Chaplain Noble Leslie DeVotie:
First Death in the War of Northern Aggression
(January 24, 1838–February 12, 1861)
By Dr. H. Rondel Rumburg
On February 15th, 1861 the body of Chaplain DeVotie was recovered when it washed ashore in Mobile Bay. The body of the chaplain had been feared lost and swept out to sea. His black clothing was torn, his red sash was still about his waist and his watch chain was tightly wrapped three times around his wrist and the watch was still attached. This is how he appeared when found. The Columbus Times the newspaper for Columbus, Georgia where the father of the chaplain pastored referred to him as “The first martyr to the Southern cause.” The war did not actually begin until April 12th, 1861 but Alabama had seceded January 11th, 1861 before the war started.
Alabama’s governor A. B. Moore issued a call in late 1860 for troops to occupy Forts Morgan and Gaines as the clouds of war had massed on the Alabama horizon. DeVotie was pastoring the Selma Baptist Church when the call was given. He along with other young men from Selma answered the call. In 1861 DeVotie enlisted and became chaplain of the Independent Blues and the Governor’s Guard of Selma. The Selma Confederates were sent to Fort Morgan. February 12th, 1861 Chaplain DeVotie was about to board a steamer at Fort Morgan, Alabama when he placed his foot in what proved to be a precarious position and fell into the bay. It appears that Chaplain DeVotie was knocked unconscious in the fall. In a letter from D. P. Bestor of Mobile to his father regarding the event and attempted recovery Bestor wrote, “… a negro threw a rope directly upon him, but he seemed unconscious of this opportunity to be saved.” In this account was a description of a young man jumping into the water to seek a rescue but soon he had to be rescued to keep him from drowning. As chaplain of Alabama troops Noble Leslie DeVotie was drowned while on duty at the age of twenty-three.
Who Was N. L. DeVotie?
The DeVotie family descended from the French Huguenots. Chaplain DeVotie was the son of Rev. James Harvey DeVotie, who became Chaplain of the Second Georgia. His mother was Christian Margaret Noble from whom he received his name Noble. He was born at Tuscaloosa, Alabama on January 24th, 1838 where his father was the minister of the Baptist church. His early years were spent in Marion, Alabama where his father was pastoring at the time and his father helped found Howard College (now Samford University) which was originally located in Marion. Noble was the oldest of five children and was devoted to his family.
When Noble was eleven he experienced a work of God’s grace in salvation. His profession of faith being deemed credible he was received into the membership of his father’s church and was baptized upon profession of his faith in Christ. One has said, “His faith was firm and unshakable, and he was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a minister.”
Noble L. DeVotie attended Howard College one year and then moved on to the University of Alabama in October of 1853 and graduated July 17th, 1856. As a student he helped found the Sigma Alpha Epsilon national fraternity and was the first president. DeVotie was a brilliant student (over his entire time at the university he had an average of 96.75) and graduated as valedictorian and head of his class. Although a very intelligent young man he suffered from severe headaches, a condition he battled through his student years. A classmate wrote of him,
He was a lion in the guise of a lamb. He was a man who knew his mind, had a strong sense of morality and was not afraid to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences.
Noble was a man of conviction based on Biblical morality. Some said he had a magnetic personality although he was a small man who weighed about 110-120 pounds. Noble was gifted in writing, oratory and debate. He had a passion for reading.
After graduating from the University of Alabama Noble, in preparation for the Baptist ministry, attended Princeton Theological Seminary. He arrived in Princeton, NJ in the fall of 1856 and graduated in 1859.
Noble DeVotie’s first and only pastorate was the First Baptist Church of Selma, Alabama. He was ordained by the church on November 20th, 1859. As most conscientious young ministers seeking to please the Lord he questioned himself as he assumed the enormous responsibility for the souls under his pastoral care. In a letter written in May of 1860 he wrote,
My pastoral duties came with a crushing weight, under which frequently I felt I must fall. Each sermon seemed my last. I imagined that all my ideas were exhausted, and there was no resource of illustration to present them in a new dress. I hardly knew what texts to select, and in fact difficulties almost hemmed me in.
He was overwhelmed as he faced this new task. Soon his trust was more secure in the Rock of Ages and he came to love the high calling that the Lord had given him. He was a student of the inspired Word of God and enjoyed its treasures.
Paul’s admonition for a minister to be the husband of one wife was not lightly taken by Noble. After a failed courtship he met Emma Victoria Hagerty who was visiting her sister in Selma. He was serious about Emma for he penned,
Tuesday, Sept. 18 marks a memorable epoch in my life. It will ever stand among my brightest and happiest days. On it I and Miss Emma Hagerty became engaged, to both of us a most important event and to me the seal of earthly bliss.
Noble asked Emma if they could get married on her twentieth birthday, February 7th, 1861. However, Emma wanted to marry in the spring so they waited.
What a Patriot!
Noble had pastored the Baptist Church only a year when the previously mentioned call of Governor Moore was issued. This young minister believed he had a duty to his state to be a part of her defense. He could be a chaplain and preach Christ to his fellow soldiers to help prepare them for eternity as they faced the perils of war. Thus he became chaplain of the Independent Blues and the Governor’s Guard of Selma. When he arrived at Fort Morgan he was appointed garrison chaplain. Soon the commander of the fort appointed him not only fort chaplain but gave him the rank of lieutenant.
Some of the soldiers who did not know the ministry and personality of DeVotie thought he would be too puritanical. Noble’s brother Jewett wrote that the soldiers soon learned “by his courteous and friendly manner … he gained the good will of every man in the fort.”
The night of February 12th, 1861 was in the providence of God a time when the sea was choppy and the tide was going out. At about 7:00 PM Chaplain Noble Leslie DeVotie reached the dock where the steamer Dick Keys was preparing to sail. A splash was heard and the alarm sounded, a rope was thrown, a soldier jumped in to try and rescue him but because of the current had to be rescued himself and the young chaplain perished in the sea.
The sad news reached the DeVotie family in Georgia the evening after the drowning, and the next morning Dr. DeVotie and Noble’s brother Jewett left for Fort Morgan. They reached Montgomery, Alabama where Dr. DeVotie had pastored and had friends, but he became so overcome with grief that he remained behind while Jewett headed for Fort Morgan to find out what had happened and see about the recovery of the body. By the time he arrived his brother’s body had been recovered.
The body was then prepared for its journey to Columbus, Georgia. As Jewett headed back with his brother’s body an honor guard accompanied them. After arrival in Columbus the body was placed in the First Baptist Church building where Dr. DeVotie was pastor. Noble’s good friend, classmate and fellow minister Rev. Charles Manly delivered the funeral sermon. Jewett recalled the burial service,
Then with muffled drums and martial tread we bore him to the grave and buried our loved one from sight forever. Father in broken accents and breaking heart for a minute addressed the vast crowd impressing the lesson of obedience upon the young, and resigning his son without a murmur to the God who gave him, three volleys of muskets were fired over the grave…
Some have recounted that Chaplain Noble L. DeVotie was the first to have the honor of his casket being draped with a Confederate flag.
The family visited Selma, Alabama and conducted a memorial service. The Baptist church was not considered large enough to accommodate the crowd so the service was held at the Presbyterian Church.
February 12th, 2011 was the date of the sesquicentennial of Chaplain Noble Leslie DeVotie’s death – “The first martyr to the Southern Cause.”
Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, Volume III, 1971, 1677.
The Alabama Baptist, December 6, 1973, 42.
The Record of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Fall/Winter, William C. Levere, 2010.