Baptists and the American Civil War: May 8, 1864

Battle of Spotsylvania by Thure de Thulstrup, 1887, Library of Congress

Battle of Spotsylvania by Thure de Thulstrup, 1887, Library of Congress

Today the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House begins, the second battle of the long Wilderness Campaign in which Union General Ulysses S. Grant, with the long term goal of capturing nearby Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, attempts to outmaneuver and wear down Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Having fought Grant to a standstill in the just-ended and inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness, Lee had correctly guessed that Grant would move his forces to the critical crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House. Beating Grant to the juncture, Lee’s forces entrench and Grant is left with the task of breaking through the fortified Confederate line in order to continue his efforts to reach Richmond. Today the federals attempt to break through rebel forces barricaded on high ground near the crossroads, with no success.

For thirteen more days Grant tries to dislodge the Confederates, the long, bloody battle eventually ending inconclusively with some 32,000 casualties. And once again, Lee’s numerically inferior army suffers a greater percentage of losses than that of the Union army. In the battle of attrition, bloody and deadly that it is for both sides, the Union is gaining the upper hand.

While tens of thousands of men battle in Virginia, a memorial sermon is delivered at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Massachusetts. Rev. Cortland W. Anable preaches a discourse in honor of the late George T. and John H. Tucker, two soldiers who gave their lives while serving in the United States Army.

Anable remembers the two as imperfect but brave and admirable men whose Christian manhood should be emulated by others.

The same generous instinct that prompted the disciples to embalm the body of their Lord, has brought us here to-day to pay this tribute of respect and friendship, or the higher tribute still of love, to two of our fellow-townsmen, of whom it may be truly said, that they “were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in death they were not divided.” These men fell in the service of their country, in defence of the noblest cause that ever rallied noble spirits to the ensanguined battle-field. We honor them for the manner of their death, and are proud to own them as our fellow-citizens. In dying for their country, they have covered themselves with glory; and the halo which rests upon their memory reflects some portion of its lustre on the community in which they lived. Had they come back to us in life, we would have given them a worthy welcome to attest our appreciation of their patriotic services. But coming to us in death, we can only receive them, as is fitting, with such public demonstrations of mourning as are honorable to the living and honoring to the dead. In a certain and important sense they died for us, defending our rights, our liberties, and our sacred institutions. Dead, therefore, must be his heart to the higher and finer feelings of our nature, who does not find in it a chord that beats instinctively responsive to such a lofty sacrifice.

To them, indeed, these services are of no import. Meaningless to them are these tokens of respect, these symbols of solemn mourning, this sad funereal pageant and display. But far otherwise to us. To us they are all so many voices of the heart speaking out its generous sympathy with brave and true-hearted worth. Doubtless this dust would sleep as soundly and securely in the soil of Louisiana as of Massachusetts. Doubtless the archangel’s trump would wake it as surely to a glorious resurrection from the one place as the other. But to us there is a grand significance in these services which we pay. This vast assemblage of friends and townsmen, these badges of mourning, this martial array, this attendance of college classmates and of fellow soldiers of the immortal 38th, this presence in a body of the Irving Literary Association, to pay respect to the memory of the honored dead, these flowers upon the coffin, and those other flowers that will yet be planted on the grave, are all of them emblematic, and enfold, as in a chrysalis, germs of beauty which are among the fairest and loveliest adornments of human character….

George and John Tucker were persons of considerably more than ordinary worth. Born and brought up in this community, where they struggled into manhood in a constant conflict with circumstances more or less adverse, they succeeded at an early age in winning the respect of all who knew them, and something warmer than the respect of all who knew them well. Both of them made profession of religion in their youth; and whatever qualities they developed in after life were based on the foundation of Christian principle. George was quiet, sedate, and unostentatious in his manners, but by his careful attention to business and pleasing address made many friends, and, so far as I can learn, no enemies. If the sphere which he chose for himself in life presented less shining marks than his brother’s to attract the public eye, his was none the less a manly character, if by manliness we mean the acting well and faithfully of one’s part in the world as a Christian and left his trade and entered on a course of study to fit himself for college. Through what shifts and expedients, what trials and struggles he passed, it is needless for us now to pause and recapitulate. It is sufficient to say that through nearly six years of independent struggle, which would have appalled and disheartened many a resolute spirit, he toiled, maintaining his independence at the sacrifice of his pride, until, in the summer of 1862, he graduated from Harvard College with the constantly increasing respect and esteem of all who knew him in the community. With the one grand object of his life in view, he had been
purposing to enter next the Theological Seminary at Newton. But now came another question of duty to be religiously considered. His country was calling upon her young men to defend her life from the assaults of treason and rebellion. Should he offer his services in this trying hour, or was it his duty to remain at home and prosecute his studies 1 After deeply considering the subject, and taking religious counsel, he decided to enlist. ” I have taken this step,” he writes in his journal, ” with a firm conviction that it is my duty to do so, — a religious duty. It is not congenial to my tastes to go to war, but it seems now as if all who love their country ought to be willing to take up arms in its defence.” And then he adds, in perfect and admirable consonance with his whole character, “I hope I shall be faithful in the performance of my duty when on the battle-field.” In a letter to a friend, explaining his motives for enlisting, he says (and I would commend his sentiments to our young men everywhere): “I did not deem it necessary to go while men enlisted readily. Now the time seems to have come. Men are needed faster than they seem ready to volunteer. The same reasons apply to my not enlisting now that applied a year ago : I left my trade with a deep conviction that it was my duty to prepare myself to be a preacher of the Gospel. This conviction has never left me, and I have not hitherto felt it would be right to turn aside from the pursuit of this object. But now the country is plunged into war, a terrible war, by
rebels who are seeking to overturn the Government, and degrade it from being the first government the world ever knew, to be a mere slave oligarchy. If they succeed in their hellish design, and this Government is overthrown, then perishes all civil and religious liberty ; our national life ceases, and nothing is left worth having. Since this is the case, the question arises, Is it not the duty of every man to whom God has given strength and ability to do what he can to prevent this, even to shouldering the musket and taking the field to meet force by force % Life is sweet, and I suppose it is as sweet to me as to most people, but I do really feel willing to offer my services to my country, place myself upon her altar, fight, and, if need be, die in her defence. I have thought it proper, in thinking of the matter, to consider that it was more than a possibility, even approaching a strong probability, that if I went to the war I should be maimed, disabled for life by wounds, or contract disease which would render me a helpless dependent upon friends, if I was not killed, and I have asked myself if the cause demanded this of me? I admit that it does of many young men, but does it of me, situated as I am, about to commence a course of theological study I have patriotism enough, to lead me to make any sacrifice of time, substance, life itself for my beloved country. I wish to go to the relief of my fellow-citizens almost worn out with their severe campaign. It seems ignoble for me to remain here at home, resting in inglorious ease, while many better men than I am, or can ever hope to be, are bravely defending my country’s rights and honor.” I am sure you will pardon the length of this extract in consideration of the noble sentiments it breathes, and the light which it throws on the character of our departed friend. If more conspicuous individuals have fallen in this war, not a nobler, purer, or more self sacrificing spirit has yet been laid upon our country’s altar. He was killed in battle in an. assault upon Port Hudson, on the 27th of May, 1863, Whether he was right or not in his decision to abandon his studies for the pursuits of war, we cannot but admire the straightforward manliness of spirit with which he met and decided this and every other question. John Tucker had a soul that would shrink from nothing that lay before him in the path of duty. No lions in the way affrighted him; no dangers troubled or appalled ; but having settled the question, What is it my duty to do in any emergency whatever I he went steadily forward to its consummation, without the slightest fear or regard for the consequences to himself….

…To be a man, there must be roundness and completeness to the development of the entire character.

Moreover, if this be so, then it follows, that, other things being equal, the higher the moral and religious culture, the fuller is the manhood of any given individual.

And when we come to compare these several properties of man, we’ find that there is a regular ascending series of progression; first the physical, then the mental, and, towering above them all, the spiritual and moral. This last, as the seat of the religious sentiments, is that which allies us most closely to our Maker. Hence it is the most important and the most essential element in the composition of true manliness. Now what I claim for religion is, that there is nothing that can take its place as a teacher, guide, and disciplinarian in all the rudiments of a perfectly manly character. Let a man live up to the precepts of Christianity, and his physical nature will be developed and improved ; for religion inculcates temperance, chastity, cleanliness, industry, care of health and habits of body, by attention to which our natural powers are not only preserved unimpaired, but kept in a fitting state for almost unlimited expansion. The mind, too, finds its highest education in the school of religion; where are doctrines and problems which tax the profoundest intellectual energies, ever keeping in advance of each successive acquisition, and reaching out interminably towards the infinite and unknown, leaving something always involved in mystery, something still to discipline and attract to higher efforts and a more finished culture. Indeed, mental training only then begins to take its right direction, when it leads the soul towards the infinite, the mysterious, the incomprehensible of God; for ” the- fear of the Lord is the” beginning of wisdom.” And as for moral culture (the highest and noblest part of humanity), this is an absolute impossibility, in its best developments, without religion. Here Christianity applies its special and peculiar power. This is pre-eminently its own domain, in which it fights its severest battles, and wins its most glorious victories. Christianity enables a man to conquer himself which is better than taking a city. Noble and generous and brave as individuals may be without it, there is not one of them but would be more noble, more generous, more brave for its possession. Under its influence, men who have otherwise no commanding faculties, rise to a dignity of asserted manhood which no mental attainments, no physical powers, nor any combination of qualities, could give. In short, religion is the top-stone of the completed edifice, — the crowning glory of a finished character.

I would say to you, therefore, gentlemen, in conclusion, aspire to the realization in your individual lives of this sublime ideal of manhood. Be true to yourselves, to the better nature with which you were originally created. Let every duty as it arises be performed with unfaltering fidelity to the right. And over every other boasted or coveted excellence of character, place as the crowning glory the illustrious emblazonry of personal religion. And whatever may be the duties to which the emergencies of the hour may summon you, — whether to vindicate your principles at home in the peaceful pursuits of business, or to defend them abroad amid the excitements of clashing arms, — in peace or in war, living or dying, — let the proud determination of every individual be, to show himself a man.

Clearly on display today in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House and the memorial sermon delivered at Old Cambridge Baptist Church is a Christian manhood that, empowered by the spirit of God, is capable of great bravery in the face of danger and death.

Yet the convictions of Christians North and white Christians South are a world apart, so polarized that only one side can possibly emerge victorious in this bloody war over black slavery. Even as Christian convictions pro and anti-slavery shaped the antebellum era, ushered in the war and now propel this great contest, the war itself is shaping the cult of Christian manhood in such a way that both North and South in the post-war years will in turn be molded by God-believing, battle-hardened, rugged men who emerge from the refining fire of destruction and death.

Sources: Battle of Spotsylvania (link) and (link); Anable, Cortland W., “A funeral discourse, preached in the Baptist Church, at Old Cambridge, May 8, 1864,” Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard University Library (link); image (link)