Baptists and the American Civil War: November 20, 1864

North Carolina MapSherman‘s army is rapidly marching through Georgia. Feinting toward Augusta on the left and Macon on the right this day, they effectively divide and confuse the remaining Confederate forces in the state. The Federals leave Macon untouched, leaving some 10,000 Confederate soldiers and local guardsmen bewildered yet relieved. Augustans are also concerned, but the Union soldiers do not come. Confederate President Jefferson David and military officers are left scrambling to try and figure out the plans of the Federals and organize an effective resistance.

The town of Madison in Morgan County is in the Federals’ path this day, but Union forces spare the town when a resident of the town, a friend of General Sherman’s brother, appeals to commanding officer Henry Slocum. Thus Madison is spared destruction, although Union soldiers do engage in some looting.

Meanwhile, in Wilmington, North Carolina black members of the First Baptist Church, mostly slaves, leave that congregation and form their own church, the First African Baptist Church. The white-led First Baptist Church granted permission to black members to leave on November 7. Subsequently they organize their own congregation, celebrating newfound religious freedom. No longer are they required to submit to the supervision of a white minister, as they had long been required to do so even in their own meetings.

The experience of black Baptists of Wilmington is similar to that of many other black Baptists throughout the South who successfully petition for autonomy from white churches and, in the closing months of the war, are granted their wishes, whether in part or full. Black Baptists, in short, are seizing the moment as the Confederacy teeters on the brink of defeat.

In 1869 the Wilmington congregation removes the word “African” from their name, and in the years to come assists in the formation of other black churches in coastal North Carolina.

The church exists to the present day as a vibrant congregation.

Sources: Noah Andre Trudeau, “Sherman’s March to the Sea” HistoryNet (link); Georgia History Timeline Chronology 1864 (link); Walter Conser, A Coat of Many Colors: Religion and Society Along the Cape Fear River of North Carolina, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006, pp. 168-169 (link); “History, First Baptist Missionary Church” (link); Ben Steelman, “First Baptist Missionary Church to Mark Milestone,” Wilmington Star News, November 6, 2014 (link)