.
Private John L. Rice’s comrades in the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry had left him for dead by a Manassas dirt road that sultry July 21, 1861 afternoon. Rice showed no signs of life and his buddies were in a hurry to flee menacing Confederates during the first major engagement of the war.
But Rice was not dead. On the evening of the second day after the battle, a local farmer, Amos Benson, and his wife found Rice as they made their way home from Sudley Church where they and their neighbors had been caring for wounded Federals and Confederates. Rice had a hideous chest wound that was covered with maggots, but he was alive. The Bensons tried to get help from a surgeon working in the church, but the doctor pronounced Rice’s case hopeless and returned to the church.
The Bensons knew Rice, their enemy, could not be moved, so they fed him, cleaned his wound and built a crude tent like shelter over him to protect him from sun and rain on the spot where he lay. After about 10 days, Rice had recovered enough so that the Bensons convinced Confederate doctors to take Rice’s case, and the young soldier made a complete recovery.
Rice and farmer Benson both fought in subsequent battles. Both men survived.
Yet the New Englander held a wish to return to his benefactors. It was October 1886 when he returned to Sudley and the home of Amos and Margaret Benson. He was welcomed with hospitality and amazement when they learned who he was. During the reunion, Rice asked what he could do to repay the Bensons for saving his life. The Bensons replied there was nothing. They believed it to be their Christian duty to nurse the wounded of both armies.
John Rice repeated his request. Amos finally said the little church at Sudley could use some help. The church had been a house of worship since the late 18th century, but it had suffered enough irreparable damage during the war that the community had razed the church, then borrowed money to build another on the same site. They were holding a debt of $200. If Mr. Rice would like to contribute to the debt pay down, that would be appreciated.
Rice accepted the suggestion and promised to send a contribution when he got home. Back in Springfield, MA, Rice wrote his story and it was published in the local newspaper. He included an appeal for financial gifts from veterans who might remember the kindnesses they had received as Union solders from the people of Sudley Church. Within four days, Rice’s appeal had reaped $235 from 75 contributors. Rice sent the money with a letter to the Bensons for their church where the gesture was met with an outpouring of reconciliatory expression for former enemies and closure about the war.
Rice’s letter to the Bensons will be on display at Sudley United Methodist Church during this summer’s July 21-24 commemoration and re-enactment of The Battle of First Manassas about 30 miles west of Washington, DC.
Both Amos and Margaret Benson are buried in the church graveyard near where they first ministered to Private Rice. The church will hold its popular annual turkey and oyster dinner and bazaar the fourth Friday in October as it has done for nearly nine decades.
How do you think this story could apply to us today?
More of Ruth Hill’s columns on Contemporary Christian Travel are at Washington Times Communities.
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