A total of four clergymen-turned-soldiers rose to the rank of general during the American Civil War. Three of these four holy men would fight for the Confederacy. The “gallant preacher soldier” of the Confederate Army of Tennessee proved to be the ablest military commander of the bunch, and arguably lived the most remarkable life.
Mark Perrin Lowrey was born in 1828 and grew up in Tennessee, one of 11 children. His father passed away at an early age, leaving the Lowrey family “with little means.” The widowed Mrs. Lowrey relocated the family to Mississippi in 1845. Mark embarked on an endless hunt to pull his family out of poverty beginning in his adolescent years, dirtying his hands to make a dime at the expense of his education.
At the age of 19, Mark Lowrey joined the Second Mississippi Volunteer Regiment as a private with thoughts of finding laurels on the battlefield in Mexico. His service in the Mexican-American War was far from glorious and rewarding. He contracted a nasty case of measles and was bedridden for weeks. His regiment never had a chance to see active service before the war ended. At a minimum, he at least gained a “taste of military discipline and tactics” that would serve him well a decade or so later.
After the war, Lowrey found work as a brick mason. He provided room and board to a local teacher in his home, who in exchange helped to advance his meager education. He impressed and later married the daughter of a wealthy farmer in 1849 at the age of 21. Most likely under the influence of his new bride, Lowrey “yielded to the call of my church,” abandoning his dogged pursuit of wealth. He took his religious vocation a step further when he entered the Baptist ministry in 1853 and “never indulged a moment’s thought of turning from the old calling to make money.”
Pastor Lowrey was “quietly pursuing” his theological studies when the Civil War erupted in 1861. He attempted to remain neutral in the war that tore friends and families apart and fueled many to rash behavior stating, “In political questions I took no part, as I did not think it became a minister of the gospel to engage in the heated discussions that then prevailed throughout the country, and naturally led to the indulgence of immoderate feelings and passions.” The influential pastor found it nearly impossible to avoid the topic of secession since “there was no neutral ground to occupy” in his home state of Mississippi. Many parishioners of his community petitioned him to make speeches related to fighting for the independence of their state, while at the same time serving in his customary role as a spiritual guide and instructor.
Despite his neutral position on secession and his vow to non-violence, Pastor Lowrey was urged to accept a field command in the Confederate Army, owing to his Mexican War experience and social position within his community. “All felt that every man who could bear arms should rise up and stand between his home and the enemy, and he who would not do so was deemed unworthy to be called a Mississippian. Churches felt they had no use for pastors then – fighting men were in demand,” Lowrey afterward evoked. He was elected captain then colonel by a vote from a sixty-day regiment in 1861. He reluctantly hung up his clergyman’s jacket and donned the uniform of a Confederate officer. The thought of his home state being overrun by an invading army was the final shove that led him to modify his stance of neutrality explaining that, “The thought of sitting still until the enemy would overrun my home and family was more than I could bear.”
His regiment was discharged after sixty days without seeing any fighting, and Lowrey anticipated a peaceful return to his congregation. The clamor for his service was initiated for a second time when the call for a new regiment surfaced following the Battle of Fort Donelson, and those he commanded from disbanded sixty-day regiment “begged me to go with them.” He was elected colonel of the 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment and led the regiment at the Battle of Perryville on October of 1862. He was wounded in the left arm but refused to leave the field. He fully recuperated eight weeks later and rejoined his regiment, fighting at the Battle of Murfreesboro. He received a promotion to brigadier general in October of 1863 after hard fighting in the Battle of Chickamauga, winning the commendation of his division commander, the fabled Patrick Cleburne.
The “Christian warrior” still practiced his religious profession while in camp and encouraged the soldiers under his command to embrace Jesus as their savior. He led passionate sermons and was rumored in one instance to have baptized 50 men in two weeks in a nearby creek. He was a superb orator and natural leader of men, and also proved to be an efficient soldier who transformed into a “stern, determined, and unfaltering” commander on the battlefield. He was one of the four brigade commanders Major General Pat Cleburne praised in his division declaring that “four better officers are not in the service of the Confederacy,” and had the notoriety of being the only general of the division who was not killed or severely wounded during the war. St. Michael was certainly looking over him.
The high-water mark of Lowrey’s military career came at Ringgold Gap in 1863. There his 1,330-man brigade and the remainder of Cleburne’s division fought a rearguard action against a Union corps in a bid to save Braxton Bragg’s fleeing army in the aftermath of the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Missionary Ridge. His brigade stabilized the Confederate right wing inspired by his bold exploits. General Cleburne noted in one dispatch after the battle that “My thanks are due to General Lowrey for the coolness and skill which he exhibited in forming his line…without a doubt saved the right of this army.” His brigade afterward received official thanks from the Confederate Congress.
Lowrey afterward fought in the Atlanta Campaign and at the Battles of Franklin and Nashville. He barely avoided death in Nashville from the bullet of a Union sharpshooter. The bullet killed an unassuming soldier instead of the preacher general. Disenchanted with the war, he resigned in March of 1865 and returned to his religious vocation, declaring that he would rather be remembered “as a Christian and a minister of the gospel than as a soldier.” He established the Blue Mountain Female College in 1873 and died in February of 1885 from a heart attack.
Lowrey was a rare case of a clergyman taking up a rifle to defend his flock, when necessary, against the wolves.