In February of 1864, a Confederate officer named Franklin Gaillard received word of his father’s death.
Gaillard was numb to death, having fought at Gettysburg the previous July. “It was the most shocking battle I have ever witnessed,” he wrote after his side’s bloody defeat. “There were familiar forms and faces with parts of their heads shot away, legs shattered, arms torn off.” Bullets rained upon his men “thick as hailstones.” Gaillard blamed the generals, including Robert E. Lee, for the defeat.
The Civil War story of Franklin Gaillard and his family comes to haunting life in Frye Gaillard’s Journey to the Wilderness. Frye Gaillard is the great-grandson of Franklin’s brother Samuel Septimus, who ended the war as a prisoner on Ship Island, off the coast of Mississippi.
The letters are moving. One journeys with Franklin as he begins the war with the enthusiasm of a Confederate firebrand, lives through the death of his political and military hopes, and dies in the May 1864 Battle of the Wilderness.
For the Gaillard family, death and Christian faith were inseparable if sometimes awkward companions. When Franklin Gaillard heard of his father Thomas Gaillard’s passing, the news prompted him to repeatedly recall the way that his father had modeled his life after “the Christian Philosopher” (presumably, he meant Jesus Christ). He wished that he and his siblings could “died with the same hope of blessed immortality,” and he regularly “pictured a praying father kneeling by the old red covered family Bible.”Franklin, though, did not possess the same faith. Shortly after Franklin’s death, his cousin W.P. DuBose wrote a letter to the family. DuBose served as the chaplain of Franklin’s brigade. He saw Franklin before his last battle and his corpse afterwards.
DuBose wrote of Franklin of “the very evidence growth and gradual deepening of his religious impressions.” Franklin read his Bible for hours. DuBose, though, had hesitated to press his cousin about the state of his soul, about whether he could articulate the faith DuBose presumed necessary to fit him for eternal life. The subject was too “delicate.”
Thus, DuBose had to confess that he was uncertain about Franklin’s “spiritual condition” at the time of his death. No sugar-coating the truth here. “If he had lived,” DuBose wrote, “I believe that the time was not far distant when he would have professed a faith which was beginning to show its fruits within him.” The family should not be without hope, but it was also without assurance.
Franklin had died bravely and gallantly, but it was not exactly the “good death” that so many nineteenth-century Christians envisioned. Not only had Franklin died in the carnage of a war soon to be lost, but he had not professed belief in the promise of his salvation.
Frye Gaillard’s introduction to Journey to the Wilderness details how his own understanding of the Civil War has evolved. His grandfather lived in the 1950s, long enough to tell him about “a ragtag band of Confederates” fleeing away from the Yankee army in April of 1865. The story “seemed at odds” with everything else the young Frye Gaillard had heard about the war. Why wouldn’t they stand and fight?
It was the Civil Rights Movement and books such as Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream that eventually led Frye Gaillard to reexamine his own ancestor’s years of darkness and death. The result is a moving testament to one family’s journey through a wilderness full of death. It was a hard place to find salvation.