Fighting Chaplain James B. Avirett
7th Virginia Cavalry, Army of Northern Virginia
By Dr. H. Rondel Rumburg
By the grace of God James Battle Avirett was born on the Lock Katherine Plantation by the Tar River in Onslow County, North Carolina. The day of his nativity was March 12th, 1835. He was the fifth son of his parents John Alfred and Serena Thomas Averitt. John Alfred Averitt was of French Huguenot descent. The reader will notice a slight difference in the spelling of the last name. This came about when James Battle Avirett was a student at the University of North Carolina and decided to alter the spelling of his last name.
Education in one sense begins at birth and is extended in the home before any other institutions are entered. James Battle said that he could
speak in none other than a general way of any … schools except Mr. Bingham’s school for boys, then taught in Orange County, some twelve miles from Hillsboro; of St. Mary’s school, Raleigh; and of the university at Chapel Hill. They were all three exceptionally fine institutions, and naturally enough so, as they enjoyed many marked advantages.
Young James attended the University of North Carolina for his training. He was there from 1850 to 1852.
One’s calling is important for it involves the use of God-given gifts in the work which the Lord intends for a person to do in His world. Again he followed the revealed way, “and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun. whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (Eccl. 9:9d-10). Avirett entered the law school at UNC under Chief Justice R. M. Pearson. He practiced law before his entrance into the ministry. His education was continued in various forms as he wrote,
The writer, as a university man, and as a young lawyer, had enjoyed social life at Saratoga and the Greenbrier White Sulphur – had tested the soft crabs and other good things at the height of the season at Old Point Comfort and Cape May – and he is free to say that all this, of its kind, was very fine and enjoyable. At the same time, let these young Southern readers know the fact that nowhere in the world, in the judgment of the writer, did the old plantation element feel itself quite as much at home as at Jones’ and Old Shocco Springs. And this is so for these reasons – here the plantation element, from the Albemarle and Pamplico sections of the State, with large wealth and high culture, from weight of numbers tend social position, had the controlling influence.
After practicing law in Mobile, Selma and Raleigh until 1858 James Battle Avirett entered the ministry. He wrote toward the end of his ministry that he had “given nearly forty years of his life under the auspices of the Episcopal Church.” Bishop William Meade ordained him to the diaconate in 1861 at Staunton, Virginia. He was a low churchman as the majority of the Protestant Episcopal denomination in the South.
War reared its ugly head as the South was invaded by Lincoln’s Federal army. Young men such as Avirett sought to fulfill their calling and assist their country during the war. Early in the war while the new nation was developing its policies ministers were picked out and requested to become chaplains by commanding officers who sometimes helped them get appointments. Colonel Angus W. McDonald wrote the Secretary of War on behalf of James B. Avirett, a minister he persuaded to accompany his 7th Virginia Cavalry. McDonald in his petition of June 25th, 1861 to the Secretary of War the Honorable L. Pope Walker wrote:
In order that the demoralizing influences of campaign life, particularly those which attach to a border war, may be counteracted as far as possible, the Rev. James B. Avirett, of the Episcopal Church, has been induced by me to accompany the command as the acting chaplain of the regiment. Already have I seen the good emanating from the regular services and prayers of this clergyman, as we have among us not a few communicants of the Church, and I need not mention to you the good effect upon the popular mind here that the presence of one whose life is devoted to God and his country will have. I ask, therefore, that this gentleman may be appointed chaplain of my command, and that his commission may be issued for the same. I am more anxious for the last mentioned appointment in that in having a fully commissioned and authenticated man of God with us, aside from the positive good to the command, the charges of land pirates and other unenviable sobriquets already preferred against us as parties to this partisan warfare may be the more fully met and refuted. For this gentleman, therefore, I ask this appointment.
And this request for a chaplain’s commission was at once issued. Avirett allegedly became the first chaplain commissioned by the Confederate government. Chaplain Avirett became a much trusted servant of the Lord in Turner Ashby’s cavalry and he was also the custodian of the documents of the unit.
Under Ashby Chaplain Avirett was a fighting chaplain of cavalry. He was on the move with the 7th Virginia Cavalry wielding as it were the sword of the Spirit and the sword of the Lord and of Gideon. The chaplaincy was a challenge to any man but the chaplaincy of an on the go cavalry unit was really a testing. Chaplain Avirett met the challenge by the help of God.
Rev. Avirett concluded his famous oration “Who Was the Rebel” at the Stonewall Cemetery at Winchester, Virginia September 17th, 1897 on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Sharpsburg by saying,
We know not what—we know not why. But with the sad refrain, Vae Victis! Vae Victis! We know not, we know not why, wetting in our ears, the very tolling of the death knell of our fondest hopes, crushing to earth all of our brightest anticipations, we dare look all Christendom in the face to-day and say that when in future ages the historian, in search of the traditions of liberty, in quest of the truth, shall look for the cause that led up to and enthroned centralism, ranker and fouler than that of cringing Muscovite, the goddess of liberty, if she walk the earth, at that time, will point him with tears in her eyes to that dark hour of human history at Appomattox Court House, and bid him write it down with iron pen that liberty died when the Army of Northern Virginia fell, for the great Virginian said truly, with the prophetic pen of an unerring seer, of the Confederate cause. Lost cause! Lost cause!! Lost cause!!! If lost, ’twas false! If true, it is not lost!
This gives Chaplain J. B. Avirett’s sentiment on the outcome of the war. So if what they had fought for was true it was not a lost cause!
After the War
While the dust of battle was still settling Rev. Avirett was getting back into the harness of the Lord’s work in civilian life. He had served faithfully as chaplain in the Army of Northern Virginia throughout the war. In 1865 he founded the Dunbar Female Seminary in Winchester, Virginia. This is where he met and married Mary. Avirett met the lady whom the Lord intended for him and was married to her in Christ Protestant Episcopal Church in Winchester. She was Mary Louise Dunbar Williams of Winchester, Virginia. She was the daughter of Philip Williams. Avirett sought to obey God’s Word and “Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which He hath given thee under the sun … for that is thy portion in this life” (Eccl. 9:9). The Lord blessed their union with two sons: John Williams Avirett and Phillip Williams Avirett. Both sons carried their mother’s maiden name.
From 1865 to 1870 Avirett was principal of the Episcopal seminary he had founded for young ladies called the Dunbar Institute in Winchester. Here he labored in that which the Lord had called him to do. During this time he also took charge of the Catoctin Mission of Frederick County.
In 1870 Rev. Avirett became rector of Silver Spring Parish in Maryland and the Grace Protestant Episcopal Church. Having been rector of churches at Sligo, Silver Spring and Upper Marlboro, as well as at Waterville, New York. In 1894 he became rector of St. Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Church in Louisburg, North Carolina where he ministered until his retirement in 1899.
Beginning in 1867 to 1901 Avirett wrote articles for various religious periodicals and four books: The Memoirs of General Turner Ashby and His Compeers (1867), Watchman, What of the Night? or The Causes Affecting Church Growth (1897), Who Was the Rebel?(1897) and The Old Plantation: How We Lived in the Great House and Cabin before the War (1901).
Faithfully Rev. Avirett labored for his Lord and Saviour being the rector of some important parishes until the hand of age began to grip tightly. This along with the death of his beloved wife led to retirement. The Lord’s servant went to live with his son Col. John W. Avirett who had become the editor of the Evening Times at Cumberland, Maryland. Rev. James B. Avirett contributed articles to that newspaper with some regularity.
Avirett wrote the following words about his first major encounter with death as a lad:
It was the first time in my young life that I stood so squarely confronted by this icy messenger which men call death, and I have never forgotten the deep impression it made upon me…. I well remember I felt as though I would have liked to be one of them – for death is such a leveler of all class and caste distinctions that the grave is a veritable republic.
Then as is true of all men his day of departure came. Confederate Veteran Magazine recorded:
Rev. James Battle Avirett, D.D., died at the Western Maryland Hospital, where he had gone for medical treatment. Dr. Avirett until almost up to the time of his death apparently enjoyed fairly good health. On his last day in this life he chatted with a friend in the sun parlor, and had just repaired to his room and lain down upon his couch when he died.
On February 16th, 1912, Rev. James B. Avirett’s life ended suddenly and apparently without pain at the age of seventy seven years. He was one of the first chaplains in the Confederate army. He was buried in the family lot at Mount Hebron Cemetery, adjoining the Stonewall Cemetery, which he helped establish. The interment was on Monday, February 19th, after funeral services at Cumberland in Christ Protestant Episcopal Church in Winchester where he and Mary Louise were married. Rev. Dr. Chaplain James Battle Avirett had been a biographer of the noble Turner Ashby and was a member of the Turner Ashby Camp, United Confederate Veterans which acted as a guard of honor and conducted military services at the grave side. His casket of cadet gray broadcloth was covered with the flags of the Confederacy and of North Carolina and Virginia intertwined.
John the Revelator wrote by the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, “And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth; Yea, saith the Spirit that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them” (Rev. 14:13).
Avirett, James B., The Memoirs of General Turner Ashby and His Compeers, Baltimore: Selby & Dulany, 1867.
Avirett, James Battle, The Old Plantation: How We Lived in the Great House and Cabin Before the War, New York: F. Tennyson Neely Co., 1901.
Avirett, Rev. James Battle, Who Was the Rebel, Published through the generosity of Mr. Charles B. Rouss, 1897.
Confederate Veteran Magazine, 1912
McDonald, Captain William N., A History of the Laurel Brigade, Baltimore: Published by Mrs. Kate S. McDonald, 1907.
Scharf, J. Thomas, History of Western Maryland, 2 Volumes, Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1882.
War Records, Series 1, Volume II.