Artifact of the Week: Communion Set

Author: 
Jessica A. Bandel

This week’s spotlight artifact is a communion set used by the 119th Infantry Regiment. In September 1917, the 2nd Regiment, North Carolina National Guard—which had spent six months along the Mexican border in the previous year—was redesignated as the 119th Infantry and assigned to the newly organized 30th Division. The regiment was comprised of around 1,800 North Carolinians and 900 Tennesseans. Seven hundred men from various other states brought the unit up to full strength. Responsible for the religious and moral welfare of these 3,400 men was one man: Rev. John Maxwell Robeson.

Robeson was an established Episcopal minister leading a congregation in Goldsboro, North Carolina, when he joined the 2nd Regiment, N.C.N.G. as chaplain just before it was deployed to the Mexican border in the summer of 1916. He remained with the Tar Heel boys through the unit’s reorganization and crossed the Atlantic with them in May 1918.

The world of a military chaplain was drastically different from that of a civilian one. His congregation was comprised of volunteers from all religious backgrounds. He answered to the authority of his commanding officer. In addition to spiritual and moral guidance, he often provided legal counsel during court martials and acted as his unit’s morale officer. If a soldier was injured, the chaplain may be required to provide first aid. During and after battle, he administered the holy sacraments to the dying and presided over the funeral services of the dead. His duties were never ending, his day never truly done.

On top of all this, he too was exposed to the myriad dangers of life on the battlefield. During the battle at Ypres, Belgium, in August 1918 and the assault on the Hindenburg Line in late September, Chaplain Robeson was right there with his men in the thick of the fight. He was wounded at Roisell, France, on October 24 and was still recovering from those wounds upon his return to the United States the following February. His conspicuous service compelled brigade commander Samuel L. Faison to petition for Robeson’s commission in the regular service as a captain.

During the course of his service as chaplain, Robeson used the set shown above to administer communion. The set was given to the regiment by the congregation of St. Peters Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina, in memory of Rev. Nathaniel Harding, who had served as the regiment’s chaplain from 1878 to 1916. Made specially for field use, the set includes spoon, paten, cruet, chalice, and case.