150 Years Ago
In their own words
Like a towering, thundering wave crashing upon the shore, the army of U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant finally breaks through the Confederate lines at Petersburg on the morning of the second day of the month, a Sunday.
It is the moment the North has long awaited, and the moment long dreaded by Confederate officials. Having rolled up Rebel defenses, the road to Richmond is open.
Within hours a telegram is delivered to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who is attending a Sunday morning church service. The message is from the commander of the South’s armies, Gen. Robert E. Lee: “I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight.”
Jumping up, Davis rushes to his office and instructs officials to destroy government documents and then leave town. Stacks of papers are hauled outside and set ablaze.
Startled observers see the flames. As the smoke drifts skyward, rumors begin swirling around town. Something is wrong. Has the fighting at Petersburg been renewed?
At four o’clock in the afternoon the departure of the Confederate government is formally announced. Mayhem immediately ensues.
From late afternoon through the night, Richmond’s white elites stream out of town. On horseback, in train cars and carriages and skiffs and boats, or pulling carts, they take what they can.
During the night, Confederate soldiers work quickly to destroy the stocks of tobacco, cotton and food stored in warehouses. When local poor whites see the massive quantities of food being brought out of secret storage, they react with disbelief, having for many months lived on the edge of starvation because of Confederate officials’ insistence that there was a shortage of food.
An enraged crowd quickly forms and begins looting at will. Amid the looting, soldiers set fire to tobacco and cotton bales. The flames mingle with those from piles of government documents yet burning.
The wind picks up, spreading the flames to the business district. Loaded shells at the ironworks go off, then the arsenals aboard docked warships explode with such force that windows are shattered for a radius of two miles.
The morning of April 3 dawns on a city devastated, and devoid of most of its leading white citizens. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is notified.
“Thank God,” the president responds. “I have lived to see this! It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone. I want to see Richmond.”
Union troops march into the city to the cheers of blacks who were slaves just hours earlier. The sight of black troops brings joyous tears to the eyes of many.
The arrival of Lincoln on April 4, however, elicits the greatest response of all. Instantly recognizing the president, former slaves greet the man who is widely viewed as their Moses.
Adm. David D. Porter, accompanying Lincoln, describes the scene: “As far as the eye could see, the streets were alive with negroes and poor whites rushing in our direction…. They all wanted to shake hands with Mr. Lincoln or [touch] his coat tail or even to kneel down and kiss his boots!”
With Richmond fallen, Lee surrenders to Grant on April 9 at Appomattox, Va. Although some Confederate forces remain afield and Jefferson Davis is not captured until weeks later, the war is effectively over.
The rebellious states have been defeated, the Union preserved. Four long, agonizing years and more than 600,000 deaths have been required to fulfill the promises of 1776 that bound the original colonies together.
“All men are created equal,” the “unanimous Declaration of the 13 united States of America” had boldly decreed back then. “Liberty” is an inherent “right.” And “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,” the Declaration had trumpeted.
The southern states had denied these very words of the nation’s founders, insisting that liberty belonged to whites only. For almost a century southern white elites had enriched themselves off of slave labor, preaching white solidarity while leaving crumbs to common white folk and censuring dissenting voices.
Many Baptist elites in the South had joined the chorus, sanctifying black slavery with a literal interpretation of the Bible while condemning evil northerners, including Baptists, who insisted that God willed freedom for all people.
The South had gone to war with the North for the stated purpose of preserving black slavery. But God’s hand ultimately found expression in northern military might, bestowing freedom to all and thus completing the American Revolution — or so many northerners believe as celebrations erupt throughout the North.
As joyful as are the northerners, the bitterness and despair of many white southerners is every bit as visceral. An actor and Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth, hateful of Lincoln as have been many southerners during the war, seeks revenge.
On April 14, five days after Lee’s surrender, Booth assassinates the president, shocking the world. Seemingly no one is left untouched by the murder.
Northerners are outraged and deeply saddened. In the days and weeks following the killing, from many Baptist pulpits in the North, black and white alike, flow tributes to Lincoln for his sacrificial commitment to freedom. On the other hand, many white southerners believe Lincoln got what he deserved. Others, especially the poor, mourn.
Blacks everywhere are shocked, while many are fearful. God’s agent, their deliverer, is dead. Might their newfound freedom somehow be snatched away?
Nonetheless, celebrations of freedom are held in many black Baptist churches. Former slaves praise God and Lincoln’s Republican Party. At an April 23 gathering at the State Street Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala., the packed crowd of former slaves sings:
Free workmen in the cotton-field,
And in the sugar cane;
Free children in the common school,
With nevermore a chain.
Then rally, Black Republicans —
Aye, rally! We are free!
We‘ve waited long
To sing the song —
The song of liberty
The immediate post-war years are full of promise and hope for black citizens in the South and North. The 13th Amendment formally ends slavery in December 1865, while the 14th and 15th amendments in the years following extend legal protections to blacks and decree that suffrage cannot be predicated on the basis of race.
En masse in the South, black Baptists leave white churches and form hundreds, then thousands, of autonomous congregations. Some individuals, such as South Carolinian and war hero Robert Smalls, become political leaders in state houses and in Washington, D.C.
Others, having served in the Union military, trade their soldier uniforms for clerical garments. Collectively, black Baptists begin establishing denominational structures to help in the tasks of missions, education and uplift of the black race. Many northern Baptists, black and white alike, provide assistance.
White southerners confront a land destroyed and a society, culture and economy devoid of slave labor. Southern Baptists face the daunting prospects of rebuilding their churches and denomination, eventually emerging organizationally stronger than ever.
Southern ideologues, meanwhile, set about turning defeat into victory. Unwilling to concede that the South was in the wrong in going to war with the North, they create a narrative of righteousness.
Southern Baptist leaders such as John William Jones, well-known Confederate chaplain and denominational administrator, play prominent roles in this task. Ignoring the historical records of the Confederacy that clearly portrayed the South as going to war to preserve black slavery, Jones and other southern apologists create a “Lost Cause” mythology, recasting the war as a noble and moral fight for states rights and southern traditions.
While the godless North won the war due to military dominance, the superior southern way of life had not been conquered. Quietly set aside in public discourse is the fact that “states rights” and the “traditional” southern “way of life” were shorthand for black slavery. The new narrative thus preserves white supremacy while downplaying slavery.
Nonetheless, many remain convinced that God yet wills that the black race be subservient to the white. Some openly voice such sentiments. In the 1890s Southern Baptists support efforts to take freedoms away from blacks, including the implementation of apartheid laws and the suppression of black votes.
The end of the war, it turns out, is anything but. Not only are blacks in the post-war South gradually stripped of many of the freedoms to which they are legally entitled as American citizens, but racism remains all too real in the post-war North.
The Civil War was thus a second revolution, but an incomplete one. Legislatively, full freedom and equality for black citizens will not come until the passing of another 100 years. BT
By Bruce Gourley
—Bruce Gourley is executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society and online editor/contributing writer for Baptists Today.
The final article; next, the book
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more than four years we have followed the month-by-month summaries of Baptist engagement in and interpretations of the American Civil War 150 years ago. This is the final article in the series. However, Bruce Gourley has graciously agreed to let us publish this well-researched and insightful material in book form. Sponsors will have their names in the book and receive a signed copy. The $100 sponsorship, minus the cost of the book, is a charitable gift. Make your contribution online at baptiststoday.org/donate or mail to Baptists Today, P.O. Box 6318, Macon, GA 31201-6318. Please indicate the gift is for the “Gourley book.” Thank you.