The Physical Cost of Spiritual Work

“The physical price that chaplains paid was enormous. Although most of them did not lose their lives on the battlefield, as did thousands of the soldiers, a few of them did. Others were wounded while ministering in the same venue. When soldiers had opportunities to rest in camp, that was when and where the chaplains had to exert their greatest efforts and expend the greatest amount of their energies. They often labored late into the night, preparing sermons, organizing Bible study lessons, writing letters to churches and soldiers’ parents and wives and other loved ones, and laboring in prayer before the Lord for the spiritual needs of the soldiers in their care. Physical exhaustion was the rule rather than the exception for chaplains.”

“Chaplains also engaged in far more than sermon preaching, baptizing, and other duties connected directly to their preaching ministry. Those duties included visiting the sick and wounded wherever they were, whether in the hospitals, on the battlefield following a battle, or even on the battlefield amid battle. Noncombatant chaplains were then in as great a danger of being killed or wounded as were the ‘fighting chaplains’ and the common soldier.”

“Chaplains, not unlike the common soldiers and even many officers, did not get many opportunities to go home or otherwise get away from camp life, marches, or battle. Whenever they were so fortunate as to be granted some time anyway, it was not only welcome but also usually packed with activity, and a good percentage of the time was spent in traveling, often. Often, the chaplains’ time off was not for rest or time with family but on chaplain or church organizational business.”

“For a chaplain, evangelist, or colporteur to have a lasting positive spiritual impression on the soldiers, each minister had to attend to his own spiritual condition.”

The preceding quotations are excerpts from Christ in Camp and Combat: Religious Work in the Confederate Armies by Dennis L. Peterson and available at . Get your own copy today. Get another copy to share with someone you know who is interested in the War Between the States and the work of the chaplains, missionaries, and colporteurs during that conflict.

Plain Speaking and Writing

When I was growing up in rural East Tennessee, my parents subscribed to a number of publications. Because my father was partner with my grandfather in a dairy farm, many of those publications were newspapers and magazines devoted to agriculture. I especially remember eagerly paging through Progressive Farmer, Southern Farmer, and The Tennessee Farmer. Although I understood little about the technical agricultural information the articles discussed, I enjoyed looking at the pictures of cattle and farm equipment, especially the tractors.

My parents also subscribed to the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Over the years, as I matured, I progressed from reading the funnies (as we kids called the comics section) to reading some of the substantive content. I especially came to enjoy the writing of such columnists as Bert Vincent (Strolling), Don Whitehead (I think it was called Don Whitehead Reports, but I vividly recall reading his book The FBI Story), and Vic Weals, who wrote about the history of East Tennessee and the Smokies, including the book Last Train to Elkmont.

The Tennessee Farm Bureau, to which my parents and grandparents belonged, also published a newspaper that they, as insurance policyholders, received. I think it might have been Tennessee Home and Farm. (Or maybe not.) When I became an adult, I continued the tradition and became a member of Farm Bureau even though I wasn’t a farmer. But I got my insurance through them, and I received and read their publications.

In both childhood and adulthood, I always tried especially to read the writings of two particular columnists in those publications. One was Pettus Read, whose column was titled Read All About It. (I enjoyed his writing so much that after we moved to South Carolina and no longer received that publication, I bought his book Read All About It: A Rural Psychology Primer.)

The other columnist was Straight Talk by Tom Anderson. Anderson made a career of editing and publishing a number of farm magazines, starting with The Arkansas Farmer in the late 1940s and eventually about 15 other such publications over his lifetime. One of those was The Tennessee Farmer, which my family received. His column was published not only in his magazines but also in more than 375 newspapers across the country. He also had a weekly radio program by the same title.

I later visited a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in East Tennessee where an elderly gentleman, Frank Fuis, who had attended such a school as a youth, presented what he remembered about receiving an education in such a setting. Talking to him afterward, I learned that during World War II he not only had helped design the Oak Ridge plants used in the Manhattan Project but also had been a columnist and had written several books. I went home and ordered two of them: Too Wet to Plow and The Second Furrow.

Each of those writers was unique in his content and focus, but one thing they all had in common attracted me: their simplicity of style. The titles of many of their columns seemed to fit their styles: Strolling, Straight Talk. Their writing was clear, conversational, direct, and pointed. One couldn’t read one of their columns and afterwards not know what they had said. They used no doubletalk, no obfuscation. So there was no misunderstanding. Agree with what they wrote or not, you always knew what they meant.

That, I think, is the key to good writing. Mark Twain once said as much in a letter he wrote to a 12-year-old boy: “[U]se plain, simple language, short words, and brief sentences. That is the way to write. . . . [D]on’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.”

“Writing today,” Robert Hartwell Fiske said in The Dictionary of Concise Writing, “often has too much fat, too little muscle. . . .”

Our goal as writers should be, above all, clarity of meaning. In striving for that, we should “make every word count.” That means that the words we do use should convey the precise meaning we intend. And that requires that we constantly seek to expand our vocabulary so that we have in our verbal toolbox the exact tools for the job we’re undertaking with our writing.

Some people use a thesaurus to achieve that result, and that is a fine toolbox for the tools we might need. But too many people use a thesaurus like a college freshman trying to impress the teacher with his use of big words and convoluted reasoning. Rather, we should use the thesaurus to identify the best words, the exact words, for our intended meaning and purpose. We shouldn’t use it merely to impress or obfuscate.

I once had a professor who simultaneously gave me a backhanded compliment and a much-needed lesson as she returned a paper we students had written for her class. After she had commented on the all-too-prevalent boringly simplistic writing of some younger students, she then said, “But don’t be Pauline like Mr. Peterson.” She was referring to my tendency to overuse long, complex sentences similar to those used in the epistles of the apostle Paul. I got her point: breaking longer sentences down into several shorter, simpler sentences might sometimes work better. Pauline sentences still characterize my writing, I suspect. But at least I’m now aware of the problem and am working on it. The key, I also suspect, is sentence variety.

But as I pondered her comment and sought to apply the intended lesson, I also realized what that apostle had said about his own writing and preaching. He wrote, “Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech” (2 Cor. 3:12, KJV). Then, in 1 Corinthians 2:4 and Colossians 2:4, he said that he had not used “enticing words,” as had some people who sought to “beguile” (i.e., deceive) the readers. Politicians and con artists habitually and intentionally do that; good writers intentionally don’t.

What about your own writing? Do you strive for unmistakable clarity? We all should. As Matthew Arnold advised, our writing should be “eminently plain and direct” (On Translating Homer). That’s how we can achieve our writing purpose, ensuring that our meaning is fully understood. And then some readers might even enjoy reading what we’ve written!

Best Books on Little-Known Topics of the War

Practically everyone with even a little interest in the War Between the States has read about the decisive battles, the great generals, the “big picture” of the movements of armies across the landscape. But many other topics about the period get little notice.

In my studies of that period of history, I became interested in such “lost” information. I say “lost” not in the sense that someone couldn’t find it but in the sense that it is too often overlooked amid the other “stuff.” My first traditionally published book, one about the civilian government of the Confederacy, was the result of my efforts to learn more about a topic that had received comparatively little attention. (Until my book was released, the most recent book on the subject had been written more than 70 years ago!)

Another aspect of the period that has received little notice is the religious work in the armies of the Confederacy. My curiosity about that subject led to my most recent book, Christ in Camp and Combat. (Both of my books are available on Amazon. Just search under “Books” for “Dennis L. Peterson.”)

But those two books only scratch the surface of those two topics. And there are many more such oft-ignored or overlooked aspects of the period that deserve attention. I’ve compiled a list of what I consider to be the top five books on some of those aspects of the Confederate period. You might find them to be of interest. They certainly will prove informative.

Recent Reading

For some reason, my Facebook page has been inundated lately with memes about books and reading. (Could it be because I am a bibliophile and read a lot?) That put me to thinking about some of the books I’ve read recently. Although most of my reading of necessity involves the research I’m doing on my current writing, some of it (believe it or not) actually has been for sheer pleasure. (Imagine that, and not a single work of fiction!)

One book, City Behind a Fence by Johnson and Jackson, was sort of a nostalgic glance backward to get the backstory of a place where I once worked. The Manhattan Project of World War II created the plants where the components of the first atomic bombs were built, and around it, housing the workers at those plants, developed the city of Oak Ridge. That history is a fascinating story, especially for someone who worked there after the war. That included me. I started out as an intimidated Technical Publications Analyst I, or technical editor, lowest man on the totem pole. Over time, however, I proved myself and rose to the position of a senior editor. All in historic surroundings and among a few historic people. I was fortunate to have been able to talk to one of them when we met occasionally at the communal coffee pot. His office was just down the hall from mine. But this book also revealed the heartbreaking inside story of the forced removal of hundreds of families from their farms and homes so the plants could be built. Many of them earlier had been forced off their land in what became the Smoky Mountains National Park and yet again when Norris Dam was built. Was there anywhere they could go to escape the long arm of the federal government and live in peace?

Another pleasure book was A History of the Amish by Nolt. That one was an impulse purchase from an Amish restaurant where we ate during a summer trip to the Lancaster area of Pennsylvania. As I read about the development and divisions of that quaint religious group, I couldn’t help seeing in its history the decline of Protestant Christianity over the years as the influences of worldliness and compromise have eaten away at the once sacred standards of the Church. One cannot read the history of the Amish without admiring their determination to remain distinct from the world around them. We might think that many of their ways are extreme, but at least they know what they believe and have generally stuck to those beliefs. However, they have experienced the same departures from the faith, the decline of standards of behavior, and the derision directed toward them by the world (unbelievers) because of their efforts to remain steadfast to their faith.

The other books I’ll mention are all related to my current project, the effort to track my uncle’s footsteps through Europe during World War II and to experience, albeit vicariously, what he must have experienced.

I began with Andy Rooney’s My War. The irascible and frequently irreverent news commentator was a young war correspondent during the war, covering primarily the Allied bombing campaigns in Europe. But after the D-day landings, he also covered the ground war, often tagging along with the 3rd Armored Division and occasionally Task Force Lovelady, my uncle’s unit. I tried to read Rooney’s descriptions of the death and destruction he witnessed as though I were seeing it all through my uncle’s eyes as he peered through the tiny slot at the front of the driver’s compartment in his M5 Stuart or M4 Sherman tank.

Next was the Pictorial History of the U.S. 3rd Armored Division in World War II by Neely. This work left nothing from the printed descriptions of the carnage of the war to the imagination; it showed them in authentic and vivid detail in photos right from the battlefield, often just moments after the destruction had befallen its victims. My uncle was a tank driver in the 3rd AD, and I found myself scrutinizing every photo of an American tank to see if he had been its driver. No luck with that, but it did reveal even more of what he saw and experienced as a frontline soldier.

And then there was Bracketing the Enemy: Forward Observers and Combined Arms Effectiveness during the Second World War by Walker. My uncle was not just a tank driver but a driver for an artillery forward observer (FO). Those were the officers (and, when necessary, even NCOs or privates on the crew) who called in artillery barrages and air support for the frontline combat forces. He was not only a member of the Spearhead, the nickname for the 3rd AD, but also the tip of that spearhead, since FOs had to be at the forefront of the battle to see firsthand what was going on there. It was a dangerous job. the mortality rate of FOs being extremely high. This book gave me an even greater appreciation for what my uncle had to experience. And an understanding of why he never talked about his war experiences.

If I’ve learned nothing else from these books, the combination of lessons learned is that one should know what he believes and stand uncompromisingly for it, that we should appreciate our history and how we got where we are today, and we should try to understand what those who fought for our continued freedom went through to preserve that freedom. And that should make us ever vigilant to the dangers of losing those freedoms.

By the way, in the process of learning these things, I’ve also had fun!

First Things First

“Early on [in the War Between the States], the chaplains of all denominations agreed that their preaching and teaching among the soldiers had to be performed on a nondenominational basis. . . . The chaplains’ main mission was to be the preparation of the soldiers for the likelihood of death and eternity; therefore, their focus must be the salvation of souls, adding those souls to the membership in Christ’s kingdom, not the adding of members to any specific church or denomination.”

“General Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was known for his strict adherence to his Presbyterian doctrines. But he also strongly believed that the men and chaplains should not argue about the nonessentials among the various denominations. For him, the important question was not the denomination a chaplain belonged to but, ‘Does he preach the gospel?'”

“The source of and responsibility for the division [that exists among denominations today] lies not with any denominations that have tried to maintain the original biblical standard but with those that have departed from it. God and His true disciples have not changed the ground rules; the compromisers have rejected them. And in rejecting them, they have rejected God and have created gods in their own image, after their own likeness, and according to the way their sinful hearts are bent.”

(Excerpts from Christ in Camp and Combat: Religious Work in the Confederate Armies by Dennis L. Peterson and available from Amazon at )


I watched in ignorance from the seat of my mower as my wife was “assassinated.”

Connie was in the process of removing the anti-bird netting from her blueberry bushes, trying hard to avoid touching a dead and decaying bird that had become entangled in the netting in its attempt to steal a few of the last tasty berries of the season.

I turned to ensure that Connie was out of the way of the blast of grass cuttings flying from under the mower when I saw her hurl the netting from her with a look of what I interpreted as disgust. I smiled, assuming that she had inadvertently touched that revolting and repulsive avian corpse.

But then she began jumping, flailing her arms, batting at her hair, and brushing her pants leg vigorously. I stopped the mower, thinking she had once again disturbed yet another yellow jacket nest. (She had been stung repeatedly a few weeks earlier after disturbing a nest while weeding.)

But she began running toward the house, stopping occasionally to swat at her head or her legs, then continuing her race to the house.

I knew the house was locked and that she didn’t have the key on her. She would run around to the front of the house and enter through the garage. But with both of us working in the backyard, I had closed the garage door. And I had the opener on the mower.

I slammed the mower into the closest thing a John Deere X-350 has to warp speed and raced around the house in the opposite direction, hoping to get within range of the garage door to have it open by the time Connie got there. I was a few seconds late. She was there already, still swatting at her unseen attackers and yelling for me to open the door.

As she ran inside, she kept yelling, “It’s in my hair! Is it in my hair? Get it out!”

I looked, but nothing was there.

Inside, she removed her pants, revealing three large, red welts behind her knee. They were quickly swelling. But that was the least of her worries. Her right hand, especially the middle knuckle of her ring finger, was red and swelling rapidly.

She doctored herself with a homemade concoction she had used for bee stings before: vinegar and baking soda topped with an ice pack. The pain subsided somewhat over time, but it was still excruciating, nothing like previous bee stings.

“It’s much worse than those yellow jacket stings,” she declared.

“If it wasn’t yellow jackets, what was it?” I asked before answering my own question: “Assassin bugs!”

Several weeks earlier, Connie had seen assassin bugs while she was picking blueberries, and she had made a point of steering clear of them. We had had enough experience with them to know that their bite was painful. When we lived in Tennessee, one of our daughters had been bitten by one when she was young, and we knew vicariously how painful it was. We had captured the ugly-looking insect and later took it to an entomologist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He immediately and unhesitatingly identified it as an assassin bug, specifically the species known as a wheel bug, and gave us a crash course in the terrorist.

There are literally thousands of different species of assassin bugs, so no single description is sufficient. They can be dull gray or brightly colored. The wheel bug looks like some sort of prehistoric creature with half a gear on its back. Assassin bugs can be large or small. But one characteristic common across the various species is a long, thin proboscis with which they inflict their painful bite.

They pierce their victim with that snout and inject a toxin that kills the bug almost immediately. They also inject a substance that turns the insides of the victim into a liquid. Then they suck out all the life juices, leaving behind a mere shell. Thankfully, assassin bugs don’t devour their human victims that way; otherwise, I’d be minus one daughter and would be a widower today. But the toxin causes a terrific pain and swelling that the victim won’t soon forget.

The morning after my wife was “assassinated,” her hand was swollen a third its normal size. The area behind her knee was swollen, too, but nothing like her hand. The skin was tight and painful looking. Her ring finger looked as though it had been broken, and she could bend none of the fingers on that hand.

“Look on the positive side,” I said, trying to be encouraging. “At least it took care of the wrinkles on your hand.”

Fortunately, she thought that comment was funny. “Better than Botox!” she added her own touch of humor.

Over the next several days, the pain and swelling subsided. All that remains is the painful but instructive memory.

To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Beware the assassin bug!

The Immediate Providence

Robert Lewis Dabney’s belief in divine providence was well known among the officers of Stonewall’s brigade. A story told about him is that at the Battle of Malvern Hill, shortly after Dabney had preached a message on God’s providence (during which he had declared, “Every shot and shell and bullet was directed by the God of battles”), the staff members came under heavy enemy fire, and Jackson ordered them to take cover.

One staff member saw Dabney hunkered down behind a large fence post and teased him, “Why Dr. Dabney, if the God of battles directs every shot, why do you want to put a gatepost between you and a special providence?”

Dabney replied, “Why just here the gatepost IS the special providence!”

This account is an excerpt from Christ in Camp and Combat: Religious Work in the Confederate Armies by Dennis L. Peterson. Available in Kindle and paperback versions on


Near the end of July this year, my wife and I were passing through the community where I had grown up and where our family had lived for eighteen years. We had moved seventeen years earlier, and, since we were now back in the area with a little time, we decided to stop for breakfast at a quaint little restaurant that had existed there for a long time but in which we had never eaten.

More than hunger or a desire to patronize a place I’d never been, however, motivated my decision. I had heard that a couple of friends from my high school class had married and now owned the restaurant. I had seen neither of them in 50 years, and I suddenly had a yen to reconnect with them.

We entered the seat-yourself eatery and glanced around for a good location to sit. This is not as easy a task as one might think because my wife insists on not sitting anywhere a fan or vent is pushing cold (to her) air down her neck. We tried one two-seater booth only to have her insist on moving to another diagonally across the aisle.

The only other customer on that wing of the restaurant was an elderly gentleman wearing a black baseball cap on the front of which, in glaring white script, was the name Jack. So, for the purposes of this blog post, I’ll call him Jack.

Jack smiled as we moved to a booth just ahead of the one where he sat eating his breakfast. My uncle Dillon always asked me as he was preparing breakfast whenever I stayed overnight with him, “Do you want your eggs running, walking, or standing still?” Jack’s eggs were walking.

I nodded to him as we sat down, and he spoke. I can’t remember what he said, but it made me laugh and reply. We conversed briefly before I turned back to look at the menu and allow him to finish his eggs before they got cold.

I hadn’t had time to read the description of the first entree when Jack was suddenly standing at the end of our booth. He looked down at me with a smile and then looked at my wife while jerking his thumb in my direction.

“How long have you had him?” he asked Connie.

“We just celebrated our 44th anniversary,” she replied proudly.

“Well, is he a keeper?” Jack pressed.

“Yeah, I guess I will keep him,” she responded with a grin.

Jack turned and sat back down. The waitress came with our coffees, after which she went to Jack’s booth. I overheard her say to him, “Now, Jack, you just sit here and eat your breakfast and don’t be bothering the other customers.”

Strange, I thought. But I just assumed it was all part of the good-natured repartee one hears between regular customers and friendly wait staff in little diners.

The waitress had no sooner disappeared with our orders when there was Jack at our booth again. He kept glancing toward the kitchen, as though wary of the waitress’s imminent return and the judgment that might follow. He asked where we were from. I replied that although we were now living in South Carolina I had grown up locally and was back for a short visit. I asked about my friends who owned (or so I had heard) that restaurant.

Jack paused momentarily, looking out the window and into the distance as though deep in thought. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “You’ll have to ask her about that.” He jerked a thumb in the direction of the kitchen.

As though on cue, the waitress reappeared with our orders.

“Jack! You go back there and eat your breakfast!” she ordered. “These people are trying to eat.”

As Jack slowly returned to his surely-by-now-cold eggs, the waitress apologized in a low voice. “I’m so sorry. You’ll have to excuse Jack. He recently lost his wife,” she said sadly. Then she added, “And he has Alzheimer’s.”

Every time the waitress left our booth or the general area, Jack appeared at our booth to say something. Each time, he reached out and tapped my arm as though to get my attention. His topics ran the gamut, random thoughts of a wandering mind. He told us the same joke several times as though we had never heard it.

Then he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a tattered and worn funeral program. He opened it to a color photo of a young couple.

“This is my wife,” he explained with a note of both pride and sadness. “I lost her last November.”

I dutifully looked at the picture and expressed my condolences. He continued gazing at the photo nostalgically and then stared out the window silently.

The waitress returned and reprimanded Jack yet again. He obediently returned to his booth, and we resumed eating our meal. I asked the waitress about my friends, but she said they had sold the restaurant to someone else about two years ago. As soon as the waitress disappeared, however, Jack reappeared.

“Did you know that–.” He asked–or rather, told– us myriad random things. I sometimes started to offer a response, but I quickly gathered that he didn’t really want to listen. He just wanted to talk to someone. A true conversation was out of the question. So I listened. After all, we were almost finished our meal and Jack didn’t seem to mind that we continued to eat as he talked or that his own breakfast was by now long past cold.

Jack returned to our table time after time during the course of our meal. Several times he again pulled out that worn funeral program and photo of his wife and told us he’d lost her the previous November. He never realized that he’d already shown it to us. Each time was as though it were the first time.

Another family entered the restaurant and sat in the booth behind Jack’s. He struck up a monologue with them and never returned to our booth. We downed the last sips of coffee and started to leave, but by then Jack was at the register, where he lingered, talking to the cashier, just as he had talked to us. We waited. I didn’t want to be shanghaied at the door. We had a schedule to keep.

For Jack, however, time had ceased to move. He was trapped in November 2020, the day his wife died.

After we resumed our journey, my wife and I discussed how many Jacks there are in this world. Elderly. Widowed. Lonely. Perhaps even feeling friendless. And worst of all, suffering Alzheimer’s.

May God help us to be sensitive to the needs of such people and patient with their attempts to hold onto and share with others something meaningful in their disappearing lives.

A Reader/Author/Editor/Teacher’s Pet Peeve

As a reader, author, editor, and former teacher, I don’t think I have any greater pet peeve than having otherwise well-educated people confuse the objective and subjective uses of the combinations “you and I” and “you and me.”

For some reason, an awful lot of people apparently have come to think that it’s never appropriate to use the latter of those phrases.

Here is the latest instance of such misuse. It came from the pen of a published author of books and articles, seemingly a successful author, who was writing a blog post designed to help other writers to be successful in their writing and publishing efforts.

“Recently a publisher asked my daughter and I to share crafts on video plus patterns for an online event. . . .”

Now I admit up front that I have no idea whatsoever what “video plus patterns” are, but I do know that the grammar was wrongly used here. How do I know? You can run a simple test. Break that sentence into two sentences, each with a single subject like this:

“A publisher asked my daughter. . . .”

” A publisher asked–I?!”

“Certainly not!” you would immediately object. “No semi-educated person would ever say or write such an obviously incorrect thing! It should be ‘A publisher asked ME.”

Then why do so many people considered it okay to use it incorrectly when it is used with a compound subject? It isn’t okay!

In this example, we have a compound subject–the daughter and the author. Using I instead of me shows that the author is confusing the object for the subject.

If this issue is a problem for you (and I dare say it sometimes is), run the simple test I used before you speak or write. If you do, learning the correct way is actually very easy, and you’ll seldom make the same mistake again.

Whenever I’ve dared to point out this error to someone, I often received this dismissive response: “Oh, the editor will correct it. After all, isn’t that his or her job?”

That’s an unprofessional attitude. Rather, you should be doing your dead-level best to make the editor’s job as easy as possible, not to expect the editor to clean up the messes that you could easily avoid making if you applied a little more thought to the writing task.

My reaction upon finding such egregious grammatical errors in a blog, article, or book is to question whether the speaker or author is also as careless about other things, perhaps even his or her main points or factual details. It’s sort of like a situation I encountered as an editor.

The author of a technical project proposal wrote that a certain air strip had a grass runway. I, however, lived in the community where the airfield in question was located, and I passed it twice every day going to and far work. I knew that it had an asphalt-paved runway, so I changed the manuscript to reflect that reality. When I got the author-reviewed manuscript back for proofing, he had changed it back to a grass strip. Again I changed it to asphalt. And again he planted grass on it! After several go-arounds and conferences about the issue, I finally let his error stand. After all, it was his contract to lose, not mine. But it made me wonder if he was as careless and inaccurate in his technical specifications and cost estimates as he was in his knowledge of that airstrip. If I had been the one awarding the contract, his proposal most assuredly would not have been the winner!

Do you want to be taken seriously as a writer? Then get the “little” things right. And that could be something as seemingly insignificant as the correct or incorrect usage of “you and I” and “you and me.”