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    Categories: Sojourners

Freemasonry as it was Practiced During the American Civil War

On November 6, 1860, prior to Abraham Lincoln’s election for United States President he declared that, “Government cannot endure half slave and half free.” He was referring to the common practice during those times, mostly within the southern states, of human slavery. However, these causes weren’t a full or primary cause of this war. If the Confederacy were successful in their efforts the Union, as being the United States would no longer be able to avail the benefits from those southern states with their productions, especially of cotton textiles and bountiful food crops without paying tariffs to a separate nation.

The American Civil War was started in 1861 and it ended in 1865. The Confederacy of the southern states prepared itself for war starting on February 4, 1861. It consisted of eleven states who aimed to secede from the Union and establish itself as a separate and independent country.

The war’s first battle was on April 1, 1861 at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. But it wasn’t until January 31, 1865, that the United States Congress abolished slavery by passing the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution.

On May 10, 1865 President Andrew Johnson officially ended the American Civil War after the surrender was declared at Appomattox, Virginia.

Thousands of lives were lost and many had been badly wounded and would suffer until their eventful death relieved their pains.

Estimates are that at least 110,070 were killed in battles or later  died from the wounds inflicted in battles, and another 199,790 or so from diseases that were attributed in some way due to that war.

However, these reported testaments of compassionate acts by the Freemasons show a brighter side of those four years of strife and the unusual ways of war; often fathers and sons fighting on opposite sides as were blood and fraternal brothers and friends was far too common. This allowed the “Light of Masonry” to shine brightly even during those troubling times.

During that Civil War, approximately 410.000 soldiers were interned in prison camps and it has been estimated that about 56,000 of them were Freemasons. There are recorded stories that indicate how these Masons were true to their Masonic obligations and to our Masonic teachings, even while performing their duties as military fighting men.  When they were confronted with a wounded and distressed brother, they did all they could to provide comfort and compassionate assistance. I’ll here cover just a few examples of those reports that demonstrate the kindness and concerns shown for their Masonic Brethren, in some cases for others without regard for which side they were fighting. The Masonic sign of distress was witnessed and responded to quite frequently during those troubling times.

Lt. Col. Homer Sprague, an 13th Connecticut Volunteer was taken prisoner. During a long march to the prison, Sprague became so exhausted that he collapsed into a ditch. A Confederate Officer allowed him to ride in the ambulance for the remainder of the journey. With some difficulty, he was able to climb into the vehicle. He there learned that the driver was also a Brother Mason.

This Brother said to Sprague,

As a Mason I will feed you to the very last crumbs of my food, but as a soldier I will fight you till the last drop of my blood.

Sprague replied,

I hardly know which to admire most, your generosity as a Mason or your spunk as a soldier.

Hunter McGuire

In 1863 Hunter McGuire, a physician and commissioned officer in the Union Army, resigned his commission and enlisted in the Confederate Army as a Private. This was because while still serving within the Union Army and while trying to evade capture by Confederate forces, he tried to jump his horse over a fence. Both he and the horse went down and were captured. He gave the Masonic sign of distress. A Confederate officer recognized the sign and ordered a temporary cease fire while he and his horse were cared for. This event convinced him to resign his commission in the Union Army.

There was many times in which the Masons demonstrated compassion for the suffering of their Brother Masons. Union soldier John Copley with the 49th Infantry was captured by the Confederate troops and confined in a military prison camp. It was soon after his capture, that all of the Masons in the camp were gathered up and moved together into a separate barrack where, thanks to the Masons of the local area, they also had somewhat of a plentiful and better diet than did the other prisoners.

Being known as “The White Apron Men” as the Freemasons were often referred to in those days, were known to remain true to their Promises, they were allowed the liberty of roaming about the camp based solely on their word to not attempt escape. On one occasion a Mason was approached by a non-Mason who stated that he and his friend were very hungry, not having eaten in three days.

Without comment, he walked on, but in the afternoon he again spotted the man, and without saying a word to him, dropped a package at his feet. When the man opened it, he saw food and drink, plentiful enough for both he and his friend to nourish them.

After the war, one of those men wrote,

I was not a Mason during the war, but what I observed of the compassionate ways of the Masons, I was induced to join this beneficent order, and I was made a Mason in 1866.  I vowed to pattern my conduct by what I had there observed, especially of how they truly cared for each other.  Those Masons were treated with respect, and they were trusted based on their integrity of character.

He went on to say that it was just as well that he had not been a Mason at that time. Not being bound to such a promise, he was able to escape and made his way to safety.

These 3 stories are from the Heredom Series of books produced by the Scottish Rite Research Society.

In my web searches and from my private library, I also found several interesting accounts of Masonic compassion being demonstrated during that War.  One story was of an Alabama Artillery group, who were resting from a hard fought battle during the day prior that had lasted into to the late night hours, several being killed or wounded. After traveling to a field on the edge of a thicket of trees, they having assumed it to be a fairly safe place to rest and refresh them selves for the next battle.

The surviving men were exhausted and some fell into a deep sleep, while others engaged themselves in conversations, some inspecting their weapons and ammunition supplies, while yet others were attending the wounded.

A Corporal lay back against the trunk of an old pine tree, watching a flock of birds overhead while contemplating his thoughts of how he would prefer death, rather than being incarcerated in a Yankee prison camp, and at the same time admiring the Navy Colt pistol he had taken from the dead body of a Union Captain during the last battle.

He caught a glimpse of a reflection among the trees that he believed might a weapon.  Now being of the highest rank, since the Commissioned Officer had been killed in the last battle, he called out to the men, “To your guns boys, git ready.”

He silently prayed;

Thou Oh God, know our down sittings and our uprisings, and understand our thoughts from afar off, shield and defend us from the evil intent of our enemies.

He grimaced in pain as he arose from the scaly bark of that old pine tree. He had been wounded twice in previous battles, the first time by a painful flesh wound to a leg, and the other by a piece of shrapnel from an exploded shell that hit him in the chest, knocking from his feet. When he finally looked at the wound he saw a jagged gash extending from the nipple to the collar bone.

He refused a hospital stay, choosing to remain with his comrades and within his duties as a soldier.

The Corporal again patted the Colt pistol in his waist band with assurance that he would do better with it, rather than with a heavy rifle. As he arose he looked with pride at the Masonic ring his father, now his Masonic Brother, had presented to him when he was made a Master Mason.  He again called out to the troops, “Prepare for battle.”

He was suddenly confronted by a Yankee Lieutenant who from the tree line had noted what he perceived to be, a much weakened condition of the Corporal, and was apparently intent on capturing him alive if possible.  They were now bound together in a death grip, both men showing unbelievable strength.

There’s probably no greater human horror than to be locked together with a person whom you know will kill you, if you don’t kill him first. “To kill or be killed” was a simple and familiar saying; but to actually be in that situation gave it much more meaning.

He was struggling to get to the Colt pistol, but being so tightly bound body to body, it was impossible.  He somehow garnered a moment of extra strength, and as he pushed on the Lieutenant’s chest, he caught sight of a Masonic emblem, and without hesitation he muttered sounds into the ear of what he now believed to be a brother Mason. On the Lieutenant’s hearing the sounds, the death grip quickly became a brotherly embrace, both men now with tears in their eyes, for what could have resulted had not the discovery been made.

Another interesting story was of two opposing Generals, John Gordon of the Confederate Army and Francis Barlow of the Union Army.  During a raging battle, General Gordon was crossing the bloodied field of battle, where he came upon General Barlow who had just received what was assumed to be a mortal wound.  Even though the fierce battle was continuing all around them, Gordon took the time to show compassion for a fallen brother.  He gave Barlow a drink of water and inquired as to what he might do for him.  Barlow asked him to write a letter to his wife, which he dictated the words of his supposed, impending death.

Upon receipt of the letter his Lady traveled to retrieve his remains, but by then he had received medical care and was recovering to fight again. Several years later these two men met in Washington, D.C., both having assumed that the other had died during the war.

They enjoyed Masonic fellowship, sharing brotherly love and affection while remembering their many experiences. Their close friendship and brotherly love continued until death.

The practice of brotherly love, friendship and morality were also demonstrated in lesser famous military actions.  In 1863, gun boats including the Albatross, were shelling a small Military port near Mandeville, Louisiana. The Captain of the Albatross was J. E. Hart who had been made a Mason in a Lodge in New York. This Brother had been suffering with pain, fever and delirium for several days, and during that ongoing battle, to ease his misery, he shot himself in the head, taking his own life.

A friend and Masonic Brother assumed command, and with much grief for the loss, he under a flag of truce, went onto land among those troops they had just been shelling, to inquire of any Masons among the troops and in the town.  He asked them to assist him in the performing of Masonic Last Rites for a fallen brother.  And whether it would have been considered proper or not, they gave him a most impressive Masonic Funeral.  His remains were ceremoniously interned to their long home.

The Masons of the area placed a marker at the head of the grave, with the Masonic Square and Compasses most prominent, in honor of this departed Brother.

There are many reasons why freemasonry, more than any other fraternal organizations, has survived and thrived throughout the ages.  Our tenants and devotions to them have made this possible.  Our rules and customs have encourages us to show kindness and compassion for others, without expectations of anything in return.

The mental structure of which our Ancient and Honorable Craft is constructed, transcends all that would most likely cause a division among non-Masons.

We must live by our Masonic teachings and our values while looking to the inner goodness of a man, rather that that of the outer appearances, or any other distinctions. We must show love and compassion, assist the needy, lift up the downtrodden and spread Masonic love toward all of God’s people, without regards for ones religious faith, political leanings or any other personal differences that are of no business of our Fraternity, then we will have become the Masons we so desire to be.

These acts of brotherly love and compassion as mentioned herein, are just a few examples of how we Freemasons have demonstrated our devotions to the teachings of our Symbolic Craft, in wars as well as in times of peace.

May we, by use of the symbolism of the Masonic trowel, continue the spreading of that cement which units us into one common band of brothers and fellows, and may it some day become common among all good people throughout the world.  Let the love and caring we share as Masonic Brothers never cease; and may it always be most predominate.  May every moral and social virtue continue to bind us as a Masonic Fraternity of  friends and brothers, with a spirit of charity imbedded in our hearts, much so as it was so well demonstrated by our Masonic Brothers, during that Civil War.

May love and compassion continue be observed by we Masons for the world to see, and hopefully it will someday be emulated by all of mankind around the world.  And may these practices of love among mankind forever be observed.

Amen and so mote it be.

This piece comes to us from Brother W. B. Paul Weathers from Arizona. Br. Weathers was initiated, past and raised in the now defunct William Whiting Lodge in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He has been a member of Oasis Lodge #52 in Tucson, AZ for many years and is affiliated with the Grand Lodge of China (Valley of Taipei, Orient of Taiwan) under the Scottish Rite. He is a two term Past Master, Cryptic Mason/York Rite, member of the Scottish Rite Research Society, Eastern Star, Sabbar Shrine, High Twelve and the Sojourners. Active with the Grand Lodge of Arizona, Br. Weathers also manages a chest of medical assist devices for the elderly and needy and organizes a quarterly outing for Masonic widows and elderly couples.


 

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Greg Stewart :A devoted student of the Western Mystery Traditions, Greg is a firm believer in the Masonic connections to the Hermetic traditions of antiquity, its evolution through the ages and into its present configuration as the antecedent to all contemporary esoteric and occult traditions. He is a self-called searcher for that which was lost, a Hermetic Hermit and a believer in “that which is above is so too below.” Read more about Greg Stewart.

View Comments (6)

  • Your statement is very misleading to say "these causes weren’t a full or primary cause of this war" actually it was, because they had no desire to separate UNTIL the North tried to stop slavery. If Slavery was allowed, they would never had tried to separate... You need to think logical before you try to praise a pathetic group of rich people... Thanks for all the southern "praise" stories, but guess what?!?! YOU STILL LOST! Get over it!!! Brother Gusman from California, Free and Proud!

  • Wow our history is something I wonder how many wars were they back then our brothers fought in I wish I was by there side in arms then wow again Moving Forward.

  • Probably a good essay, but your starting off by perpetuating the old canard that "the Civil War was not about slavery" made it difficult to continue reading, as I wondered how much else of your history was faulty.

  • Of course slavery was the cause the war. States wanted the Right to own slaves in the South. A slave based economy.

  • The Albatross was on the Mississippi river near Port Hudson and Bayou Sara. The brothers in St. Franciville, LA do a reenactment of this every year in June. It is called "The Day The War Stopped."