This letter was written by Rev. John Burke, a native of Ireland, who served as army post chaplain at Fort Washita, Indian Territory, from January 1851 to April 1861, and at Fort Hamilton, New York, from January 1862 to April 1867. While at Fort Washita, it appears that John Burke also served as post master from 7 October 1851 to 17 November 1853. He was accidentally killed on 24 December 1873.
Rev. Burke wrote the letter to someone named Eliza Hills but I could not find any record of her or her family in East Feliciana Parish that would definitively identify her as the recipient of this letter.
Written by an Episcopalian, the letter characteristically ridicules ministers of other denominations as being uneducated and therefore ill-qualified to fulfill the duties of a “learned profession.”
Addressed to Miss Eliza Hills, Clinton, East Feliciana, Louisiana
Baton Rouge [Louisiana]
January 1st 1851
My Dear Madam,
I have seen Bishop [Leonidas] Polk ¹ a few days since and conversed with him freely on the subject of church services at Clinton. He is perfectly aware of the importance of the place but what can a Bishop or minister do without the hearty cooperation of the people to sustain them? There are several parishes now vacant in this diocese, not through any fault of the bishop or clergy, but through the utter supineness of their flocks and the melancholy declension of religion and piety. The charity of many has waxed cold.
The beggarly support of ministers of some other denominations — ill qualified as many of them are for the duties of a learned profession — has a powerful and pernicious reaction on the support of the clergy of our church. A difference in the quality of ministrations — habits — education — modes of living &c. — is not adequately considered in these days. Change – poverty — neglect and caprice — are now more than ever the heritage of our ministry. Persecution itself were more tolerable.
Influenced by these facts and reflexions, I have deemed it a duty to my family to accept a chaplaincy in the army. I send the two oldest of my daughters to the school [Female Institute in Montpelier] of Bishop [Stephen] Elliott in Georgia and shall leave for Fort Washita in the Indian Territory so soon as the Red River shall be navigable to Fort Towson; thence eighty miles to my station. I shall travel in government waggons. I would if I could once more come and see you, but that is at present scarcely practicable. I can badly afford the expense I incur by my very long journey to the West.
Please present my respects to Mr. and Mrs. Hardesty,² Mrs. Saunders,³ Mrs. Hofford and others.
In wishing your health and a long and happy life, and the same with all other good wishes and compliments to your excellent brother and sisters, I remain, dear miss Hills, with ever-enduring memory of your hospitality and kindness, and with sincerest regard and esteem, your very greatly obliged and most faithful humble servant, — John Burke
¹ Leonidas Polk (1806-1864) was elected Bishop of Louisiana in 1841. He was known as the “fighting bishop” during the Civil War during which time he served the Confederacy as a Lieutenant General. He was killed by artillery fire at Pine Mountain, Georgia.
² Probably Lee and Eliza Hardesty of East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana.
³ Probably Mary Saunders of East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana.