Collected by Brother Barry George and Mounted in Shadow Box by Brother Barry Stinson
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Five Stories of Freemasonry During the Civil War
Compiled & Edited by Brother Barry Stinson, History Committee, Alpharetta Lodge #235 F&AM
1. The best example of the ties of brotherhood occurred on the battlefield at Gettysburg. This battle, the turning point of the War, saw 93,000 Federal troops doing battle with 71,000 Confederates. Of those numbers, more than 35,000 were killed or wounded in the three days of fighting from July 1 to July 3, 1863. Of the men who fought, 17,930 were Freemasons, including the roughly 5,600 who became casualties. One of the most famous events and one that I have mentioned earlier that occurred at Gettysburg was the huge Confederate infantry push known as Pickett’s Charge. On July 3, Pickett (a member of Dove Lodge #51, Richmond, VA) led nearly 12,000 men on a long rush across open fields towards the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. It has been called the last and greatest infantry charge in military history. One of the men leading that charge was Brigadier General Lewis Addison Armistead, CSA. He was a member of Alexandria-Washington Masonic Lodge #22 in Alexandria. Originally from North Carolina, he had attended West Point, and fought with the US Army for a number of years before resigning his commission to fight for the Confederacy. During that time, he had occasion to serve with now Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, USA (Charity Lodge #190, Norristown, Pa.) while both men were in the west. The two had become good friends. However, with Armistead’s resignation, it had been nearly two and a half years since the two men had had any contact…until Gettysburg. It was Hancock who had taken command of the fragmented Union troops on Cemetery Ridge on July 1, and organized them into a strong front that had withstood three days of pounding from the Confederate guns. And it was his position, in the center of the Union line that was the focus of Pickett’s Charge. General Armistead led his men and vaulted the stone wall and headed for the cannons that had until recently been firing on his men. As he laid his hand on one of the guns of the 4th US Artillery, the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry fired upon the gray coated General and the men who had followed him. Many went down including Armistead. He was heard to cry for help “as the son of a widow.” Colonel Rawley W. Martin of the 53rd Virginia lay nearby and witnessed as some of the men of the 69th Penna. Rose up and came to Armistead’s aid. Captain Henry H. Bingham (Chartiers Lodge #297, Canonsburg, Pa.) physician and Mason, was brought to assist Armistead. Armistead inquired of his friend and Masonic Brother General Winfield Scott. Learning that Hancock had also been wounded, he entrusted to Bingham his Masonic watch and personal papers (as depicted above in the Gettysburg Battlefield monument) to give to his friend and Brother General Hancock. Two days later Armistead died in a Union hospital on the Spangler farm of his wounds.
Bingham survived the war and in fact won a Medal of Honor in 1867. He retired in 1867 and went on to become a member of the United States Congress where he served for 33 years. He died in 1812 at the age of 70. General Hancock survived his wounds though it was a long time until he returned to the Army. He later commanded the Department of the East of the United States Army and died in 1886 still in command. In 1880, he had lost an attempt for the United States Presidency to James Garfield.
2. On June 11, 1863, the Federal gunboat Albatross, with Lieut. Commander John E. Hart of St. George’s Lodge #6 in New York in command, was anchored on the Mississippi River opposite the town of Bayou Sara. The gunboat was part of the ships laying siege to Port Hudson, Louisiana. Commander Hart had been in a delirium for many days and was confined to quarters. A shot rang out and the Ship’s executive officer Theodore E. Dubois and the doctor found the commander dead, apparently a suicide as a result of his delirious mental state.
The officers of the ship not wanting to bury their commander in the river sent a flag of truce ashore to discover if there was a local Masonic Lodge. William W. Leake, the acting Master of Bayou Sara lodge was approached by Captain Samuel White, who lived near the river, to hold a Masonic Funeral for Commander Hart.
Brother Leake replied, “As a soldier of the Confederate Army, I think it is my duty. As a Mason, I know it is my duty.” On June 13th, a few members of the local lodge in Masonic regalia gathered and met the procession of 50 men from the Albatross under a flag of truce at the top of a hill.
Leake and the local Brothers marched in front of the corpse to Grace Episcopal Church Cemetery and buried Brother Hart in the Masonic Section with military and Masonic honors. Brother Leake led the Masonic part of the services. The US Surgeon and officers asked the Brothers to join them on the Albatross for dinner but they declined. The surgeon then offered Brother Leake to supply him with medicines for his family. Brother Leake declined but later the surgeon sent a few medicines to Leake through Brother Samuel White.
Hart’s grave marker acknowledges the services rendered by Brother Leake, along with the inscription: “This monument is dedicated in loving tribute to the universality of Freemasonry.”
3. During the closing days of the American Civil War, Brother Lee Newton was taken prisoner and sent to a camp in Illinois. He had earlier been made a Mason in a Confederate Military Lodge. While in the camp he became deathly ill. Somehow the commander of the camp learned Lee was a Mason, so he took him into his own home and nursed him back to health. When the war ended, the commander gave Lee money and a gun, and then saw him safely on his way to Texas.
4. L.J. Williams of Harvard, New York, enlisted in the 114th New York Volunteers at the beginning of the Civil War. He received the Entered Apprentice and Fellowcraft Degrees in Downsville Lodge No. 464 prior to leaving home.
Later during the war he was captured and imprisoned near Savannah, Georgia. While in the prison, he communicated with his friends in the North. His lodge in New York through the proper officials got in touch with the Lodge in Savannah and stated that they would consider it a favor if the brothers would confer the Third Degree on the Fellowcraft Brother Williams.
One night Brother Williams was taken from the prison and conducted to the lodge room in Savannah. He wore his tattered blue Union uniform. The officers of the lodge were all in Confederate gray. Although they were on opposite sides in the struggle, they were all Brethren. He was then raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason and acclaimed a full Brother and friend to those who wore the gray.
Later that night Brother Williams escaped. When asked about his escape he would smile peculiarly. He said, “You might put it down as an escape, but it wasn’t an escape strictly speaking. They put me in a boat and carried me off some distance. Then they deposited me on neutral soil between the lines.” From there Williams was able to find his friends. Williams never knew who exactly helped him escape. He considered it as their secret and it was never disclosed. Williams stated: “I know exactly to whom I may attribute my escape. His name is Hiram.”
5. After 4 years of war, the weary and almost defeated Confederate Army was retreating and leaving the Confederate capital of Richmond to its own fate. As the army retreated, fires broke out in all sections of the city. Hoodlums, deserters, and criminals, with no law and order, began to pillage the city. Just as the city seemed to be doomed, a Union cavalry unit swung up Franklin Street. The bearded colonel looked warily at the riff raff around him who were about to fire a building which bore a sign “Masonic Hall.” Taking command of the moment, he halted his troopers and ordered that an adjutant “have all Masons wheel out of column.” Almost half of his force moved out. From this group he ordered a suitable guard to protect the Masonic Temple. The column reformed and resumed its ride. Later General Godfrey Weitzel, a Mason, gave the order, after a request by the Lodge, to continue the guard. The building saved is said to be the oldest, purely Masonic building in continuous use in North America, and possibly the Western Hemisphere, with records dating back to 1787. The historic building was built in 1785 by Richmond Lodge # 10. The building is now Richmond Randolph Lodge #19 and is still located at the corner of East Franklin and North 18th in the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, a popular restaurant, entertainment and arts district in Richmond.