Baptists and the American Civil War: December 19, 1864

South Carolina Civil War MapEmpowered by his re-election last month, U. S. President Abraham Lincoln issues a proclamation for 300,000 more volunteers to serve in the military in order to finish the task of defeating the Rebellion.

The Confederacy, by way of contrast, has exhausted efforts to recruit new soldiers. Twice as many solders have deserted as are now in the field, and efforts to force them to return to the army are largely futile.

A debate now rages concerning the only compliant, able male adult bodies left in the South: those of slaves. Most whites seem horrified at the thought of offering slaves freedom in return for military service. Maintaining black slavery in perpetuity, after all, is the very reason that the Confederacy exists.

Irony aside, many Southern political, military officials and large planters fear that the Confederacy is doomed unless black bodies replenish thinning army ranks.

But does it really matter? Is Southern defeat inherent in the discussion now at hand? Many of the South’s wealthiest families, realizing that a future of poverty and despair is theirs when slavery is no more — whether through Confederate conscription or Northern victory — have already fled abroad, while others are even now making plans to flee their homeland.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of former slaves whose labor was stolen for the enrichment of others are now experiencing freedom for the first time. Many, recently freed by Sherman’s march to the Sea, are now settling along the South Carolina coast under protection of the Federal army, joining tens of thousands who have already been living there for up to two years or longer.

The Baptist faith is predominant among freedmen. At the same time, dozens of white Northern (American) Baptist missionaries along the coast are serving as missionaries and teachers in freedmen settlements on Hilton Head, St. Helena and Port Royal islands.

Amongst the missionary and charitable workers, however, paternalism and prejudices are commonplace, reflecting the nuances of the chasm frequently lurking between freedmen and their earthly saviors. One Northern volunteer, recently arrived in the South and writing from Hilton Head, offers early observations from his vantage point.

Perhaps the most marked characteristic of the blacks, in distinction from the poor and ignorant of other races I have chanced to observe, is their religious susceptibility. All their songs are religious, or, at least, are filled with expressions borrowed from the Bible or the camp-meeting. Coming over from St. Helena yesterday, in a row-boat with about twenty of them, they were singing all the way strange responsive chants or melodies, of which the women would sing the burden, and the stout oarsmen every once in a while burst out with the refrain, “An I heard from Heaben to-day.” These songs, much to my surprise, were all cheerful in their tendency, and all in the major key. I had read much of the plaintive airs of the slaves; but have not heard one since I came among them. There seems to be no room for sorrow in their hearts, now that they are free; nothing but gratitude to God for their great deliverance. Not but that they have their vices, and these the very ones with which the white man has the least patience. Lying and cheating seem the incorrigible sins of the negro. The most earnestly religious are frequently guilty of them. Yet no candid observer calls them hypocrites. They are rather babes and sucklings, whose character has not been ripened into consistency and self-reliance by the light of a free and Christian civilization.

Even with the best intentions of benevolent whites, can free blacks en masse thrive in the white Christian civilization that is the United States?

Time will reveal the complexities inherent in this question.

Sources: Abraham Lincoln, “Proclamation 121 — Calling for 300,000 Volunteers,” December 19, 1864 (link); James P. Blake to Miss Stevenson, Hilton Head, S.C., December 19, 1864 (link); Blake quotes (link); Blake February 19 letter (link); “James P. Blake,” Find a Grave (link)