Baptists and the American Civil War: June 9, 1864

Abraham LincolnToday the Confederates emerge victorious in a minor but significant battle that is part of the Overland Campaign. In the Battle of Petersburg, Rebel forces repel an attempt by a contingent of the Union Army under General Benjamin Butler to enter Petersburg from the South. The Union loss is due in part to timidity on the part of Major General Quincy Gillmore, who holds back his X Corps at a crucial point during the battle.

While casualties are low (about 80 for the Confederacy and 40 for the Union), the battle marks the beginning of the Siege of Petersburg, a nine month campaign to subdue the city, crucial as a supply route for Richmond, by trench warfare.

As Petersburg is under assault, politics play out in the North. Having been nominated by the Republican Party (this year only going by the name of the National Union Party, in an effort to attract the votes of Border State Unionists and War Democrats in the fall presidential election) for a second term as president of the United States, today Abraham Lincoln issues a public response:

I am very grateful for the renewed confidence which has been accorded to me, both by the convention and by the National [Union] League. I am not insensible at all to the personal compliment there is in this; yet I do not allow myself to believe that any but a small portion of it is to be appropriated as a personal compliment. The convention and the nation, I am assured, are alike animated by a higher view of the interests of the country for the present and the great future, and that part I am entitled to appropriate as a compliment is only that part which I may lay hold of as being the opinion of the convention and of the League, that I am not entirely unworthy to be instructed with the place I have occupied for the last three years. I have not permitted myself, gentlemen, to conclude that I am the best man in the country; but I am reminded, in this connection, of a story of an old Dutch farmer, who remarked to a companion once that “it was not best to swap horses when crossing streams.”

As the November elections will bear out, the Northern public trusts Lincoln to bring the war against the Southern Rebellion to a close.

Southern whites, meanwhile, have found little on earth in which to place their trust. The armies of the United States have overwhelmed Confederate forces for the past year, in the process pushing ever deeper into Confederate territory. The Southern economy is in tatters, characterized by runaway inflation and widespread poverty. While politicians, planters, military officials and religious leaders, as well as other elites, busy themselves trying to rally soldiers and common folk on the home front to fight and resist the abolitionist North with renewed energy, the armies are plagued by a steady stream of desertions even as many home front folks are more concerned with day-to-day survival rather than displaying patriotism. In short, many soldiers and home front citizens are tired of fighting a rich man’s war of which the primary purpose is to maintain the institution of black slavery, an institution that largely benefits a relative handful of wealthy slaveowners.

For their part, Southern Baptist elites preach (whether in Baptist news publications or in resolutions at state Baptist meetings) reliance on God, insisting that the Confederacy is God’s chosen nation and that in His (increasingly mysterious) providence, God will (when He is ready) lead the South to victory and enshrine white supremacy and black slavery for all time, making the Confederate States of America a nation that blesses the entire world.

When not encouraging the white Baptist public with such lofty notions in the midst of dark times, some Baptist writers turn to the one earthly place where all their readers can readily place their faith: mothers.

The image of a mother is powerful in the antebellum and Civil War era period in which men are too often too profane and uncouth for the Kingdom of God. Mothers are good, pure, caring and holy, and Southern Baptist writers play up the imagery of mothers quite often, one example of which is an article in this week’s North Carolina Baptist Biblical Recorder.

AFFECTING INCIDENT.–During one of the series of engagements which recently came off at the front as a body of our cavalry was being hotly pressed by the enemy’s infantry and artillery, a cannon ball came whizzing just over the head of one of our boys, and passed between the legs of a brave fellow of the infantry who was just in the rear of the cavalry and in the act of stepping across a branch. Both legs of his pants were almost torn off, but no damage was done to the soldier further than the loss of a finger. He stood perfectly amazed at his almost miraculous escape. While standing thus the young cavalryman, near whose head the ball had passed–and, by the way, as brave a boy as ever bestrode a horse or chased a Yankee hyena to his lair–rode up and remarked: “That is the answer to a pious mother’s prayers.” The soldier was touched to the heart; and, bursting into tears, said: “Yes, he had a pious, good mother. He felt that in answer to her prayers he had escaped almost unharmed from the deadly missile.”

Mother I bet your boys in the army know that you pray for them, and they will be braver soldiers and better boys. A mother’s prayer is a safer shield for her boy than bomb-proof fortifications.

Sources: Battle of Petersburg (link); Siege of Petersburg (link); “The Baltimore Nomination,” New York Times, June 10, 1864 (link); National Union Party (link) and (link); “Incidents of the War,” Biblical Recorder, June 8, 1864 (link)