Rhode Island Freemasonry during the American Civil War - Part 1

In Kennedy Plaza is the Soldiers & Sailors Monument, and on its tablets are etched the 1,727 names of Rhode Islanders who made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the Union and free men and women from the bonds of servitude

Introduction
One of the amazing aspects about our little state is its history not only about our nation, but our Masonic past. With everything going on today in our crazy world, its sometimes difficult to compare our own hardships with those of our ancestors and past brothers. In Kennedy Plaza stands a 40-foot-tall granite monument adorned with dark bronze oxidized tablets and statues of soldiers, sailors and old Columbia.

This is the Soldiers & Sailors Monument and on its tablets are etched the 1,727 names of Rhode Islanders who made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the Union and free men and women from the bonds of servitude during the American Civil War. Among these names are brothers of the Craft who firmly believe these tenents of Union and freedom and paid for these convictions with the ultimate price they could give.

Freemasonry of the 19th Century
In the years prior to the war, Freemasonry in Rhode Island had experienced its own period of trials and tribulations during the anti-Masonic period of the 1820s and 1830s and the Dorr Rebellion of the 1840s. During this time of political and social unrest, many lodges surrendered their civil charters to the Grand Lodge and went underground for a time. By the late 1840s into the 1850s, membership began to increase and saw major growth by the late 1850s. Throughout the war, Rhode Island Masonry would be led by M∴W∴Ariel Ballou Grand Master from Morning Star Lodge No. 13 of Woonsocket. Around the country, there were an estimated 500,000 Masons. Many would enlist to fight for either the North or South in the upcoming conflict.

Rhode Island the First to Answer
On the morning of April 12, 1861, the peaceful skies around Charleston harbor, South Carolina were forever shattered as merciless Confederate artillery assailed the Union held Fort Sumter. While the southern states began to prepare for war with the federal government in Washington, DC, Rhode Island politicians, citizens, and Masons heard the news. Since the Revolution, Rhode Island had transformed from a rural and maritime trading center to one of New England's primary textile and tool manufacturing producers, in cities such as Providence, Woonsocket, and Pawtucket.

President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to end the rebellion was answered post haste by Rhode Island. Governor William Sprague IV along with other influential Rhode Islanders began the process of raising troops. He telegraphed a West Point graduate and former army officer about taking command of the Rhode Island troops. This former officer had been stationed at Fort Adams in Newport and was now employed by the Illinois Central Railroad. This man was Ambrose Burnside, and he immediately accepted Governor Sprague’s offer.

1st Rhode Island Detached Militia prepare to move from Providence to Washington
1st Rhode Island Detached Militia prepare to move from Providence to Washington

Regiments such as the 1st Rhode Island Detached Militia Infantry and the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, Company A were composed of men from various town militia units such as the Kentish Guard and the Providence Marine Corps of Artillery that served as the foundation of military order and discipline for future infantry and artillery regiments.

Masonic brothers from around the state enlisted in order to preserve the Union. As Brother Sullivan Ballou of Morning Star Lodge No. 13 of Woonsocket explains in a letter to his wife, Sarah, before leaving Providence for Washington, "our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O’ God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing, perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government and to pay that debt."

Brother Sullivan Ballou
Brother Sullivan Ballou

Many lodges around the state expedited degrees upon candidates and had annual dues paid for those enlisting. As the case with Brother John H. Sweet of Mount Vernon No. 4 who at the outbreak of war served as Senior Deacon. With brothers flocking to fill the ranks of the Union Army, the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island saw fit to establish a traveling military lodge for brothers to continue to practice the Craft while serving. American Union Lodge was granted a dispensation and charter with brothers from the 1st Rhode Island Infantry Volunteers forming the membership. On April 18, 1861, soldiers and cannons from Battery A arrived in Washington establishing Camp Sprague, followed by the 1st RI Infantry on April 20, 1861, and the 2nd RI Infantry and another artillery battery in May at the mustering point.

Original Charter of American Union Lodge organised in April 1861. Rhode Island Grand Lodge Library collection
Original Charter of American Union Lodge organised in April 1861. Rhode Island Grand Lodge Library collection

The Battle of Bull Run, Virginia
On July 21, 1861, the Union Army departed its encampment outside of Washington to confront the Confederate forces converging at Manassas junction near Bull Run Creek. That morning the Rhode Island brigade under Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside formed the vanguard of the Union attack at Matthew’s Hill, firing some of the first volleys of the war.

General Burnside seated center and Rhode Island officers of the regiment pose at Camp Sprague 1861
General Burnside seated center and Rhode Island officers of the regiment pose at Camp Sprague 1861

At that instance, Brother Slocum fell mortally wounded from an enemy bullet that struck his head. Brother Slocum, who was one of the few men with military experience prior to the Civil War, his death shocked his men who continued to fight until ammunition became scarce. With reinforcements lead by General Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson, the Confederates were able to turn defeat into victory and rout the Union Army.

When news of the defeat reached home, Masonic bodies and citizens alike mourned the losses at Bull Run. At Mt. Vernon Lodge No. 4, the secretary’s minutes read during the August 15 meeting, "our brother, John S. Slocum, was slain at the Battle of Bull Run, in Virginia, while leading the 2nd Regiment of Rhode Island Volunteers in the defense of his country…He has fallen in the noble effort to prevent the destruction of our glorious Union of States. In a token of our respect for his memory, our altar will be draped in mourning for the space of thirty days."

 

A pencilled illustration depicting the RI 2nd Infantry engaging the Confederates at Bull Run
A pencilled illustration depicting the RI 2nd Infantry engaging the Confederates at Bull Run

This was not the only action by Masons to honor the memory of their deceased brothers. A Masonic committee was established and with the support of Governor Sprague, citizens returned to the battlefield to reclaim the bodies of the state’s fallen soldiers and return them home.

In March of 1862, the party lead by Governor Sprague traveled to Virginia and exhumed the remains of Brother Slocum and others from their shallow graves at Bull Run. Brother Ballou’s remains could not be found. Locals informed the Rhode Islanders that in the aftermath of the battle, a group of Confederate soldiers wishing to desecrate the remains of Colonel Slocum in retribution for the regiment’s gallant performance during the battle, mistook Brother Ballou’s body for Slocum. All that was retrieved of Brother Ballou was some scraps of uniform, charred bones, and ash.

When the party returned to Rhode Island, the remains of Brother Slocum and Ballou were interred at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence on June 22,1862. The Masonic funeral procession was composed of brothers and officers of Mt. Vernon Lodge, Morning Star Lodge, Cavalry Commandery, and the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island, under the direction of M∴W∴Ariel Ballou Grand Master.

Colonel John Slocum of the 2nd RI Infantry Regiment at Bull Run and Brother of Mt Vernon Lodge
Colonel John Slocum of the 2nd RI Infantry Regiment at Bull Run and Brother of Mt Vernon Lodge

The first major engagement would have lasting impacts upon the public’s conscience for the rest of the war. Soon those brothers on the home front would be tested, not by bullets and the fatigue of battle, but care for the wounded and financial aid to the widows and families of deceased brothers.

The Bloodiest Day for Rhode Island
The reminder of 1861 to 1862 saw our brothers in the service fighting multiple military campaigns from the east to west. Rhode Island units contributed to Union successes at Shiloh, General Burnside’s coastal campaign in North Carolina, and Antietam. Thus, halting the Confederate advance into Union territory and giving President Lincoln victory he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This political executive order changed the reason of fighting the war, to not only preserve the Union, but to destroy the institution of slavery in the southern states and freeing African Americans from its yoke.

In December of 1862, under pressure from the War Department and President Lincoln, General Burnside who had reluctantly taken overall command of the Union’s Army of the Potomac in its Eastern theatre ordered the army to attack the Confederate army under General Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg, Virginia in hopes to end the war. December 13, 1862 would be the single bloodiest day for Rhode Island.

Wave after wave of blue coated soldiers were sent to storm the heavily fortified Confederate positions on Marye’s Heights but were repulsed by brutal unrelenting canister fire and Minié balls. The 12th RI Infantry disintegrated under fire leaving the 7th RI Infantry to advance alone losing a man every yard. As one Union soldier stated observing the carnage, "Barrels of blood had been poured on the ground."

At dusk of that December day, seventy-five Rhode Islanders were dead and another three hundred more wounded. Brother George Bucklin, a member of Mount Vernon Lodge, Company K, 12th R.I. Infantry was one of the wounded; succumbing to his injuries on January 9, 1863. He was twenty-four years old at the time of his death. The aftermath of the disastrous defeat saw General Burnside step down as commander of the Army of the Potomac and take a command in the Western Theatre of the war.

(To be continued next issue)

W∴ Paul Fetter III, P.M.