Baptists and the American Civil War: Feburary 27, 1865

Map of Virginia 1860sWhile only minor skirmishes occur this day, in Virginia Union General Ulysses S. Grant orders Major General Phil Sheridan‘s force of some 10,000 cavalry to move south of Winchester on a mission to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and James River Canal. In addition, Sheridan is tasked with capturing Lynchburg, if possible.

Indeed, with Sherman sweeping through South Carolina and Federal forces also advancing in North Carolina, the attention of North and South is increasingly trained upon Virginia, where brave but outnumbered Confederate defenders desperately try to keep Union forces from breaching the lines at Petersburg and marching upon the Confederate capital of Richmond. For the South, the situation is dire enough that extreme measures are now contemplated.

‘”I think the measure not only expedient, but necessary,” Confederate General Robert E. Lee has in recent days declared in a letter now being publicly circulated, concerning the arming of slaves for service in the Confederate Army.

Today’s Richmond Daily Dispatch speaks up in defense of Lee’s bold, and controversial, stance.

This letter is only one of the many evidences which General Lee has given of sagacity, forecast and sound judgment beyond any other public man of the day. He stood almost alone at the beginning of the war in his appreciation of the magnitude and duration of the contest.

Nevertheless, he calmly girded his loins for the unequal contest, and, on his broad Titanic shoulders, has borne with majestic strength and dignity the military fortunes of the Republic. –Through this tremendous struggle he has never faltered, never shown signs of weakness nor despondency, never done a rash act nor uttered a rash word.–Such an image of quiet power, of self-sustained energy, of invincible composure, of moderation in prosperity and dignity in adversity, has not been seen on this continent since the days of George Washington.

This great man, who has lately been called by Congress to the chief command of the Confederate armies, has informed that body, in distinct terms, that the white population of the country cannot carry on the war alone, and that the employment of negro troops is, in his opinion, not only expedient, but necessary. Who so able as himself to judge of that necessity? Will Congress heed the voice of this man, whose sagacity predicted the fearful odds we should have to encounter in this war, whose military skill has enabled us, thus far, to meet those odds successfully, and to whose hands it has just intrusted the supreme command? How can it expect the country to derive benefit from that measure if it refuses him the means for which he calls, and in the manner and form that he recommends? It requires no prophet to foresee that, unless his counsels are heeded, the negroes whom we will not put into our own army will be forced into that of the enemy, adding to the accumulating amount of force which we are resisting with diminished resources, and rendering the future contest a struggle of despair. Should our independence be lost, we may console ourselves as we best can, amid the triumphs of universal emancipation, that we have perished, not by the superior prowess of the enemy, but by our own incurable prejudices and unconquerable obstinacy.

Southern Baptist elites, great fans of Lee and committed to resisting the abolitionist North at any cost, struggle to reconcile the evil of Northern abolition with the prospect of a Southern abolitionist program, even if it is in defense of the slave-based Confederacy.

White Southern Baptists however, do not confine their moral and ethical concerns to denunciations of abolitionism. The war has sharpened their focus on another evil, that of temperance, a subject often found within the pages of war-time Southern Baptist state publications.

Readers of this week’s Virginia Baptist Religious Herald are again reminded of the evils of drunkenness in a commentary by a writer simply identified as “X”.

Just at this time there seems to be a work for the churches to perform, of such importance as to admit of no delay. Every true Christian must be pained, nay more, alarmed at the rapid increase of intemperance in the land. It finds its victims not only among our soldiers, some of whom make the temptations and hardships of camp life an excuse for indulgence, but the citizen likewise, and, alas! that it should be so, even in some instances the church member. On public days and along our public thoroughfares, the heart sickens to behold the drunkenness and to hear the horrid oaths constantly escaping from the lips of men whose senses have been stupified by the poisonous draught.

Temperance societies have had their day, and have done good, but all such organizations must from their nature be short lived. Though not an advocate for total abstinence as a test of church membership, I have long since been convinced that the church of Christ is the right place to look for a real temperance society. It was designed of the church that it should be “a peculiar people,” “a royal priesthood,” “a holy nation,”–a people whose efforts and influence were all to be arrayed against evil. Hence, if intemperance be an evil at all–which some will deny–the people of God should oppose it with one united front. Some may say, “Better wait until the war is over, before any decisive efforts be made.” But why delay! How many are now on the road to ruin, who might be reclaimed if an immediate effort be made, but who, without this effort, will soon be irrecoverably lost. While then we are laboring to send Bibles and tracts to our soldiers, let us not forget home influence. What will avail our labors in the army, if our young men, on returning to their homes, find our church members indifferent in regard to the intemperance prevailing in the land, and, what is even worse, indulging themselves in strong drink. The writer would respectfully suggest, that the pastors of our churches bring the subject directly before the members of their churches, and secure their efforts and influence to stem the tide of vice, and save our dear fellow-men from ruin.

Sources: Brendan Wolfe, “Union Occupation of Charlottesville, 1865,” Encyclopedia Virginia (link); Richmond Daily Dispatch, February 27, 1865 (link); X, “The Churches and Temperance,” Religious Herald, February 23, 1865