In the wake of the most turbulent period of American History stories about the intersection of Freemasonry and the Civil War have been many and profound – fact and fiction have become impossibly merged until now. In an eloquent narrative story telling, Michael Halleran‘s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Freemasonry in the American Civil War separates the dime store novel and after dinner yarns from the real and verifiable stories of the American Civil War.
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The reality of the The Better Angels of Our Nature could perhaps be summed to say that when looking at the past, we strive to see it in the best light we can; reality and myth blurring together becoming one. We remember what we want to remember. And as this idea filters down from those who so daringly attempt to assimilate and speak about it, the line between what really happened and its retelling becomes even further blurred. The myth of the story takes a life of its own over the reality of what happened which is lost to the memory of time. We see it in the news, in the origins of religion, and in the annals of history – the stories of the past evolving and taking on a life of their own giving them greater depth, and consequently meaning, to the both the story tellers and their audience. But truth is liberating when it comes to the fraternity and the Civil War and Halleran’s new work The Better Angels of Our Nature is a welcome does of reality from a sea of historical myth.
The Better Angels of Our Nature dissects the war in its many facets into a sensible approach to the myths of Freemasonry and its part in the Civil War, from the very top in correspondence of Grand Lodges, first about preserving the union and later to sovereignty of action, to the rank and file interaction of soldiers on the lines spared by a token, a word, or a gesture, and to the gewgaws made by prisoners of war while being held in some of the harshest of p.o.w. camps. What Halleran captures in his work is not so much the acts of mercy between soldiers (of which he details many), but the agent of that mercy – Freemasonry.
Underlying the details of the book is the idea that the power of the fraternity and its ability to transcend lines acting in a way greater than that of organized religions, such that in times where even local denominations avoided helping those in desperate need, the bonds on Freemasonry, and the invisible connection between brothers, would prevail. In one instance, Halleran details the delivery of food and necessities to prisoners, not out of the compassion of similar religion, but out of the brotherhood in the craft all on the simple sign of a gewgaw. But, as much as the Better Nature leans on the leverage of membership, it almost equally illustrates the aversion brothers had to leverage it for their benefit. And for those such as Union prisoner John L. Ransom who witnessed Masonry in action noted in his diary the things to do following the war to include: “…visit all the foreign countries that prisoners told me about…wear silk under clothing, join the masons.”
The Friend to Friend Masonic Memorial monument located in the annex of the
Gettysburg National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
One of the prime examples that Halleran uses to dissect the problem of the past and illustrate the point of the layers of mis-telling is the exchange between General Armistead and Captain Bingham, to which Halleran says
“…the legend of Armistead’s dramatic Masonic death scene simply did not happen.” “There was no Masonic huddle with Doctor Bingham, ho hand-off of a Masonic bible, and no meeting with Hancock.”
All of which may come as a shock to the system to any armchair historian, but in painstaking detail, Halleran pieces together Armistead’s wounding, those closest to him, and what they said about those moments on the battlefield and the events immediately following his demise several days later.
Despite the retelling of the greatest Masonic tale of the Civil War, what Halleran does uncover are an even greater number of instances where brotherhood works to save wounded soldiers, save a family from starvation, and in one instance where the war stops for a day to bury a fallen brother in a Masonic service attended by both sides of the conflict. The Better Angels of Our Nature illustrates the profundity of the fraternity to its practitioner of the age, leaving us with the question if the modern soldier of Masonic affiliation encountered a brother across the lines, would it have the same ability to lay down hostilities to appeal to their fraternal bonds?
Halleran tells a compelling story about the fraternity and the Civil War and how The Better Angels of Our Nature have retold the stories over and over to make them more appealing and sympathetic to the ears of the audiences they were being told to, and by dissecting the facts from the years of fictionalized beliefs, the truth is much richer and comforting once the haze of time is cleared away. Truly it was the Better Angels of the Our Nature, as a fraternity, that prevailed.