This letter was written by Rev. John Williams Proudfit, D. D. (1803-1870), a retired professor of Greek and Latin at Rutgers University, who volunteered to serve as the union army chaplain at Fort Wood on Bedloe’s Island—now the site of the Statue of Liberty—where he ministered to the needs of thousands of wounded or sick soldiers.
An 1821 graduate of Union College, John Proudfit pursued theological studies at Princeton and accepted his first call to the ministry in 1827 at Newburyport, Massachusetts. After several years there he accepted a professorship in the University of New York and then at Rutgers College in New Brunswick. During all these years as a professor, however, Dr. Proudfit continued his ministerial labors. He preached in “college chapels, vacant pulpits, asylums, jails, among canal boatmen, soldiers at the front during the war, to the galley slaves in Toulouse, France, and in Foreign chapels. He was ever on the alert to preach Christ in out of the way places and unoccupied fields.” Besides conducting religious services in the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, he voluntarily served as the chaplain at Fort Wood, “conducting daily religious services for a long period, laboring in the hospitals, and in various ways ministering to the physical, mental, and spiritual wants of the soldiers.” [Newburyport Daily Herald, 7 April 1870]
Rev. Proudfit wrote the letter to Temple Edwards (1816-1875), a cabinet maker and master carpenter of Clay township, Wayne county, Indiana. Temple Edwards and his wife Rebecca Pierce (1819-1914) were the parents of at least seven children—-the eldest being their son Edom H. Edwards (1841-1865). According to family records, Edom initially entered the war in the 16th Indiana Infantry but was discharged for disability after only three months. In November 1863, he enlisted in Co. K, 124th Indiana Infantry and died of typhoid fever on 15 March 1865.
In his letter to the Edwards family, Rev. Proudfit conveys the sorrowful news of the death of their son from typhoid fever, only one of dozens that he must have written every week in his duties as the post chaplain. The letter attempts to answer all of the questions his experience had told him the soldier’s grieving parents would want to know about their son’s death—was he properly cared for? did he suffer? was he prepared for death spiritually? did he speak of his family or leave any last words? where may his body be found? Though painful news to process, the chaplain’s words must have provided some comfort to the soldier’s parents who were devout members of the United Brethren church.
Fort Wood, Bedloe’s Island
New York Harbor
March 17, 1865
Temple Edwards, Esq.
It becomes my painful duty to inform you that Edwin [Edom] H. Edwards, Co. B [K], 124 Indiana Vols. departed this life at this post yesterday of Typhoid fever. Your name has been given me as that of his nearest relative. I beg to tender to you and to his other bereaved relatives my sincere sympathy in the calamity which it is my duty to announce to you.
He was admitted into the hospital of this post on the 12th and died on the 15th. I can assure his sorrowing friends that he had the attendance of skillful surgeons and kind nurses and everything to soothe his sufferings and promote his recovery. I was in the hospital almost or quite every day and spoke the words of Christian counsel & comfort in his hearing, accompanied by prayer. His death was so sudden that I was not with him at the moment and none of his nurses have been able to report to me anything that he said in his last hours. He was, in fact, extremely feeble & occasionally delirious & passed away in unconsciousness.
His funeral service has just been performed & his interment will take place in Cypress Hills Cemetery where the place of his burial will be marked so as to be recognized by his friends. May God support you all under the sorrow of his early departure & enable us all to accept the grace of that divine Redeemer who saith, “I am the Resurrection and the Life!”
Respectfully & truly yours, — J. Proudfit, Chaplain, USA at Fort Wood