by Robert Morrison
February 28, 2013
More than anything else, it was courage that changed history in the Civil War. Historians have tried for a century and a half to explain this incredible outbreak of violence in the middle of a century of progress and enlightenment. Author Shelby Foote famously told the makers of Ken Burns’s PBS series, The Civil War, that we Americans had failed at the one thing we prided ourselves on: our ability to compromise. Because neither side could yield, he said, it came to war. Mary Boykin Chesnut, the great Southern lady, said in her diary that the war came “because we hated each other so.”
In today’s cultural crisis, we are seeing some of these same dangerous emotions arise. Last summer, FRC was invaded and my friend, Leo Johnson, was shot by a young man who said that we were the haters. “It’s not you, man, it’s this place. It’s what it stands for,” said the assailant as he shot Leo. Let’s check the logic on that one: He thinks we hate, so he shoots Leo.
Maybe it’s the irrationality of our day and the feeling that, in Shakespeare’s words, “the time is out joint” that drives me increasingly to the past, to find inspiration and hope from the fact that here in America we once tore ourselves apart for four bloody years and yet still managed to bind up the nation’s wounds. We are stronger for it.
One of my friends is opposed to Black History Month. He says it only perpetuates the notion of a separate history for black Americans when, in fact, black folks have been here since 1619. Blacks were here to greet my earliest immigrant ancestors. There is literally no history of the United States apart from the history of black Americans. My friend, Gordon, should know. His ancestors fought in an Indiana Colored Regiment in the Civil War.
Corporal Henry Gooding fought in the first and most famous of these Colored units, Massachusetts’ 54th Regiment. Corporal Gooding was not an ex-slave. He was what was then called a free man of color. He had apparently been educated in Upstate New York (since Massachusetts raised the first black regiment, many a young man came from other Northern and Eastern states to rally to the colors.)
On the Altar of Freedom is a collection of Corporal Gooding’s reports from his unit. In the first part of the book, the corporal manages to make even camp routine—training, drilling, cleaning, cooking, and prayer meetings—sound attractive and interesting. One day, as the 54th is on parade, proudly bearing their 1853 Enfield rifles, a large group of civilians came out from Boston to watch. “I could not but put the question to myself, when I saw so many strong, able-bodied young men, why are you not here? Why come as spectators when there is ample chance for you to become actors? I felt a mingled feeling of joy and sorrow—joy, because I felt the men who stood as actors in the scene were superior, in the eyes of all patriotic men, to those who came to see the show; sorrow, for these men who had the effrontery to come here and look patronizingly upon those who are…going to secure them a home hereafter.” He doesn’t tell us whether the onlookers are white or black. It’s sufficient to know that Henry Gooding believes they have a duty to join the great Union cause.
Corporal Gooding’s letters are published in a Massachusetts newspaper under the heading of “Monitor.” A monitor is one who watches and guards. It was the name of the famous Union ironclad of 1862. From internal evidence, it seems that he had once been a sailor. He wrote poems about his travels to Muslim lands, to Scotland, England, and France. And, amazingly for that time, Corporal Gooding cites the Swiss philosopher, Vattel, one of those most referenced on human rights. Gen. Beauregard, the Confederate commander at Charleston, South Carolina, refers to Vattel in protesting Union assaults that destroyed private dwellings. Henry Gooding knows that millions of his fellow black Americans are being denied their liberty by Gen. Beauregard, so he is less than persuaded.
When Col. Robert Shaw, the white officer who led the 54th Regiment, was killed in the assault on Fort Wagner, his body is thrown in a ditch along with those of his fallen black soldiers. Gooding contrasts this unchivalrous treatment with the care Col. Shaw had taken to give a dead rebel officer a proper military burial. When his troops raise $1472 for a monument to Col. Shaw, Henry Gooding contributes, but he disagrees with its placement.
Amazingly, he writes “it would ill become us to flaunt our success by raising monuments to our fallen heroes on their soil.” Besides, he wants the Bay State to honor her favorite son. “[Massachusetts] was the first to say a black was a man, let her have the first monument raised by black men’s money, upon her good old rocks.”
This brave, literate and deeply feeling young Christian warrior, Corporal Gooding, died as a prisoner of war—in dreaded Andersonville.
The diary kept by my own ancestor, Capt. Jonas Alexander Lipps of the 50th Virginia infantry, is also a marvel. Uncle Jonas was in the Stonewall Brigade and took part in every famous battle up to May, 1864, when he was captured outside Chancellorsville.
Capt. Lipps was stabbed by a Union guard in the minutes after his capture. He pulled out the rifle and bayonet and ran it through the guard, killing him. Jonas was not harmed. The Union captain witnessed the incident and called it, rightly, self-defense.
Jonas was taken with 600 other Confederate officer prisoners and placed outside the Union batteries at Fort Morris, near Charleston, S.C., very near where Cpl. Gooding had served. In reprisal for the Confederates’ tying Union POWs to lampposts inside the city, Jonas and his brothers were tied up and subjected to “friendly fire” for 31 days.
Jonas’s diary entry tells of an amazing vision he sees while under fire.
September 21, 1864: On Morris Island the forenotes has give the particulars of the day. In good health by the help of God. Must make a note of my vision on last night more than ever experienced before in my dreams, I had a view of being at the assembly of my fathers family prayers and that I had a view of the solistial [celestial]home in heaven which I rejoiced in my sleeping dose. The view was beautiful for the hope of Mortal man. Surviving on this earth having the view death and departure of this life all viewed beautiful and inclined to go for the reward that is not made by hand of Mortal man but in his reach by humble submission before him who is able to save from all danger and the way is strait and may be found by the[h]umbleness of man by faith.
Facing death every day for a month, Jonas’s thoughts go to Heaven and his father’s house of prayer. He would not live to see his father again. Jonas at 24 died a prisoner at Camp Delaware, just three days after Appomattox.
Is this not the answer to the culture war we are in? We must struggle and prayerfully prevail, but we must remember men like Corporal Gooding and Captain Lipps, warriors on opposite sides, but both men of faith, love, and courage.