Baptists and the American Civil War: February 19, 1865

South Carolina Civil War MapCharleston, South Carolina wakes up the day after United States armed forces seized control of the city.

Many white citizens fled before Union forces marched into the city yesterday. Wealthy white residents yet remaining are fearful for their future. Many poor whites are hopeful of relief from their impoverished condition. Black residents, suddenly free, are ecstatic.

Many other citizens of South Carolina are also trying to adjust to the realities of Union occupation.

In the state capital of Columbia, captured two days earlier, Sherman‘s forces are busy tearing up the railroad and Confederate ordnance.

Nearer Charleston, the 55th U.S. Colored Massachusetts Regiment marches into Mt. Pleasant, liberating slaves in the area. The regimental record describes the scene: “Words would fail to describe the scene which those who witnessed it will never forget,—the welcome given to a regiment of colored troops by their people redeemed from slavery. As shouts, prayers, and blessings resounded on every side, all felt that the hardships and dangers of the siege were fully repaid.”

Meanwhile, back in Charleston U.S. Lieutenant Col. A. G. Bennett issues an order declaring the city under martial law:



General Orders, No. 1.

Charleston is declared to be under martial law. All functions heretofore exercised by the Mayor, Commonalty, civil and criminal courts, police authorities, and local authorities and local governments are now suspended.

A.G. BENNETT, Lieut.-Col. 21st U.S.C.T., Commanding City of Charleston, and P.M. Northern District, Department South.

Baptist minister Charles H. Corey, working for the the United States Christian Commission and having entered Charleston with Union forces the day prior, today joins the liberated blacks in their celebration. His duties with the Commission include preaching the gospel, and he proceeds to preach the first sermon in the occupied city. He writes of the joy of this day:

Early I was away to a sunrise prayer-meeting among the colored people. I was the only white man present. I cannot describe the prayers and praise there offered. Said one, “Who could not praise the Lord this morning, who would not praise the Lord to-day, who would not praise the Lord that we can worship Him under our own vine and fig tree, and none shall make us afraid?” After the benediction they crowded around me in scores, all eager to grasp my hand; they got their hands around me, and even about my neck. Old wrinkled, toothless, ragged women came weeping, and pressed through the crowd to take my hand. Some got on the pulpit stairs and shouted ” Hallelujah;” some got on the seats and stood weeping, looking over to where they crowded around me. I saw men embrace each other, and women, clasping hands, wept and laughed by turns.

Said one to me by way of apology, ” Excuse us; this is a happy day for us.” Some of the brethren made three attempts before they got me out of this throng; there were some hundreds present. One old man I saw weeping; he stood uttering, with intonations I cannot describe, “Come at last, come at last, come at last.”

“Similar expressions I heard on every hand. At 10 A. M. I went out to find a Baptist meeting. All the white congregations of our denomination are scattered and the ministers are fled. So with the Methodists. I went to a group of colored people who had been to a Baptist meeting. They were congratulating each other. ‘This is the most glorious day that Charleston has ever seen,’ said one; another, ‘I shed more tears yesterday than I ever did before ;’ another, ‘ I could not speak to a man yesterday without weeping.’ In fine, whereever I went all seemed joyousness and sunshine. The children were full of glee; the old ones were almost frantic in their demonstrations, and the religious were filled with devout thanksgivings. In the afternoon I preached, according to appointment, in the spacious church where our morning service was held. I preached to more than 1500 people, black and white, citizens and soldiers, from Nehemiah xii, 43, ‘ The joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off.’ This was the first sermon preached in the city after its surrender. I never spoke to a more attentive congregation. When I prayed for the President of the United States there went up from nearly 2000 human beings such an ‘Amen’ as I never heard before. But how can I describe all. Your imagination may aid you to fill in the blank, when you think that these distressed thousands, hungry and naked, as many of them were, at the advent of the United States forces, were ushered at once into safety and freedom. The circumstances were unique, and those present on that occasion will not readily forget it.”

This is the first of many sermons Corey preaches in Charleston over the next several months. Within days he is appointed as pastor of the Wentworth Baptist Church, the former church of Southern Baptist divine Basil Manley.

Sources: “General Sherman’s Blog, February 19, 1865” (link); “The 55th Massachusetts Marches into Charleston,” Massachusetts Sesquicentennial Commission (link); Bennett’s order in “The Civil Officers of the Charleston District,” New York Times, August 9, 1865 (link); Charles Henry Corey, A History of the Richmond Theological Seminary: With With Reminiscences of Thirty Years’ Work Among the Colored People of the South, Richmond: J. W. Randolph, 1895, p. 23-26 (link)