In the years leading up to the Civil War, the United States was divided along political, economic and social lines, far more than we are even today. The slavery question cast its shadow over all the other issues: regional rivalries, trade, development of the country′s natural resources, and settling the West. Important institutions split over the slavery question. For example, the Democratic Party split along regional lines, and the Southern Baptist Church and the Southern Methodist Church were founded.
Freemasonry was the one institution that did not suffer a split. The principles of the Craft outweighed all other considerations in the hearts and minds of its members. This story is best told through a selection of vignettes originally written by the great American Masonic student, Allen Roberts.
Joseph Fort Newton, D.D., was a leading Masonic writer and teacher, and the author of The Builders. In his autobiography he wrote the following about his introduction to Freemasonry:
“My father had been a soldier in the Southern army… He was made a Mason in a military Lodge… Taken prisoner at Arkansas Post, he was carried up the Mississippi river to Rock Island, Illinois… My father become desperately ill, and made himself known as a Mason to an officer of the camp. The officer took him to his own home and nursed him back to life. When the war ended, he loaned Father money to pay his way back to his Texas home and gave him a pearl–handled pistol to protect himself… This experience of my father, when I learned about it, had a very great influence upon my life; the fact that such a fraternity of men could exist, mitigating the harshness of war, and remain unbroken when states and churches were torn in two, became a wonder; and it is not strange that I tried for years to repay my debt to it.” Dr. Newton became a Master Mason at the age of 21 in Friendship Lodge No. 7, Dixon, Illinois.
John W. Geary was made a Mason at Sight on January 4, 1847 in Pennsylvania, just before he left with his troops to fight in the Mexican War. When in California, he was stationed in San Francisco, and served as one its first Mayors. He caused the land that became Union Square to be set–aside as a park. Geary Street is named for him. During the Civil War, he was the commanding Union general at the fall of Savannah, Georgia. He placed Federal troops about the quarters of Solomon′s Lodge No. 1 to save it from looting and damage. Later, while Geary was governor of Pennsylvania, the Lodge sent him a resolution of thanks. He answered by claiming it was the principles and tenets of Freemasonry that helped Reconstruction to be as successful as it finally turned out to be. In this reply, he said: “…I feel again justified in referring to our beloved institution, by saying that to Freemasonry the people of the country are indebted for many mitigations of the suffering caused by the direful passions of war.”
The Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day of fighting ever during the bitter Civil War. Over 23,000 men were killed or wounded. During this horrible and bloody battle, numerous instances occurred that showed the enduring nature of Brotherly Love and Relief in times of trouble. On the morning following the battle, Confederate sharpshooters fired at anything that moved. A wounded Confederate handed a Union sentry a piece of cloth on which the Square and Compass was crudely drawn in blood. The sentry carried it to a captain who recognized the Masonic emblem. The captain told the Colonel that a wounded Confederate needed help. The Colonel asked for volunteers and several Masons offered to help. At the risk of their lives they went to and carried the fallen Lieutenant of the Alabama Volunteers to the 5th New Hampshire field hospital. The Lieutenant told them about another Mason lying wounded in the cornfield. Back they went and carried him to join the other enemy soldier. Both men received the same treatment, as did the Federal wounded from the camp surgeon, a Freemason, Dr. William Child. These were men who truly remembered their obligation to never hesitate to go out of their way to raise a fallen Brother.
Confederate Masons no less than their Union counterparts remembered the obligations of the Craft in the midst of war. The Federal gunboat USS Albatross, under the command of John Hart hurled shell after shell into the village of St. Francisville, Louisiana. Later, the crew sent a small boat under a flag of truce to the shore. The executive officer asked for a Mason. The Senior Warden of Feliciana Lodge No. 31, W. W. Leake, answered the call. When informed that Captain Hart, who was a Freemason, was dead, Brother Leake immediately offered to open his Lodge and bury Hart with Masonic rites.
Over the years the United Daughters of the Confederacy kept his grave fresh and green. In 1972 the Grand Lodge of Louisiana replaced the simple headstone with a monument that covered Hart′s entire grave. The monument was engraved: “This monument is dedicated in loving tribute to the universality of Freemasonry.”
An interesting story of Masonic unity in the face of political conflict occurred in Denver Lodge No. 5. The members appeared to be evenly divided in their affinity for the opposing sides in the war. This appeared to be problem that couldn’t be overcome, so the Lodge recommended to the Grand Lodge of Colorado that a charter be granted for the formation of Union Lodge. It was granted. But not a single member of Denver Lodge demitted to affiliate with the new one! They had learned it is not necessary for all Freemasons to think alike to remain friends and Brothers.
When Richmond, Virginia, fell to the Union soldiers in April 1865, mobs burned warehouses, blew up ships, and generally set fire to the property along the James River. Masons’ Hall, built in 1785 was close to this area. The Federal Provost Marshal, A. H. Stevens, a member of Putnam Lodge in Massachusetts, placed a guard around the building, plus the homes of several members of the Lodge. Shortly thereafter, Federal and Confederate members of the Craft met in harmony in the same building.
Finally, an instance of true friendship extending beyond the barriers of war is that of General Lewis A. Armistead, of Alexandria Washington Lodge No. 22 and Colonel (later General) Henry H. Bingham. General Armistead was among the Confederate generals leading the ill–fated Pickett’s Charge storming the hills in the Battle of Gettysburg. General Armistead was mortally wounded when he reached the top of the ridge. Colonel Bingham was sent by General Hancock to assist their Masonic Brother. A monument commissioned and dedicated by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania in 1993 at the National Cemetery Annex at Gettysburg commemorates this selfless act of Brotherly Love. The monument is inscribed simply:
“Friend to Friend – A Brotherhood Undivided.”
When the shooting war ended, the division between the North and South remained. If anything, the antagonism was more bitter than ever. But it was Freemasonry that was most directly responsible for easing the pangs of hatred. Kindness shown by former foes who were Masons became the links in the chain of unity.
These lessons of the past are most important for us to remember. Our Brethren of the Civil War could have been forgiven if they had turned their backs on those in distress –but they did not! They helped the Mason and non–Mason whenever and wherever they could– and were better men and Freemasons for it, and our Fraternity and the world are better because of them.
Unfortunately the past is far too often forgotten. Countless people consider freemasonry’s First Tenet, Brotherly Love, as just so much sentimentality. Group is fighting group, section is antagonizing section, and competing ideologies and political opinions are running rampant.
I will leave you with this challenge: Would you as Masons today act as our Civil War brethren, and put aside political and personal differences for the sake of another Brother known only to you as a Mason?