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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"'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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