Home-Front Letters during the Civil War

April 17, 2018

Responding to Affectionately Yours: The Civil War Home-Front Letters of the Ovid Butler Family, edited by Barbara Butler Davis, with a Foreword by Alan T. Nolan (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2004)

Ovid Butler (1801–1881) was a successful attorney in Shelbyville, Indiana, when, in 1836 he moved to the fledgling city of Indianapolis to form a law partnership with Calvin Fletcher. His legal practice prospered, and Butler soon became a prominent community leader as the city developed. He was an active church leader, committed to the Disciples of Christ movement that was being shaped by the theological and social ideas of Alexander Campbell in Bethany, [West] Virginia.

As soon as Butler came to Indianapolis, he became a member of the Central Christian Church and quickly was elected to be a bishop (elder) of the congregation. Following the death in 1850 of John H. Sanders, a physician and community leader, who had been president of the church’s board of officers for many years, Butler was elected his successor and served in that capacity until his death in 1881.

Because of declining health, Butler retired from his legal partnership in 1847 but he continued his active role in public life and church leadership. He was deeply committed to overcoming slavery, which he referred to as “the great national sin” (Davis, 42), and became one of Indiana’s most vigorous proponents of the nation’s struggle to create a new social pattern. In a letter dated January 22, 1865, to his son Scott, who was a volunteer in the Union Army, Butler commented on the appearance that the rebellion would soon be over.

“But there is a Power higher and more potential than the power of the Social Good or of the President or of both combined. Who holds in His own Hand the issues of this conflict and He will dispose of them for the accomplishment of His own purpose. The whole history of the war so far shows that God is in it—controlling its events and that His purpose is not or at least has not hitherto been the purpose of either the North or of the South. But it is written in letters of blood upon the unrolling canvas of the conflict and whenever the Nation shall be willing to accept peace upon His terms—it will come and will be abiding. As I read His purpose those terms are the utter abolition of Slavery—the putting away of that sin—the blotting out that stain. Then—in the language of inspiration shall “our peace be as a river” and a future will open before us—more brilliant and more glorious than any Nation as yet enjoyed” (Davis, 141).

Butler was committed to establishing a college that would educate leaders for the new society that was emerging in the new states of the former Northwest Territory. With other Disciples leaders from Indiana, he developed plans for this new academic institution and they created North Western Christian University. Butler “wrote the charter, shepherded the bill through the legislature, and procured the necessary financial backing” (Davis, 4). They had to break with Alexander Campbell who had already established a college for Disciples, Bethany College in the village where he lived.

A major factor in the dispute was that Campbell, while not endorsing slavery, was willing to accommodate himself and his church to this social and cultural practice. “Breaking with Campbell, [Butler] and other members of the charter committee succeeded in seeing North Western Christian University become the first private, nonsectarian Christian college in the country to allow men and women, regardless of race, to pursue the same degree in the same four-year study of the classics” (Davis, 4). Because of Butler’s continuing importance in the development of this school, the trustees later named it in his honor.

From 1862 through 1865, Scott Butler served as a signalman in the Army of the Cumberland, participating in the battles of Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Franklin, and Nashville. “His Signal Corps unit also marched with Sherman to the sea” (Davis, xi). During this time his family wrote him frequently and sixty-five of these letters survive. Barbara Butler Davis, a great-great-granddaughter of Ovid Butler and Elizabeth Anne McOuat Butler, has transcribed and annotated these letters. She has added eighty pages of additional material about the several families that are intertwined in the Butler lineage. This book provides a window into an important period in American history and culture.

[Personal note: My interest in this book is heightened by my family’s nineteenth-century Indiana heritage. I am a Butler graduate and for many years our family lived near the university’s modern campus, and two of my children are Butler graduates. I currently am a member of Central Christian Church in which Butler worshiped and worked for forty-six years.]









The Warm Blood of God: John Muir’s Reflections on God and Nature

November 7, 2016

A review of The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography by Steven J. Holmes (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999)

holmesMy interest in John Muir began in 1953, soon after we moved to California, when I read his book, My First Summer in the Sierra. One reason why the book interested me was that some of Muir’s sensations during his early months in that state were echoed in my own experience eighty-five years later. I became aware of a second crossing of my life with Muir’s in the 1980s when I had been living in Indianapolis for nearly two decades. Reading his book, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, I learned that he was living in Indianapolis in 1867 when he began the itinerary that was the turning point in his life.

In 2009 I discovered a third crossing point. Donald Worster’s 2008 biography of John Muir filled in much of the detail of the explicitly religious aspects of Muir’s early life. Although other writers had explored Muir’s religious pilgrimage, Worster’s book was where I learned that during his first two decades of life, Muir was identified with the same religious tradition as I, the Disciples of Christ, an American denomination that looks to Alexander Campbell as one of its spiritual founders.

During his brief time in Indianapolis, the congregation with which Muir was associated was located at the corner of Ohio and Delaware Streets near the city’s center and carried the name Christian Chapel. When the building was constructed (in 1857, a decade prior to Muir’s arrival) it was reported to be the largest church house in the city. The congregation changed its name to Central Christian Church in 1879 and four years later moved to a new building, which it still occupies, a few blocks to the north at Delaware and Walnut Streets. Muir’s name does not appear in church records, but Levi and Susan N. Sutherland, with whom he lived during his time in Indianapolis, are listed in the membership roll. Their address at 59 East McCarty Street was just a mile south of the church’s location.

My interest in the religious aspects of Muir’s early life is heightened and informed by Steven J. Holmes’ 1999 book, The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography, which I recently found at the Indianapolis Public Library. The book began as a dissertation at Harvard University where Holmes had studied in programs (at the university and at the divinity school) in American Civilization and History and Literature. Read more . . . holmes-the-young-john-muir