The American Civil War 150th Anniversary: In God we trust…

September 1861 isn’t mentioned in the Library of Congress and Smithsonian online Civil War timelines that I have decided to use as references for the next almost four years.

The important things seem to have all begun earlier in the year:

  • The formation of the Confederacy in January and its growth over time, and that all-important limitation on its growth when politics and Union military pressure prevented Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri from seceding;
  • Colonel Robert E. Lee’s resignation of his US Army commission;
  • The attack on Fort Sumter and the Confederate victory at the first battle of Manassas/Bull Run (North and South gave different names to battles; I will list the winner’s name first for each one in this series, and when it was a draw, the South’s name for the battle first, just because);
  • The Union blockade of Confederate ports, and the South’s response with fast, light blockade-running ships.

But there is a break in those 1861 timelines between the end of July and November. I like to think that, although it was dawning on President Lincoln and other decision-makers that they now had a protracted war on their hands – one that would forever leave its mark on this nation no matter who won – most people were setting aside the political and military excitement because the crops were coming in.

Perhaps 150 years ago today, most Americans on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line were still more in tune with the old ways of life – overseeing the harvest and preparing for the winter just as they always had. Many probably had simple faith that their viewpoint would prevail in the greater struggle or that God’s will would be done. It was enough, maybe, in the fall of 1861.

The truth shall set you free

Today, younger people, and many older ones, get uncomfortable when you bring up religion. As a member of the generations that so secularized this profoundly religious country back in the mid-20th century, I can understand that, and yet as a person raised a Protestant Christian and now a practicing Theravadan Buddhist, I also think I know that those without an abiding faith are missing a lot.

I won’t force anyone to agree with me about that, of course. This is not done in modern America, but the reasons for that respect of other people’s beliefs or lack thereof have become jumbled over time, at least in the public arena.

It’s difficult to talk about such things.  And yet we must, if we are to understand our own history: not just the whole abolition movement in America, with its roots in northern churches, but also the civil rights movement of the 1960s that was faith-based and led by ministers.

There is a reason for the saying, “The truth shall set you free.”

It is not coincidence that the same generation who gave us our heritage, including Amendment 1 to the US Constitution, also found it self-evident that we “are endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Today Jefferson could not put those two sentences together like that.  We now have a very strong belief (a faith, if you will) that there is an uncrossable wall between the state and religion.

We fear that religion will explode in our faces.

We remember the yelling, the anger, the deaths and pain of the 1960s – and the 1860s, for that matter – and we think that religion caused it, not choosing to see the healing properties of true faith, and its ability to unify and inspire.

We forget what G. K. Chesterton pointed out in Orthodoxy (1909):

Morality did not begin by one man saying to another, “I will not hit you if you do not hit me”; there is no trace of such a transaction.  There IS a trace of both men having said, “We must not hit each other in the holy place.”  They gained their morality by guarding their religion.  They did not cultivate courage.  They fought for the shrine, and found they had become courageous.  They did not cultivate cleanliness.  They purified themselves for the altar, and found that they were clean.

In response to this, modern Americans can only stop thinking, figuratively sticking their fingers in their ears and going “I can’t hear you!”

It’s easy enough to do, but we miss so much of our heritage that way.  In a sense, we become a little like those rural Americans during the harvest of 1861, blind to the terrible things that were approaching.

We now know what they would have to endure, but we lack a future perspective for ourselves.  What harvest will we and our children reap for our bold attempts to let go of “superstition” and attempt to establish secular moral guidelines instead?

That old-time religion

Fortunately, I don’t have to go there in this series.  It’s much more pleasant to poke around the remnants of the past that have survived.

Religion was something tangible in those days, even more than it was in the First Congregationalist church in western Massachusetts during my childhood in the 1950s.

1860 Church plaque

Church in Cohoes, New York. Inscription reads "REFORMED Protestant Dutch Church. ORGANIZED 1837 This house erected 1860"

In this town of Cohoes, for example, they were very proud of their churches, as just this one example shows. Cohoes had many other churches, too, as well as a great big textile mill and several forward-thinking citizens, including Horace Silliman, a druggist who did well in the mid-19th century and was active in the Presbyterian church, as well as being a stockholder in the local mills.

During the Civil War, Silliman helped raise troops and funds, and was always there to greet local soldiers upon their return. He also built a church here in memory of his parents. It was quite the local landmark but no longer exists. That story will have to wait to the next post, though.

(Note: This image is posted under Creative Commons – Attribution license.)

Categories: American Civil War

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