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TRIED BY FIRE


It may be doubted whether one person out of ten, if asked to name the time when the War for the Union was nearest to failure, would give the correct answer. Some would say it was directly after the disastrous Federal defeat at Bull Run, at the beginning of the struggle. But such persons forget that at that time both sides were in the flush of patriotic enthusiasm, and the result of the Union defeat was to intensify the resolution of the North to press the war to a decisive triumph.

It may seem to others that the staggering blows administered by General Robert E. Lee to the Army of the Potomac during the repeated campaigns against Richmond marked the lowest ebb of the Union tide. Strange as it may sound, however, the darkest days for the National Government followed the most marked Union successes. Those days belong to 1864, a year following the fall of Vicksburg, and the repulse at Gettysburg of the finest army the Confederacy was ever able to put into the field.

And what was the explanation of this profound depression in the North and at Washington, when it looked for a time as if the war must stop with the Confederacy unconquered? Why had hope faded?

It was because of the awful price already paid, and the certainty that still more would have to be paid before the end was reached. Tens of thousands of lives had been sacrificed and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, and the call was still for more men and vaster sums of money. Volunteering had given place to drafting, the government greenbacks had enormously depreciated, and the prices of the necessities of life were mounting skyward, with the certainty that each day and week and month would make the situation more desperate.

"The Union is not worth what it is costing us."

This was the sentiment uttered by multitudes who until then were among the most ardent supporters of the War for the Union. They were losing heart; they felt the strain becoming too great to be borne. It is an impressive truth, which all thoughtful persons must concede, that if the stupendous struggle had not closed in 1865, with the Union restored, it, would have stopped within 'a year with the Confederacy triumphant. I am sure that the most ardent ex-Confederate will join with us in thanking God that He averted such a calamity. No one can question the devotion to principle on the part of the South, any more than he can question the bravery of her soldiers, the ability of her leaders and the genius of Lee, her mighty commander.

None understood more clearly the real situation and the real danger than the immortal Lincoln. The furnace blast of trial had brought the real Union leaders to the front, and they, too, comprehended the prodigious task that confronted them. Despite the fact that the opening of the Mississippi had cut the Confederacy in twain, General Jo Johnston had seventy-five thousand men at Dalton, Ga., which Lee with a slightly smaller army, all of whom were fire-tried veterans, held the Rapidan River, as defiant and ready as ever to measure strength with the far more numerous Federal hosts, whom he had beaten back so many times from its advance upon the capital of the Confederacy.

At the opening of 1864, the National Government decided to make its campaigns against Lee and Johnston alone, all other military operations contributing to these two that were to decide the fate of the Union.

Hitherto the Confederates, operating upon inner lines, were able to reinforce any imperiled point. General Grant was given supreme command of the Union armies, and he determined to make an advance "all along the line," so that every Confederate force would be kept actively engaged and none could go to the help of the other. By such incessant hammering the Confederacy sooner or later must crumble to pieces.

On May I, 1864, the 'available military strength of the Union was more than three-quarters of a million men. It was intended to launch this colossal host against the attenuated armies of the Confederacy and to press them to the wall.

This is not the place for a history of the last advance against Richmond. Our aim is to clear the way for a Masonic incident or two connected with that memorable campaign. At the same time it is interesting to recall those eventful days, in which the stake was so stupendous and the issue at times seemingly suspended by a single thread.

General Grant arranged with General Sherman that the general advance should begin on May 5. While the latter was boring his way through the core of the Confederacy, swinging loose from Atlanta and heading for the sea, Grant himself was to undertake the task of beating Lee and capturing the proud Confederate capital. It was Titanic work indeed, even with his overwhelming army and boundless resources.

In accordance with his far-reaching plans, Grant crossed the Rapidan on May 4. The fighting which followed was of the most terrific nature. For two days the armies grappled in the gloomy depths of the Wilderness, and then the struggle was transferred to Spottsylvania Court House. Less furious fighting followed, and on the 28th of the same month what was left of the Army of the Potomac gathered in the vicinity of the Chickahominy, where McClellan had made his futile attempt two years before. There, on June 1 and 3, at Cold Harbor, the Confederate lines were assailed, and the Union army suffered the most bloody repulse of the war. For twenty minutes the losses in killed and wounded were at the rate of five hundred a minute! The Union casualties from the opening of the campaign were fully 40,000, that of the Confederates much less. The Union army was fought to a standstill, and when another order was given for an advance, it remained motionless.

One of the most gallant of the Confederate leaders, who was barely twenty-seven years of age, was General Robert F. Hoke. He commanded a division at Cold Harbor, and had received his commission as major-general less than six weeks previous. Directly in front of his lines lay scores of Union dead and wounded. Loss of blood always causes a horrible thirst, and the cries of the sufferers were more than the Confederates could bear. Scores ran from the ranks, and, kneeling among the poor fellows, shared the water in their canteens with them.

They had been thus engaged only a few minutes when the Federals opened fire on them, not understanding the meaning of the charity. The bullets whistled so hotly about the good Samaritans that they had to hurry back. General Hoke was so indignant that he issued an order forbidding his men going out of his lines. In the lull that followed he lay down at the foot of a tree to rest, for the day was insufferably hot, and he, like his troops, was exhausted. While lying thus, two of his men approached, and saluting, said:

"General, a wounded Yankee is lying out in front and he wanted to know whether there are any Masons among us. We told him there were, whereupon he gave the sign of distress and begged us to go out and bring him into our lines. We replied that we had been fired upon while helping his companion, and because of that you had issued strict order against our passing outside."

General Hoke roused up and looked keenly at the two men.

"Are you Masons?" he asked.

They told him they were.

"Do you know that it is almost certain death for you to try to give any help to that poor fellow?"

"We do; but he has made the Masonic appeal to us, and we only await your permission to try to bring him in."

"Then go, in God's name. I do not stand in the way of such courage as that."

As eagerly as if rushing to meet a returning brother, the brave men ran toward the Federal who lay helpless on the earth. They had hardly started when the enemy, still failing to understand the meaning of the act, opened fire on them. They did not falter or show hesitation. Every one expected to see one or both fall dead at every step, but they reached the sufferer, coolly held a can to his lips, and then raised his limp body between them. They walked deliberately back with their burden, and neither of them received so much as a scratch.

It is within bounds to say that instances similar in spirit to that which has just been related are to be numbered by the hundred. Scores who read these lines will recall them in their own experiences during the Civil War. I will add only a few, most of which came under my own personal knowledge.

Bishop E. S. Janes, of the Methodist Episcopal Church, was presiding at a conference in Texas just before the breaking out of the war. Feeling ran high, and open threats were made of breaking up the body, some of whose members were from the North. The bishop, one of the gentlest and most amiable of men, quietly went on with his duties, but warnings reached him that trouble was at hand. Sure enough, in the midst of one of their sessions Ben McCulloch, at the head of some of his famous rangers, appeared at the door. Standing just with in the aisle, he called to the bishop:

"This can't go any farther. You must break up at once and leave. If you don't, the life of no man will be safe."

Bishop Janes from his place on the platform looked down the church at the stalwart figure and made a Masonic sign. It was done so quietly that no one not a Mason would have recognized it. McCulloch was astonished, for he was a Mason. Wondering how the venerable man of God had learned it - though it is not certain he was aware of the fact - he nodded his head.

"Have You any objections to our remaining in session until our regular hour of adjournment?" gently asked the bishop, amid the profound hush of the place.

"When is that?" asked the ranger in turn.

The bishop coolly drew out his watch and looked at it.

"A little more than an hour," he replied, as if holding a conversation with one of the brethren on the floor.

"All right; go ahead. I'll see you later."

I never heard how Ben straightened out matters with the clamorous crowd that had gathered outside, all eager to mob the clergymen within the building. Probably he didn't have to straighten out or explain anything, for all knew the resolute character of that daring Texan, who met his death some time later in battle.

Bishop Janes dispatched business with such vigor that a sine die adjournment took place somewhat earlier than promised. When the conference was breaking up, and the members were holding whispered and hurried consultations, the bishop observed the striking figure of McCulloch, who had again entered the building and seemed to be waiting to speak with him. The clergyman made his way down the aisle, and grasped the outstretched hand of the Texan, who said in a low tone:

"I saw your sign, bishop; it's all right; I'll guarantee a safe trip for you and every one outside the city. Don't you think it wise to adjourn without date?"

Looking benignantly through his golden spectacles, smiling and still holding the hand of the ranger, Bishop Janes said in his mild voice:

"Brother Ben, it does look a little that way. I have adjourned the conference sine die, and we shall wait till times are more favorable before we come together again. My good fellow, I want to thank you for your kindness."

"Oh, that's nothing. I'm sorry things are as they are, but it wouldn't do for these Northerners to stay any longer in town. I'll look after you personally, and if any one so much as says a mean word to you, I'll knock his head off!"

"Tut, tut, Brother Ben. I have had a good many mean things said to me in the course of my life, but I forgive them all."

Ben McCulloch kept his word, and not a member of the conference was molested in the slightest degree when making his way out of "Dixie Land."

A friend of mine was taken prisoner with over a hundred others at one of the great battles in Virginia. After being conducted so far to the rear that there was no possibility of escape or rescue, the prisoners were drawn up in line, while their names were taken down and the necessary data gathered concerning them.

"While this was going on," said my friend, "a Confederate colonel stood a few paces back of the officer who was writing rapidly with a pencil on paper. The colonel was a fierce-looking fellow, and it seemed to me he showed a grim delight in contemplating our sorry plight. When each one responded to the questions that were sharply asked him, the colonel, with folded arms, looked fixedly into his face, but did not speak.

"At the moment my turn came a sudden whim prompted me to make a Masonic sign. I did it very furtively, and could not observe the slightest result. I concluded that neither the colonel nor any of his officers were Masons, and my little essay was thrown away. In fact, so far as I could see, it had attracted the attention only of Jim Baldwin, who stood next to me and recognized what I had done.

"'You are a fool to try that on here,' he said in an under-tone; 'even if there are any Masons among these Rebs, they wouldn't pay any attention to you at a time like this.'

"I believed he was right, and thought no more of it. When our captors had pumped from us all the information they required, we were sent to our quarters and placed in charge of a guard. I don't think anybody ever felt bluer than I did. The prospect of a long, dismal imprisonment was before me, with the chances against my ever seeing home again. Some of my companions broke into defiant song and reckless jest, but I could make no such hollow pretence; I was utterly miserable and despairing.

"When the afternoon was drawing to a close, an orderly came past the guards and called out my name. Wondering what was up, I sprang to my feet and confronted him.

"'The colonel wishes to see you,' was all he said. He indicated that I was to follow him, and, still perplexed, I walked silently at his heels through the outskirts of the camp till he paused in front of a tent, drew the fly aside, saluted and announced his arrival with the prisoner in charge. The next moment I was ushered into the presence of the glum colonel, who was seated on a camp stool, smoking a corncob pipe, and his expression seemed more terrible, if possible, than before.

"'What's your name?' he demanded, taking his pipe from his mouth.

I gave it.

"'Are you a Mason?' he asked in the same crisp manner.

"I answered in the affirmative, and he then inquired:

"'Where do you hail from?'

"This was followed by the other questions with which all Masons are familiar, until I convinced him that I was what I claimed to be.

"The colonel abruptly ceased speaking. His sword lay on a stool beside his own. He crossed his legs and smoked furiously, with his eyes fixed on the opening in the tent through which I had entered. He seemed to be thinking intently, his face half obscured by the volume of smoke that continually rolled from his mouth. Suddenly he sprang up, and with the same brisk curtness he had shown from the first, he said:

"'Come with me.'

"I followed, still wondering what it all could mean. He walked swiftly, and it was no easy task for me to keep pace with him. His course was such that we soon passed outside the camp, across an open field, whose fences, if there had ever been any, had served to feed the camp fires long before.

"By this time night was at hand - a night cloudy and with out stars. My guide did not speak a word until we had gone fully a quarter of a mile. I remember thinking of a steam tug towing a vessel, as the puffs of tobacco smoke rolled over his shoulder into my face. Suddenly he stopped and faced about.

"'Yank,' said he, 'do you see that piece of woods?'

"He pointed ahead and a little to the right. In the slowly settling gloom I could just distinguish the outlines of a forest, the farther limits of which were lost in the obscurity. I nodded my head and replied:

"'Yes; I can readily make it out.'

"'Well, run like the devil!'

"At the same moment he started at a rapid pace for his own camp. Not another word was said by him, nor did he look around to see whether I was acting upon his hint. In fact, it was unnecessary, for I should have been an idiot had I not 'caught on' and improved the opportunity that I may say was not wholly unexpected. Safely within the stretch of timber and some distance beyond, I had little trouble in making my way to our own lines."

At the battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861, Edwin Cole, a private of the Seventy-first Regiment of New York Volunteers, was severely wounded and taken prisoner. After a short stay in Richmond he was removed to the city of New Orleans, when Brother Fellows, then Grand Master of Masons in Louisiana, provided him and eight of his fellow-prisoners, who were craftsmen, with clothing, with medical attendance and with every needful comfort possible. In the excited state of public feeling at that time, the action of the Grand Master was severely criticized, but the Grand Lodge of the State formally approved it, and in June, 1862, the Grand Lodge of New York, by duly engrossed and certified resolutions, made its formal acknowledgments to the Grand Master of Louisiana for this most gracious proof of his Masonic charity.

Since this chapter consists mostly of detached incidents, I will close with the following: James Bellows McGregor, of Mount Sunapee, N. H., celebrated, September 6, 1907, his 106th birthday anniversary, and rounded out eighty years as a member of our order. At this writing (1907), he is in the enjoyment of the best of health, and the distinction of being the oldest Mason in the world.


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