Rhode Island Freemasonry during the American Civil War - Part 2

Part 2 of the article Rhode Island Freemasonry during the Civil War, continued from Part 1.

Friend to Friend

Although the growing casualties greatly hampered military moral and public opinion of the war, acts of generosity and kindness were demonstrated by both sides during the conflict.

This kindness and care for the wellness of brother Masons took shape in many forms and actions over the course of the war. Particularly on the battlefield when caring for the dying and interment of remains of brothers regardless of which flag they followed. Masons who found themselves captured in battle who identified themselves as brothers in the Craft, received medical care and letters sent home by brother Masons such as the infamous Andersonville Prison in Georgia.

One instance relates to future president and Mason, William McKinley who described an event in his diary while accompanying a Union surgeon to care for wounded rebel prisoners of war. As they walked, he noticed the doctor shaking hands and distributing a roll of bills to some prisoners. Astonished at these actions, McKinley asked the man if he had known those men. The surgeon replied, "No, but they identified themselves as my brothers." When McKinley questioned if he would receive the money back. The surgeon stated, "If they are able to return the money they will, but it makes no difference to me; they were Masons in trouble, and I am only doing my duty as a Mason." Reflecting on this, McKinley wrote in his diary, "If that is what Masonry is, I want some for myself".

The climax of fighting during the war happened in July 1863 at a small crossroads town in Pennsylvania. It was here the Confederate army of General Lee fresh off a string of victories and the Army of the Potomac battered and bloodied under General Gordon Meade converged at Gettysburg. It was here that over 180,000 soldiers, 18,000 being Masons, engaged in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war; of this number over 50,000 would be casualties by July 3, 1863.

Future brother of Harmony Lodge and Grand Master of Rhode Island, Elisha Hunt Rhodes, a former corporal now captain in the 2nd RI Infantry kept a diary of his experience during the war, discussed a Masonic burial while fighting continued at Gettysburg. A fellow captain in the regiment had told him of a dead Georgia colonel who had been identified as a Mason, and with the assistance of other Masons in the Union ranks had buried their fallen brother. Captain Rhodes was rather confused by the ordeal admitting in his writings that he was not a Mason and did not understand this treatment for the enemy dead. Captain Rhodes would eventually receive a furlough and return to Rhode Island and join the Craft in 1864.

Elisha Rhodes
Most Worshipful Elisha H. Rhodes of Harmony Lodge No. 9 who would command the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry by war’s end and keep a diary chronicling every major engagement of the war

Probably the most famous act by Masons during the war was between Brigadier General Lewis Armistead and Captain Henry Bingham. On July 3, General Amistead heroically led the Confederates that pierced the Union line during Pickett's Charge. Fierce fighting ensued and Amistead was wounded. From accounts, Brother Amistead gave the sign of distress, "as the son of a widow."

Just prior to this, General Winfield Hancock, a Pennsylvanian Mason and good friend of Brother Amistead prior to the war, was also wounded. Captain Henry Bingham, aid-de-camp to General Hancock and a Philadelphia Mason, with other brothers came to the aid of Brother Amistead. Amistead identified himself and entrusted Brother Bingham with his personal belongings including his Masonic watch to give to his friend, Brother Hancock. Brother Amistead was moved for treatment to a Union field hospital where he died days later from his wounds.

The Friend to Friend Memorial at Gettysburg National Cemetery dedicated by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania in 1993, depicts the famous scene of Brothers Amistead and Bingham

Gallantry on the Fields of Battle

The victory at Gettysburg had invigorated the Union. President Lincoln now sought a commander who could finally entrap Lee's army and crush the rebellion. General Ulysses S. Grant, fresh from success at Vicksburg, Mississippi, was selected for the task. From 1863 to 1864, Grant pursued Lee in a succession of swift decisive battles during the Overland Campaign.1863 to 1864, Grant pursued Lee in a succession of swift decisive battles during the Overland Campaign.

Many Rhode Island Masons distinguished themselves in battle during this time. Brother Horatio Roger, Jr. and Nelson Viall of Saint John's No. 1 Providence were promoted for gallantry in combat, both would eventually receive a brevet promotion to Brigadier General.

Brother Viall would take command of the Rhode Island 14th Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment, composed of freed African Americans and officers selected with battlefield experience. The regiment was assigned to New Orleans, Louisiana where it conducted engineering and fortification maintenance. Brother Viall along with other regimental officers established a school for its enlisted soldiers, many who were illiterate and could not write.

Colonel Nelson Viall, commander of Rhode Island’s only all African American unit during the war and member of St. Johns Lodge No. 1 Providence

The Horrid Pit, Petersburg Siege 1864

In the East, Grant forced Lee to fortify the city of Petersburg, Virginia in a prolonged siege. General Burnside returned to the Eastern Theatre and recommended an audacious plan to break the siege.

In the early morning of July 30, 1864, Union sappers detonated a mine under Confederate trenches, creating 35 feet deep, 170 feet across, and 120 ft wide crater. Over 8,000 of Union soldiers including many from Rhode Island stormed the breach only to be trapped once the Confederate defenders regrouped.

The Battle of the Crater resulted in almost 4,000 Union casualties. The 4th RI Infantry lost over half its strength at the end of the fighting reduced to less than two hundred men.

Masonry and the Home Front

On the home front, there was not one Mason who did not have a relative, friend, or Masonic brother in uniform. Degree and regular work continued, and large classes of Masons were raised. Annuals often became public displays of patriotism and support towards the armed forces and President Lincoln.

On February 23, 1865, the Providence Press published an article detailing the annual public banquet of Mount Vernon Lodge. Over two hundred Masons, ladies, and guests were in attendance. Toasts were offered to President Lincoln, the Union, and even General Burnside sent a personal letter to the lodge offering his thanks to the lodge brethren for their invitation and gratitude at being asked to be the keynote speaker for the evening and offered a toast to overall victory. Not knowing the war would be over in a month's time.

Honor Answers Honor, Appomattox

On April 2, 1865, Brother Rhodes now Colonel of the 2nd RI Infantry, led his men and stormed the trenches of Petersburg. One week later, General Lee formally surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865. Brother Rhodes and his regiment who had opened the war four years prior at Bull Run were witnesses to the end of the conflict.

After General Lee's surrender, a column of Confederate soldiers under General Gordon, a Georgian Mason, surrendered their arms and colors to General Joshua Chamberlain, a Mason of Maine, and his brigade. Upon viewing the Confederates, General Chamberlain ordered his men to present arms in salute of their defeated adversary. General Gordon, seeing this, returned the salute to this Union officer and Masonic brother. The War between the states was over.

Brother Chamberlain orders his men to salute their defeated adversary while Brother Gordon returns the sign of respect. Painting by Donald Troiani, 1988

The End of the War

With the end of the war and events of President Lincoln's assassination, the men of the Union armies were mustered out of service. Back home, veterans returned to a heroes' welcome. Many formed chapters of the Grand Army of the Republic, G.A.R. fraternity to remember their fallen comrades, tend grave sites, and decorate graves every May on Decoration Day now Memorial Day. Brothers Slocum and Ballou's graves received new tombstones donated by funds from members of the state's chapters. Rhode Island was one of the first states to recognize Decoration Day and formerly adopted it in 1872.

During the years after the war known as the Reconstruction Era, many Masonic lodges received requests for financial aid to assist their brothers in the war-ravaged South.

Statue of the “everyman soldier” of the Union in North Kingstown dedicated by the Charles Baker Post No. 16 of the G.A.R. in 1912

These actions display the humanity of man during this horrific fighting. Brothers contributed to the humanitarian treatment of their fellow Masons regardless of side and the proper respect to those who died. Masons displayed the utmost loyalty and duty to one another that truly transcended political or personal ideologies and set the example for future brothers of the Craft.

Recorded in the July 26, 1866 secretary's minutes, show that a Masonic committee from Columbia, South Carolina had sent a request to Mount Vernon Lodge for financial assistance to rebuild their Masonic temple and replace their jewels and working tools that had been destroyed during the war.

Upon receiving letters of financial aid for the children of deceased and indigent Masons from the Grand Secretary and Richland Lodge No. 214, Mount Vernon contributed $25.00 per child in Thomasville, North Carolina. Brother Dennis Terrill received a Master Mason's silk apron found in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by a returning soldier and hoped to return it to its proper owner.

Many brothers and veterans who had returned to the Ocean State, would find success in their civilian careers. Although disasters plagued his military career during the war, General Burnside remained a popular leader among his troops and the general-public especially in Rhode Island where he served as governor and senator after the war. Governor Sprague would continue to support the Union cause during the war as a senator and eventually retired to Paris, France. Brother Horatio Rogers, Jr. became Attorney General for Rhode Island. Brother Viall was appointed the first police chief of Providence and warden of the state prison in Cranston. Brother Rhodes returned to Rhode Island and became a successful businessman and served the Craft as Grand Master of Rhode Island in 1893.

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument

Since the end of the war in 1865, the granite quarries in Westerly produced the stones that would be used in the erection of countless memorials and statues dedicated to the memory and heroism of Rhode Island's fighting men in the crusade to free the slaves and preserve the Union. Citizens of Providence and veterans of the G.A.R. saw fit to dedicate a memorial at the west end of Exchange Place in Providence to reflect the honor and memory of all those Rhode Islanders who made the ultimate sacrifice. At the request of the Rhode Island General Assembly, the Grand Lodge was asked to lay the cornerstone for the monument.

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument as seen during Decoration Day in the 1870’s and today in Kennedy Plaza, Providence

On June 24, 1870, thousands of spectators, state, and federal officials, widows & children, veterans, and others from across the country came to view the dedication of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Twenty-two lodges and two Royal Arch Chapters were in attendance alongside six Commanderies and the detached mounted Sir Knights of Cavalry Commandery No. 13. M∴W∴Thomas A. Doyle of St. Johns Lodge No. 1 Providence presided over the ceremony.

A Brotherhood Undivided

The end of the war brought the nation to a new chapter of its history. The trials of the war had reformed the nation but would take many years and even decades to heal, even to some extent, into today.

The actions taken by brothers on both sides during the war displayed the highest virtues of what our institution teaches, humanity and sense of duty to our fellow Masons and brothers. They demonstrated that even while tested, the bonds of fraternity and friendship still endure during the hardships and turmoil of war. The Civil War demonstrated that not only Masons in Rhode Island, but the whole United States of America would ever remain a brotherhood undivided.

W∴ Paul Fetter III, P.M.