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Thomas Mc Rae
[To Thomas Mc Rae’s index]

Brethren in Disunity

Some Freemasons during the American Civil War 1861–65

By Tomas Mc Rae, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, ©2009

[This article is featured in the Lowlands-L History presentation as well.]

L ike some Scottish Highlanders after the Jacobite Rebellions, bitterness still exists among many in America’s Southern States although years have passed since this awful conflict ended. Many still describe it as either “The War Between the States” or even “The War of Northern Aggression”. Me? I remain neutral.

How did it all start? Standard answer is “Slavery” and that certainly was a factor but far from the only one. Differences in economies and ways of life also helped trigger the conflict.

The Southern States had an economy largely based on exporting cotton which required intensive labour to grow, harvest, and process. Income was excellent but it’s never a good idea to focus on a single crop. Keep in mind that four of the States supporting the Union in the conflict remained slave states, vide Missouri, Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky.

In the North industry flourished along with a diversified agriculture and massive inputs of European immigrants to keep it all going. Slavery had gradually been eliminated in the North and the United States was composed of equal numbers of free and slave states.

The Americans won the Mexican-American War and gained huge areas of land that had belonged to Mexico. New settlers moved into those territories from both North and South and tension grew out of this. Cotton takes a lot out of the soil and in those pre-chemical-fertiliser days growers needed new land for its cultivation. This also meant importing slaves and there was great opposition in the North to such moves, Compromises were made, then abolished and factional conflict broke out in some new States. Democratic President Buchanan was elected in 1856 and did little or nothing to ease the tensions.

Mention must be made here of John Brown who in that same year led a mob of thugs, including his sons, to hack six unarmed Pro-Slavers to death with sabres, slavery being still legal. Two of the victims were teenage boys. For this act of wanton savagery he was, and still is, regarded as a hero in the North and got off Scot-free.

He continued his ravages until wounded and captured during an abortive raid on the government armoury at Harper’s Ferry. The military forces overcoming Brown were led by a Colonel Robert E. Lee: a Lieutenant J.E.B. Stewart tried to negotiate with the insurgents. Neither was a Freemason; both will appear prominently later in my tale. Brown’s execution led to waves of protest in the North where he became a martyr. His victims are largely forgotten.

A new political party emerged as disillusionment with the old Whigs and the Democrats grew in the North. Out of this the new Republican Party emerged in time for the 1860 elections when its candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president. It now seemed that the North would dominate Senate and Congress and the stage was set for the conflict.

North Carolina seceded from the Union in the last month of 1860 and during the early months of the following year several other states joined them. The biggest shock for the Union was the secession of The Commonwealth of Virginia which had played an important role in establishing the United States of America. The secessionist states formed the confederate states with its capital at Richmond, Virginia.

General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (1818–1893)

Tensions grew. Then North Ca­ro­li­na de­mand­ed that Uni­on forces quit forts on is­lands on off­shore ter­ri­to­ry. The Union stood firm and a Con­fe­derate Free­mason, General Pierre Beau­re­gard, triggered the war by shel­ling Fort Sum­ner. The sole ca­sual­ty was a mule and Union forces were per­mit­ted to eva­cu­ate in good order. It would not be all that long be­fore it was more than mules that made bloody ends over the next four years.

I have no in­ten­tion of go­ing into this tra­ge­dy in detail. My aim here is to re­count some events in­volv­ing Free­masons on both sides. The Con­fe­deracy was de­pen­dent of cotton ex­ports to fi­nance the war but it lacked any sig­ni­fi­cant na­vy, so the Union war­ships blockaded the South­ern ports. Cotton could not be ex­ported and es­sen­tial im­ports were blocked. Things came to a head on the Mis­sis­sip­pi river when New Or­leans was cap­tured by Ad­miral, and Brother, Far­ra­gut.

One amus­ing incident involves the Admiral and a com­mander of one of his small gun­boats, a Lt, and Brother, Schly, who was sent on a re­con­nais­sance mis­sion, but when Far­ra­gut heard gun­fire up ahead he flag-sig­nalled Schly to with­draw.

Contrary to orders the lieutenant kept shelling targets. He ended up summoned to the foredeck of Farragut’s ship where an angry admiral castigated him so harshly he felt he may well hang from the yardarm. As it was he received a severe reprimand from a stern faced admiral.

The admiral then told the culprit to join him in his cabin as he had more to say. On entering, shaking at the knees Schly was handed a glass of sherry by his boss who then said, “Young man, if I was in command of a gunboat and was getting the better of an enemy I’d have turned a blind eye as well.”

The harvest of death, Gettysburg
(Photograph by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, July 1863)

Later in the war, when march­ing to Get­tys­burg, a Union Lt, Brother Brown took pity on his men who were des­perate for wa­ter. He grabbed se­veral can­teens and filled them at a well. For this act of dis­obe­di­ence he was ar­rested and im­prisoned. Ge­neral, Brother, Stan­nard, learn­ing of this ordered the soldier’s im­me­diate re­lease and return to his re­gi­ment. His sword had been placed on a wagon well to the rear so, in the midst of the bloody final third day at Get­tys­burg, he used an axe with great ef­fect then con­fis­cated a sword from a Con­fe­derate of­ficer he had cap­tured.

The battles around Gettysburg over three days in early July 1863 merit some mention. It all started virtually by accident. Robert E. Lee had crossed the Potomac River into Maryland, he thought his opponent was the incompetent Gen Hooker, but he soon discovered he had just been replaced by General Meade whose army was somewhere ahead.

He sent General Stewart and his cavalry to scout around and locate the enemy; Stewart’s men having proved themselves as his eyes and ears many times before. Stewart’s orders were vague and he lost contact with main force. His cavalry wandered around finding only small Union forces and capturing a string of wagons of horse fodder.

In the meantime Lee was travelling blind but moving towards the major crossroads at a small Pennsylvanian market town called “Gettysburg”. Confederate General, and Brother, Henry Heth was in advance and hoped to find a supply of shoes in the town for many of his men who were barefoot. On a ridge to one side of the town, Seminary Ridge, he made contact with advance parties of Union forces on July 1st, and it was on! Throughout the day forces from both sides converged on the town and by nightfall the Confederates had captured the place and adjacent Seminary Ridge.

General Winfield Scott Hancock (1824–1886)

On the other side of the town was Cemetery Ridge where General, Brother, Hancock concentrated his men along its length in an effective fishhook shape. To its left, near the town Confederate forces occupied some of the lower slopes. To its right rose two steep hills: Little Round Top and Big Round Top.

On day two of the conflict Lee ordered an attack on the Round Tops and lower adjacent areas. Colonel, and Brother, Joseph Chamberlain was ordered to place his small force on Little Round Top and informed that the line ended there. Hold at all costs or Lee’s men could occupy it and infiltrate the entire ridge.

On the ground below the hills several violent con­flicts broke out and in a cluster of huge boul­ders known as The Devil’s Den many bullet pocks are still present on the rocks. A strong Con­federate force attacked Cham­ber­lain’s smaller group only to be driven off. There were several more attempts during one of which Cham­ber­lain’s metal sword scabbard was hit by a rifle ball bruising him badly. Despite this he kept his men together and fought on against hopeless odds. Ammunition was running out, so the men collected what they could from dead and wounded comrades.

Finally, as his ammunition was nearly gone, he ordered his force to fix bayonets and they drove the Confederates off the Round Top for good. Just three years before Brother Chamberlain had been a Professor of Theology at a College in Maine. He went on to be wounded three times, was raised to rank of general, and was present at the final surrender.

That evening Stewart and his men put in a belated appearance. His cavalry had consumed all the horse fodder and achieved zilch.

Day three and Lee ordered General Longstreet to launch a massed frontal charge on a small clump of trees towards the centre of Cemetery Ridge. Commanding the centre of the attacking force was General, Brother, George Picket supported by General Brothers Kemper and Armistead. Armistead’s best friend had been General, Brother, Hancock up on the Ridge with his Union forces. Armistead had even been best man at his wedding. Longstreet did all he could to dissuade Lee from this risky attack, but the old warhorse’s will prevailed.

The charge began with a massive artillery bombardment from the Confederate side launching loads of steel at the defenders.

In the midst of the chaos of noise and smoke the Confederate gunners did not realise that their cannon trunnions were digging ever deeper into the soil after each recoil causing many guns to elevate throwing their loads over rather than on the ridge. Uni­on can­noneers responded and the area was masked in smoke. Even­tu­al­ly the de­fend­ing gunners ceased fir­ing to let their weapons cool which may have led Long­street’s men to be­lieve they had been knocked out.

Whatever the reason, the massive Confederate army moved off in drill order with bands playing towards the distant ridge. Once within cannonball range gaps started to appear in the attacker’s ranks and parade ground formations broke up. On passing close to Little Round Top entrenched cannon and rifle fire caused formations on the right to compress, breaking ranks, then the canister shot began to hit and soon the Confederate force was within range of concentrated Union rifle fire.

Up on the Ridge General Hancock maintained the morale of his men by riding unconcernedly through shellfire. A chunk of shrapnel hit his horse’s saddle dislodging a nail which entered the General’s thigh. Despite this he refused to leave the field until things were resolved.

The charging army became a bloody debacle as the men heroically tried to reach the top of the Ridge. General Armistead had stuck his hat on his sword as he led his men ever closer to the summit. A Union cannon discharged near him and he placed a hand on it announcing its capture but he was then hit by a rifle ball. As he fell he allegedly cried, “I am a widow’s son”. Captured he asked to meet Hancock who had been wounded about the same time. Hancock sent an aide to Armistead who realised he was mortally wounded. He asked the aide to pass on personal effects to Hancock to send to his family when possible and died that night. Lee’s forces quit the field under cover of darkness. It was July 4th.

Next day Meade received news that the key Confederate City and port of Vicksburg had been captured by General Grant. At the surrender of Vicksburg Freemasons on both sides met in harmony and Union officers entertained their erstwhile enemies with food and wines.

Lee’s men managed to recross the Potomac and the slaughter continued for two more years.

The year after Gettysburg and Vicksburg an attempt to break the US naval blockade ended partially in triumph but mainly in tragedy. Prior to this it was decided to try breaking the blockade of Charleston North Carolina using a submersible craft. A large discarded boiler was the basis of this boat which had a stern and prow fitted along with a long conning tower. This was propelled via power from a large hand crank operated by several men in a dim confined space.

H.L. Hunley envisaged the idea and died when trialling the vessel along with its first crew. It was then raised, refitted, and transported by rail to Charleston where General, Brother, Beauregard was instrumental in maintaining the project. A long spar running from the bow had an explosive charge at its extremity.

One night in February 1864 this boat actually sank a US navy warship, the Housatonic. Then it vanished until re-located in the 1980s. The massive explosion seems to have sprung the Hunley’s plates and it was swamped and sank. It was eventually raised and clearing the inside begun. On the remains of its commander, Lt Dixon, a pocket watch was found with a fob bearing the Square and Compasses.

There were numerous other incidents involving Brethren of both sides supporting each others’ adversities. Masonic funerals were held for fallen men on enemy territories with Union and Confederate Brethren in attendance.

Finally I must mention a Wallace who distinguished himself during and after the war. General, and Brother, Lew Wallace saved Washington, DC, when Lee sent General Jubal Early and General, Brother, Breckinridge to attack and try and occupy the capital of the Union. Wallace rallied forces which delayed the Confederate march on the city allowing reinforcements to move up and stall this military gamble.

You may not have heard of Lew Wallace, but I’ll bet you know of one of his books: Ben Hur. Prior to this he served as military judge at the trials of the Lincoln Assassins and at the trial of Henry Wirtz, commandant of the notorious Confederate POW camp at Andersonville.

He went on to be appointed Lt Governor of the territory of New Mexico where he met and negotiated with Billy the Kid regarding a pardon the latter did not receive. A year later he became US minister to the Ottoman Empire.

Prince Albert Lodge also meets in this Centre. He was the much-loved husband of Queen Vic­to­ri­a and exer­cised some pro­gressive moves for the bet­ter­ment of the com­mon people. I have been un­able to dis­cover if he was a Free­mason. He was how­ever in­stru­mental in steps to ease a dangerous si­tu­a­tion between Britain and the Union in 1861.

A party of Confederate delegates boarded a British ship to sail to Europe and plead the case for the South. A Union war­ship in British Caribbean waters boarded this ship il­le­gal­ly and a­rrested the De­le­ga­tion. There was great anger at what was an act of blat­ant piracy in Britain and the Ca­binet drafted a very strong letter to the Union and sent troops en route to Canada.

The Prime Minister showed the letter to Albert who realised that not only could it lead, in its present form, to Bri­tain invading Uni­on ter­ri­tory but also sti­mulate other Eu­ro­pe­an states to take sides and start a world war. Al­though al­ready se­ri­ous­ly ill, Al­bert re­quested to be al­lowed to re­draft the let­ter in less threatening terms and the ar­rested men were re­leased. He died soon afterwards.


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