Thomas Dwight Witherspoon papers  1861-1871 (bulk 1861-1864)
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Witherspoon, Thomas Dwight, 1836-1898

Rank : Private, Chaplain

Regiment : C.S.A. 11th Mississippi Infantry Regiment (1861-1865); C.S.A. 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment (1861-1865); C.S.A. 42nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment (1861-1865)

Service : 1861 May-September (11th Miss.); 1861 September-1862 July (2nd Miss.); 1862 July-? (42nd Miss.)

When secession turned to war, Thomas Dwight Witherspoon contracted the war fever that became epidemic in Mississippi and volunteered to "measure arms with the Abolitionists." By the end of May, 1861, his company, the Lamar Rifles (Co. G, 11th Mississippi Infantry) had already been dispatched to Harper's Ferry, expecting at any time to confront the invading northern hordes, but to his dismay, he found a federal Army lacking in vigor and a Confederate army maneuvering uncertainly in the northern Shenandoah Valley.

A devout Presbyterian bent on the ministry, Private Witherspoon soon assumed pastoral duties among his fellow soldiers, though apparently only informally. Agitated over the slow pace of the earliest months of the war, and depressed over splitting his duties in this way, he applied to President Davis in July, 1861, to be commissioned officially as chaplain to the 2nd Mississippi Infantry. Before his orders had gone through, part of his wishes came to pass: the 11th swung into action. After parrying with union forces in West Virginia, they were rushed to Bull Run, where two of its companies were engaged. Although Witherspoon did not enter the fray, he shared fully in the glow of victory and the growing southern contempt for federal generalship, crowing that Scott had been humbled, Patterson and Butler cashiered, Lyons killed, and that only McClellan was left, and he had little to recommend him.

In September, Davis approved Witherspoon's transfer to the 2nd Mississippi, where he pronounced himself proud to retain the "privilege" of carrying arms in battle, perhaps because of the overwhelming trust he had developed in the superiority of Southern arms and Southern commitment. "We have only about half the number of the enemy," he wrote blithely, "but we are fighting as freemen they as hirelings; we for our liberties, they for their money. We believe that God will be on our side" (1861 November 19). Yet in war, attitudes and fortunes can change suddenly. In December, family troubles left him yearning to return home, and the combination of befuddling inactivity and growing distaste for his commanding officers sparked his interest in obtaining yet another transfer. Witherspoon resented being "tossed about as a puppet at the hands of quartermasters and other officers," and was irritated that his commanding officers had reneged on their promise to have a chapel built for the soldiers (1862 February 7), and thus it was no surprise that by the spring, Witherspoon was chaplain of the 42nd Mississippi Infantry. He joined his new regiment on the Peninsula, and served with them during the hellish Seven Days' battles and other battles of that memorable summer.

Nearly one year later, still with the 42nd Mississippi, Witherspoon entered into the signal event of his Civil War experience. On the evening of July 4th, 1863, he remained behind with 300-400 severely wounded members of his brigade during Lee's retreat from Gettysburg, and he was taken prisoner with the hospital staff the following day. Having been chosen to escort the body of Col. Hugh R. Miller southward, Witherspoon was waylaid at Baltimore and remanded to prison at Fort McHenry, which was used principally as a point for assigning Confederate prisoners to Point Lookout, Fort Delaware, Johnson's Island, or other camps. The date of Witherspoon's release is uncertain, but following the war, he settled in Memphis, Tenn., and later held pastorates in Virginia.