He was born into a prominent Presbyterian family in New Jersey. During his second assignment as pastor in Maryland, he grew to despise the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Under the influence of a mentor, who convinced him that those in favor of disunion were nothing more than a Benedict Arnold and a Judas Escariot, he joined the army in Pennsylvania as a chaplain.
He did not realize that many chaplains were not in favor with the average soldier. Such a sentiment was due to the army’s allowing just about anybody to act the role. The War Department soon remedied the situation by requiring all chaplains to be ordained. That did not stop the contempt some soldiers would harbor toward their own chaplains. For example, chaplains had the duty of delivering mail to the troops, but one enterprising minister earned a nickname of “One Cent by God” for charging soldiers a penny for each letter he would deliver to their homes.
Most chaplains performed their duties well in counseling the wounded and dying troops, providing religious services and passing out religious literature. One soldier described the behavior of Reverend Howell: “Our chaplain never failed to administer to the spiritual wants of all who he could interest.” Once he reached Gettysburg, he was right in the middle of the fighting in the downtown area. Late in the hot afternoon of July 1, distracted from tending to the wounded in a local church, he went outside to see what was happening. He found himself looking down a Rebel gun barrel.
Instead of raising his hands and shouting the required “I surrender” so that his life would be spared, he began to argue why he was a non-combatant. It did not help his credibility that Howell was uniformed as an infantry officer, complete with ceremonial sword. By one account he raised a hand in a menacing or authoritative manner. With the combination of appearance and gesture, the Rebel aiming the rifle rightly interpreted his adversary, which was a challenger refusing an enemy’s order to surrender. In addition to seeing no proof of claims being shouted and no apparent insignia to designate Howell as a chaplain, the Southerner did what he was required to do: shoot the enemy. A rule of war never excluded army chaplains on both sides from being captured, or from being treated as prisoners of war. Howell may have thought of himself as exempt from the rule.
Understand the rules.
Before you engage in any activity or competition, understand the rules. Rules lead you to understand your limits, which influence your choices. Abide by them to avoid surprises. Otherwise, like Howell, you put yourself at unnecessary risk.
Avoid winless situations.
Winless situations should be avoided. They accomplish nothing and serve no advantage. There is no dishonor in walking away from overwhelming odds. Hazardous circumstances will nearly always lead you to a correct decision.
Appearances can deceive.
No matter your intentions, you can damage your credibility by doing or saying things that appear unconnected. Howell gave a wrong impression that influenced someone to kill him. Your unsuitable comment or unbefitting gesture can cost you your job, your career, or kill a new relationship.
Copyright 2012 Paul Lloyd Hemphill