“Our fraternity embraces the whole in bonds of charity; as Masons we know no North, no South, no East or West; yet we know our country and brotherhood everywhere. Peace and harmony are the mission in our order. Whatever individuals may feel to be their duty as citizens, let us not forget our brotherhood. Let no bitter personal animosities spring up among us. Let us remember the fraternal cord and its duties. We can do much to assuage the bitterness of the present with all men, and especially with those of our household. May the God of Love keep you all in harmony and brotherly love.”
Marcus H. McFarland
Grand Master of Missouri
Free & Accepted Masons May 27, 1861
Freemasonry’s roots are firmly planted in commitment. With every step in his Masonic progress, from his initial entry as a stranger into the Symbolic Lodge and wherever his Masonic journey may take him thereafter, a Mason is caused to pause and reflect upon the nature of his duties to his fellowman, his country, his Creator and to himself and he is given repeated assurance that his Masonic obligations will not conflict with those universal duties for which all men must one day stand accountable. His obligations as a Mason are voluntarily assumed, for the most part unenforceable and, essentially, a matter of honor—a commitment to live life in harmony with lofty ideals and precepts. If any one point is stressed repeatedly, above all others in Masonry, it would be that a man’s duties and Masonic obligations will not conflict. But is that really the case? Are there times when such conflicts do occur, and choices must be made between duties and obligations, and if so, are there priorities to be assigned when “Duty, Honor, Country,” “Faith, Hope, Charity,” and “Brotherly love, relief and Truth” collide?
The histories of warfare since the founding of Freemasonry record numerous acts of military courtesy to foes attributable to fraternal ties. The annals of the uncivil American Civil War are replete with incidents in which fathers were pitted against sons, and brothers, both blood and fraternal, against brothers. This paper is not intended to serve as a compendium of Masonic interaction between otherwise hostile forces occurring during the Civil War; there are available numerous, voluminous, excellent sources contributing to a wealth of information available on that fascinating subject. Rather, I have tapped into several of those resources and selected several incidents for closer scrutiny in the context of the dilemma any God-fearing patriot in trying circumstances might have experienced in attempting to balance the duties owed his God, his country and his fellowman in light of the additional obligations he would have assumed as a Freemason. There are times, we will find, when these duties and obligations conflict. As you will note from these examples, sometimes choices in such cases were neither easily made, nor are they made without compromise of commitments and even personal risk.
By the onset of the American Civil War, Freemasonry had made great progress in recovering from the tragic aftermath of the Morgan Affair. Of the thirty-million people – men, women and children in America in1861, five-hundred thousand, or about 1.67% were Free and Accepted Masons. Masons comprised about eleven percent of those who came under arms during the course of hostilities and they were in the fray from the euphoric beginning to the bitter end.2
From the April, 1861surrender of the federal force occupying Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor by Major Robert Anderson, a member of Mercer Lodge No. 50, Trenton, New Jersey and later of Columbian Commandery No. 1, New York City,3 to a South Carolina militia unit under the command of General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, CSA, a Louisiana Mason and Knight Templar,4 to the April, 1865 surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia by his surrogate, Major General John B. Gordon, CSA, wounded eight times5 during the conflict and a member of Gate City Lodge No. 2, of Atlanta, Georgia,6 to Union General Grant, accepted by his surrogate, Brigadier General Joshua L. Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg, six times wounded, awarded the Medal of Honor and a member of United Lodge No. 8, of Brunswick, Maine, the fraternity was well represented on both sides of the conflict. Between those monumental bookend events are found some incidents where the conflicts of values encountered were technical and occasionally even humorous, and others in which the actors faced life and death decisions.
We leave our politics at the door of the lodge; or so it is said, but in 1861, Masons were not of one mind on that question. By and large, those who wore the purple of the fraternity during the course of the conflict defended the sanctity of the lodge as a refuge for those brothers struggling with their individual concepts of duty and obligation. Missouri Grand Master McFarland walked a narrow line and stands out as a statesman for the Craft in his state, where sympathies ran strong both for and against secession and Masons in nearly equal numbers took up arms for North and South. Early in the conflict The Grand Lodge of Virginia was falsely accused of forbidding “…those working under its jurisdiction to recognize or hold Masonic intercourse with Masons who adhere to their allegiance to the Union.” by a group of Masons seeking a dispensation from the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia to establish a lodge in Alexandria. This supposed edict was false, but led many captured Union soldiers who were Masons and imprisoned in Virginia to conceal that fact.7
The Grand Master of Indiana, John B. Fravel, refused to let a lodge expel one of its members who joined the Confederate Army. The committee from the lodge called for him to “Expel him, and expel him quickly; and should you every catch him engaged in his unholy purposes, treat him just as you would the assassin who, in the dead hour of night, would with stealth enter your bed-chamber, and there, while carrying out his purposes of robbery, plunge the dagger to the heart of the wife reposing on your bosom.”8 The committee’s plea was emotional and its reasoning in support of expulsion is somewhat unclear, yet it appears to posit the proposition that the brother in question’s concept of duty “to country,” should have been read as duty “to the United States.” The Grand Master, as is the habit of Grand Masters, prevailed, and in so doing seems to have tacitly ratified the proposition that obligatory Masonic duties would not conflict with a man’s duties to his country, whatever subjective understanding of country he might entertain. It appears then, that just as symbolic freemasonry does not presume to influence a man’s chosen pathway to his God, it will abstain from judging his concept of country. So it would seem, at least, in Indiana, in 1863.
In Louisiana, we find two examples of divergent views when obligations to a distressed brother conflict with duties owed one’s country.
In the first example, Brother Edwin Cole, of Hope Lodge No. 244, New York City, a Union soldier was wounded and captured at the first Battle of Bull Run. After recuperation in a Richmond, Virginia hospital, Brother Cole was transferred to a Confederate prison camp in New Orleans. The camp was visited by a Southern gentleman who through conversing with the prisoners learned that Cole and eight other prisoners were Masons. He left, and returned in short order with packages containing food, clothing, medicines and other supplies. He then disclosed that he was J.W.A. Fellows, Grand Master of Louisiana. A public outcry arose in the State, but the Grand Lodge backed their Grand Master and after the initial group of prisoners was transferred elsewhere, he continued his kindness toward other Masonic prisoners, earning the gratitude of the Grand Lodges of several northern states.9 Although subjected to public chastisement for his fraternal charity, Most Worshipful Brother Fellows found no conflict between his obligation and his own and his enemy’s duty to country.
Every second weekend in June, commemorative events in St. Francisville, Louisiana, mark the day on which the war (at least in St. Francisville) is said to have stopped, for the funeral of Lt. Commander John E. Hart, USN, late captain of the Union gunboat USS Albatross.10 Hart, his Executive Officer, Theodore B. Dubois and at two other officers of the ship’s crew were Masons, Hart being a member of Schenectady No. 6 in the state of New York.11 For several days in June of 1863, the Albatross had patrolled the Mississippi above and below the town of St. Francisville. The captain suffered from debilitating dyspepsia, or gastric reflux disease, without benefit of modern day antacids and had been confined to his cabin for several days.12 On the afternoon of June 11, he shot himself in a fit of delirium. The following morning, a small boat bearing Brother Dubois and several others of the ship’s officers was sent ashore under flag of truce to inquire if there were any Masons in the town. At this point, there are two versions of the events that followed. The popular version has it that Dubois then met two Masons, who guided him to the lodge, Feliciana Lodge No. 31, F. & A.M. where he learned that the master, S.J. Powell, was a Confederate officer otherwise engaged in leading troops in the area. The senior warden and acting master, William W. Leake, a Confederate officer, was informed that the visiting brethren desired assistance in conducting a Masonic funeral for their captain. Brother Leake is said to have responded “I am an officer in the Confederate Army. As a soldier, I consider it a duty to permit the burial of a deceased member of the army or navy of any government, even if, as in the present instance, there is war between that government and my own. As a Mason, I know it to be my duty to accord Masonic burial to the remains of a Brother Mason, without taking into account the nature of his relations in the outer world.” 13 The following day, under flag of truce and with an escort of fifty marines from the crew, the two Masonic officers led a funeral procession, joined in by local brothers, to the Grace Episcopal Church Cemetery where brother Hart was laid to rest with full military and Masonic honors. After the services, the local Masons were invited to join the Union group for dinner aboard the Albatross, but they declined.14 Masonic charity could not transcend for long the reality of war.
Writing of the event to a friend in later years, Brother Dubois was both gracious and eloquent in his praise of the local Masons.15 Yet in another letter, this to a Brother Christie, he was more candid. He said that when he first approached the church for permission to bury Hart, he was told that the lots were all private; except for one section held by the Masons and that the lodge was to meet the following night. “Brother Dubois had great difficulty in gaining admission to the lodge, as they considered him an enemy who had come to deprive them of their homes and liberty and they wished to have nothing to do with him. He replied: ‘I am a Master Mason in good standing among Brother Masons, and belong to a regularly constituted Lodge of such. I wish to be examined for admission to this Lodge, to lay before the Lodge a supplication that no good Mason can deny. I crave, I demand, the right of the ancient and just principles of Masonry, and I will publish you to the Masonic world. In the body of a just Lodge there can be neither politics nor civil war.’ After some further discussion, the lodge sent out a committee to examine him which was an examination tougher than any he ever had before or after. He was then admitted and his request heard.”16
From this version of the dialogue leading to the funeral, it appears that without Dubois’ stubborn persistence, the lodge would have denied an otherwise proper request on behalf of a distressed brother on the basis of his allegiance to country. Had they done so, their modern day descendants in St. Francisville would not have cause one weekend each June for celebrating the event with a festival, complete with plays, dancing in period costume and re-enactment of the funeral, featuring in leading roles during the June 12, 13 and 14, 2009 festival, W.W. Leake’s great-great grandson and Frank Karwowski, a member of Commander Hart’s lodge, St. George’s, of Schenectady, New York.17 Whichever version is the true account, let it be noted that the in due course, the Masonic favor was granted.
Let us continue, with the saga of Private L.J. Williams, 114th New York Volunteers, who enlisted in the Union Army at the beginning of the war. Prior to leaving home, he petitioned Downsville Lodge No. 464 where he was initiated and passed to the degree of Fellowcraft before being called to duty.18 He was captured by Confederate forces and imprisoned near Savannah, Georgia. News of his capture reached his home lodge where his brethren sprang into action. Somehow, his lodge established contact with Zerubbabel Lodge No. 15 in Savannah and requested courtesy work for conferral of the Third Degree on prisoner of war Williams.19
The practice of allowing prisoners to attend lodge meetings during both the Northern and Southern occupations of Savannah was not unusual; an unconfirmed story has it that a Union prisoner was permitted to go home to visit his sick mother and return, on his word as a Master Mason, 20 and a Confederate Mason, on oath, was allowed to leave and take care of personal business, then to report to Johnson’s Island Prison, which he did, as promised. 21 But back to Private Williams.
By dark of night, Brother Williams was spirited out of prison and taken to a Savannah lodge room where he was raised a Master Mason , the stations being filled with officers in Confederate gray.22 Later that night, he was taken by boat and deposited “on neutral soil between the lines, from where he was able to find his friends.” In later years, he said he didn’t know exactly who had helped him escape, but his name was “Hiram.”23
It should be noted that in the records of Zerubbabel Lodge, along with the record of Brother Williams’ raising is an entry in red ink that reads “This night, Brother Williams escaped from prison.” 24
Score one point for aiding a brother in need. Yet there is no evidence that the brother aided was in danger; to the contrary, by aiding him, his benefactors put themselves at greater personal risk than he had experienced as a prisoner, as aiding an escape was punishable by drum- head court- martial with, in those times, a likely sentence of death. Gallant as their conduct may have been, by aiding the enemy, clearly, the Confederate brothers acted contrary to their duties to their county. They made a conscious decision to ignore those duties to country in favor of their perceived Masonic duty. There was no sense of urgency or pressure on them to render assistance beyond a desire to accommodate a courtesy work request that at some point morphed into orchestrating an escape. In what clearly was a conflict, they chose Masonic obligation over duty to country.
Are the bonds of the cabletow stronger than the noose? Although such summary disposition would be unacceptable by modern standards, the practice of hanging irregulars, or partisans by regular forces of both sides of the conflict was not uncommon. Major John Singleton Mosby, CSA, known as the Gray Ghost and whose story was featured in a 1957-58 CBS Television show by that name, commanded the 43rd Virginia Partisans, a cavalry unit operating in Northern Virginia and Maryland. They would meet on call in uniform, conduct raids on Union supply lines and disperse into the countryside until summoned again to duty. Unlike most partisan units, Mosby’s forces operated as an official unit of the Confederate Army, under orders issued by Robert E. Lee.
On August 16, 1864, Lieutenant General U.S. Grant issued an order to Major General Sheridan, District Commander, Winchester, Virginia, to wit: “When any of Mosby’s men are caught, hang them without trial.”25 In October of 1864, one of Sheridan’s brigade commanders, General George Armstrong Custer caught and hung seven of Mosby’s men as horse thieves and bandits near Front Royal, Virginia. Mosby’s men had been engaged in legitimate action, in uniform and under proper authority when captured. Shortly thereafter, Mosby wrote Lee that he intended to respond in kind by executing seven of Custer’s men, when captured. By early November, Mosby had taken twenty-seven prisoners from Custer’s and Powell’s Brigades.26 On the morning of November 6, the prisoners were lined up and a hat with twenty-seven slips of paper was passed along the line. Seven slips were marked. Each prisoner drew out a slip and the die appeared cast for seven of their number.27 A Confederate sergeant noticed that one of the seven was a drummer boy. He rode to Mosby, on his horse nearby, to inform him. Mosby was unaware that there were boys among the prisoners and ordered the boy removed. 28
The hat passed again among the remaining prisoners to determine the boy’s replacement among the condemned. Captain Richard P. Montjoy, a senior officer in Mosby’s command and a Mason was placed in charge of the execution detail which then headed to a turnpike near Winchester, Virginia where the hanging was to take place. The venue for the hanging was chosen for its proximity to Union troops who would be likely to find the bodies within hours. Along the way, one of the seven escaped and another prisoner was substituted. As was the common practice among Masons in both armies, Captain Montjoy wore a Masonic pin on his lapel. One of the seven condemned men, Lt. Israel C. Disoway signaled Montjoy that he and one other condemned prisoner were Masons. Montjoy then pulled the two Masons from the line and substituted two of the remaining prisoners in their places.29 Mosby observing this from nearby is said to have shouted to Montjoy, “Remember Captain, in the future, that this command is not a Masonic lodge,”30 but he did not countermand Montjoy’s Masonic intervention. Three men were then hanged, one with a note pinned to him that read: “These men have been hung in retaliation for an equal number of Colonel Mosby’s men, hung by order of General Custer at Front Royal. Measure for measure.”31 In order to speed the process, the remaining five were shot and left for dead. Two of them survived to tell the story. Mosby then sent a message to General Philip Sheridan informing him that no more prisoners would be harmed as long as Mosby’s men were not harmed. There were no more exemplary or retaliatory killings.32
In this incident, we find Captain Montjoy had no problem in keeping his Masonic obligation to render aid to a distressed brother; at most, he placed himself at some risk of reprimand for countermanding Mosby’s order establishing the selection process. But the act of rendering aid to two brothers sealed the fate of two other innocent men. The act of hanging or shooting prisoners as retaliation in kind for a similar atrocity, albeit with the approval of higher authority, was murder, and as the defendants at Nuremberg would learn some eighty years later, the fact that it is committed under color of orders from higher authority does not excuse the crime.
Query: is there a conflict with man’s duty to God— both in the act of murder itself, and in the intervention that fulfilled a Masonic obligation by sparing two brothers, but at the expense of two other innocent men? A case can be made that Captain Montjoy had a conflict between his natural duty to God, his duty to his country, and his Masonic responsibility to aid a brother in distress. There is no indication that he considered anything other than the course he chose, and I make no judgment as to whether or not his decision was correct under the circumstances. Mine is but to note the conflict.
And what of brother Disoway and the other Mason who asked to be spared, as Masons. Were they perhaps conflicted in their duties to God and their neighbors when they asked a Masonic favor, knowing that if it were granted, they would condemn two others to die in their places? Was there even a flicker of a pang of conscience or introspection as they watched their replacements step in line? By initiating and reacting to the sign of distress, Montjoy and both of the two Masonic prisoners placed themselves in the unlikely and unenviable role of God’s surrogates in passing judgment on life or death among innocent men. For Montjoy, the decision to fulfill of his Masonic obligation to render aid was relatively easy; two men must die; let the brother Masons live. For the Masonic prisoners, however, the choice was far more difficult; life for the man beside me or life for me. “Greater love hath no man but that he lay down his life for another,” is a Christian, not necessarily a Masonic symbolic lodge consideration. But if, as in this situation, a Mason is positioned as God’s surrogate for a life and death decision by virtue of his exercise of a Masonic prerogative, and he chooses to save his own life at the expense of another, he may find the very fact that he is in such a position to be a conflict in his relationship with God.
These incidents and their actors were selected for our consideration from a war, for it is in war that we are most likely to find conflicts between Masonic obligations and duty to country. While similar examples may be found in wars both earlier and later in time since men first united in the bonds of Freemasonry, this war was uniquely set against a background testing not only the bonds of Masonry, but also the bonds of family, shared political experience and, to some extent, social heritage—bonds typically not found in such abundance in other conflicts.
Mine, indeed---ours, is not to judge these men or their decisions. We have not walked in their boots. While we ought not sit in judgment, it behooves us to engage in a little introspection. How seriously do we take our Masonic obligations today? How far would we go in aiding or defending a brother? Are the fraternal bonds today as strong as they were in the 1860’s? Would we put as much on the line for another Mason today as they did then? We repeatedly assure ourselves and commit to those who would enter into our fraternity that there will be no conflicts between Masonic obligations and our duties to God, our County, our neighbor and ourselves. I submit that this is not always the case, and when they arise, such conflicts are not easily resolved without personal sacrifice of principles. We live today in troubled times. No man can say what challenges to our commitments to any of these duties, individually and as a fraternity we may yet face. I thank God that my own adherence to Masonic obligations and stewardship of our basic tenets of Faith, Hope and Charity has not been so tested, and I pray that none of you will be subjected to such a challenge.
There are no easy answers to the questions we have considered. How then shall we dispose of them? Perhaps Missouri Grand Master McFarland has left us a clue in his 1861 message to the Craft:
“Peace and harmony are the mission in our order. Whatever individuals may feel to be their duty as citizens, let us not forget our brotherhood. Let no bitter personal animosities spring up among us. Let us remember the fraternal cord and its duties.”
So mote it be, my brothers. So mote it be.
i Munn, Sheldon A. Freemasons at Gettysburg, page 3ii Ibid, page 20iii Denslow, William A. 10,000 Famous Freemasons, Page 23iv Ibid, page 73v Ibid, page 129vi Munn, page 41vii Roberts, Allen E. House Undivided; The Story of Freemasonry and the Civil War, Macoy Publishing and Masonic Supply Company, New York, 1961viii Shields, Richard Eugene, JR. Befriend and Relieve Every Brother; Freemasonry during Wartime, the Carolina Trader, Monroe, North Carolina, 1994ix Ibid, page 8x Peña, Christopher G., The Day the War Stopped: Truth Revealed, page 6, St. Francisville West Feliciana (LA) Tourism Commission website, http://www.daythewarstopped.net/truthrevealed.htmlxi Ibid, page 4xii Ibid, page 5xiii Roberts, page 159xiv Shields, page 27xv Ibid, page 159xvi Shields, page 27xvii Butler, Anne, The Day the War Stopped—in St. Francisville, LA, Article posted on St. Francisville West Feliciana Tourism Commission website, http://www.daythewarstopped.net/xviii Shields, page 46xix Ibid, page 46xx Ibid, page 47xxi Ibid, page20xxii Ibid, page 47xxiii Ibid, page 47xxiv Ibid, pages 46-47xxv Roberts, page 222xxvi Shields, page 49xxvii Ibid, page 49xxviii ibid, page 49xxix Ibid, page 49xxx Siepel, Kevin H., Rebel: The Life and Times of John Singleton Mosby, St. Martin’s Press, 1988, page 129xxxi Shields, at page 49xxxii Roberts, page 222
Butler, Anne, The Day the War Stopped – in St. Francisville, LA, Article posted on St. Francisville West Feliciana Tourism Commission website, http://www.daythewarstopped.net/, 2009
Denslow, William R. 10,000 Famous Freemasons, Macoy Publishing & Masonic Supply Company, Inc., 1957
Munn, Sheldon A. Freemasons at Gettysburg, Thomas Publications, 1993
Peña, Christopher G., The Day the War Stopped: Truth Revealed, linked from St. Francisville West Feliciana Tourism Commission website, http://www.daythewarstopped.net/truthrevealed.html
Roberts, Allen E. House Undivided: The Story of Freemasonry and the Civil War, Macoy Publishing and Masonic Supply Company, New York, 1961
Shields, Richard Eugene, Jr. Befriend and Relive Every Brother; Freemasonry during Wartime, The Carolina Trader, Monroe, North Carolina, 1994
Siepel, Kevin H., Rebel: The Life and Times of John Singleton Mosby, St. Martin’s Press, 1988