Category Archives: christian life

Remembering A Day of Treason and Infamy: Never Again

NEVER AGAIN! THE UNION NOW AND FOREVER

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A year ago, just six days after I retired from active duty a hoard of fanatical supporters of then President Donald Trump attack the Capitol Building with Congress in session in order to stop the usually ceremonial certification of the Electoral College vote. It should have not been a surprise as from the day of the election Trump and his cult like followers had been proclaiming that the election had been stolen from him, something that many if not most of them still believe despite incontrovertible forensic proof that the results were accurate.

As a historian I can only call this act of sedition and insurrection as something akin to the firing on Fort Sumter or the Bier Hall Putsch. Like those failed attempts at revolution this too failed, but its effects linger and are not over. The fact that an estimated 100 Republican members of the House and Senate knew of or supported the coup attempt, and many current active duty, reserve, and National Guard members, veterans, military retirees, as well as local and state law enforcement officers took part in it, all of whom violated their oath of office in attempting to overthrow the Constitution they had sworn to defend and overturn a valid and legal election because they did not like the result created a stain in our history and national honor that will never be erased.

These people are still determined to use every means legal and illegal to overthrow our Constitution, ignore Constitutional amendments that they hate, such as the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth, as well as Civil and Voting Rights. They are supported by a host of conspiracy theorists, White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, in media, right wing think tanks, and popular propagandists.

Until today when President Biden and Attorney General Garland spoke the Democrats have spent more time fighting amongst themselves than countering Republican and QANON propaganda, or having all hands on deck to pass voting rights laws to counter the GOP Trump Cult using all means available, including working with the dwindling number of anti-Trump Republicans, despite the efforts of the House Committee investigating the assault which includes the now despised Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger.

Today, any man or woman in this country who cares about our freedom, democracy, and Constitution, needs to be willing to make a stand for it in every neighborhood, town, city, county, and state. by refusing to fight by every legal means available we will be the authors of the end of our Republic, democracy will die, and with it freedom.

Ulysses Grant, then a former Army Officer volunteered to fight at the beginning of the Civil War said, ”There are but two parties now: traitors and patriots. And I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter and, I trust, the stronger party.”

I am now retired, but if these people push their plans for a theocratic dictatorship under the looming orange face of Donald Trump. They are a clear and present danger and I will stand by the oath of office that I first took over 40 years again.

I will stand and say ”Never Again” and my actions will match my words. So if any of the Trump Cultists who condemn me, wish me harm or threaten me or my family, or anyone else, I will fight. I am a proud American who served in peace and war for nearly forty years and never forsake my oath to the Constitution regardless of my political or religious beliefs. I will be damned if I let a buch of cowardly fake patriots and religious extremists shut me up.

Until the next time,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under authoritarian government, christian life, civil rights, civil war, History, leadership, Military, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, racism, Religion

Welcome 2022: A Year of Hope and Dread


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Something Cheerful, Izzy, Sunny, Pierre and Maddy Lyn Wish You a Happy New Year

Well friends, the new year is here and with it comes hope for a better future because we all want it to be better than 2019 or 2020. But for me those hopes are tempered by my knowledge of history and my knowledge that despite our occasional moments of doing magnificent things, behaving courageously and even in the best interests of others and humanity, but our worst times occur when they don’t, which is more often than not. Barbara Tuchman wrote: “Human beings of any age need to approve of themselves; the bad times in history come when they cannot.” Unfortunately, I believe that one of those bad times is not yet done, and the worst may be yet to come like in 1861, 1914, 1919, and 1939, or any combination combined with weapons of mass destruction, artificial intelligent weapons systems, and world wide pandemic that try as we might to contain it, is not going any time soon.

If that were all it would be enough to make the world a far more dangerous place in 2022 than it was in 2021. There is the massive ramping up of tensions between Russia, versus the Ukraine, NATO and the European Union. Then there is the increasingly bellicose incantations of the Chinese Communist/ Han Chinese Nationalist actions towards the Republic of China, a Democracy which China never had a historic, cultural, or religious claim upon before Chang Kai Shek and his Nationalist forces were defeated by the Communists in 1948 and established a nation on the island of Formosa, which we now call Taiwan. However, President and Chairman Xi continues to claim that it is a ”renegade” province despite it being its own nation with a budding democratic tradition. Xi and his allies also threaten the United States for its support of the ROC. That would be enough, but over the past year the Chinese Communists have defied their treaty obligations to Hong Kong and crushed its majority pro-democracy movement, even removing monuments to the martyrs of Tianamin Square. We can then add their enslavement and genocide of the Muslim Uyghur population of Xinjiang province, and ,its continued threats to the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, and their development of hypersonic missiles and torpedos. But they have problems, especially economic with a very threatening real estate bubble that could crash their economy and send shockwaves throughout the world economy.


Then we come to Russian military threats to the Ukraine. Russian President Putin, having already seized the Crimea and the Donbass from Ukraine in 2014 has massed over 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. Demands by President Biden, the European Union, and NATO for the Russians to stand down have been met with even greater threats. Russia’s position is not logical, but it is deeply emotional and seemingly personal to Putin. Though he appears in good health, he is not young and may be compelled by a medical condition to complete a conquest that would cement his role in Russian history, very much the reason that Hitler launched the Second World War.

Of course there is the constant threat of war with Iran which grows more as Iran attempts to undermine the governments of Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States even as it rattles sabers with the United States, Europe, and most importantly Israel.

Any or all of these issues could blow up at any time in 2022, all it takes is any combination of unfortunate events to set any one, or all into motion, with potentially cataclysmic results. I keep telling people that I feel that I am watching a modern replay of Tuchman’s The Guns of August or William Shirer’s The Nightmare Years.

none of that even mentions the political divide in the United States which overcame a Coup attempt on January 6th 2001, and potentially faces a reprise of racist and fascist terrorism backed by a core of cultists determined to return Donald Trump to power by any means. The are backed by a multitude of partisan and conspiratorial ”News Networks” and authoritarian radio and television pundits, who routinely spout Nazi like anti-semitism and racism; removing voting rights, civil rights, and religious rights from non-White Conservative Christians, even using violence to achieve those goals.

This isn’t fantasy, it is the reality in which we live. I will do what I can to influence events. Hopefully, ,y book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: Religion and the Politics of Race in the Civil Era and Beyond will give me a chance to be heard at the national and international level. However, it will increase the personal danger to me since I have had real and verifiable death threats on this blog, social media, and when engaging Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists attacking leaders of civil and religious rights groups.

Sadly, many of these people claim to be Christians, and their words and threats are the most chilling of all, because they not only threaten my physical life, but also damn my soul to their version of eternal punishment. I truly believe that such people are dangerous, not just to the lives of people, but will so completely destroy the message of Jesus the Christ and that of the Christian Church that it will take decades if not centuries to see it reclaimed by people with no political or cultural prize at stake. But, for practical purposes, maybe for what passes as Christianity in the United States and any country infected with its sickness to death.

That may not sound like an uplifting or optimistic message, but they are realities that we must face. However, as trying and excruciating as the past two years have been, things can get worse, as Tuchman wrote:

“An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.” 

Until tomorrow or Monday I wish you the best.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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How a Letter from a Trump Cultist Changed my Life and Threatened my Liberty: Reflections on Trump and his Christofacist Cult


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Sorry for not posting for a week but my ass has been kicked by the work involved in clearing our home of things in order for the painters after having more contractors in the past week. Add to this the new new teaching job and my ass is kicked. Everything hurts, 60 is definitely not the new 40.

As I was getting things cleaned out I found a letter. It was the letter that greeted me at my office a few days that I preached sermon at the JEB Little Creek Fort Story Chapel in July 2017. It was from a fanatical Trump supporter who was upset that I condemned the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents and locking them up in cages on our border with Mexico. During the sermon I never said a word about Trump himself and stayed morality of his administration’s policies.

My accuser was a retired officer who never addressed me face to face and made heinous accusations against me. He sent a similar letter to my Commanding Officer demanding that I be relieved of my position as Command Chaplain and that I be tried by Court Martial. It was a seminal moment in my life. I discovered that the Trump movement was not simply about politics but it was a personality cult devoted to their “Leader” with profoundly racist motives bent on the personal destruction of anyone who opposed his policies.

My sermon actually had scriptural backing in that week’s lectionary readings and was based on the teachings of the Christian Church and backed by history. When I preach I do not deviate from the lectionary texts and seek to apply them to daily life, most of the time this was never about anything political.

The sermons of a chaplain are normally considered one of the most protected types of speech in the military and for that matter in the country, even if they stand against the policies of a President. In fact during my long career I have witnessed conservative Evangelical and Catholic Chaplains venture into politics on a regular basis, sometimes sitting through sermons that were much more partisan and disrespectful than anything I spoke that day, but I do not recall any to have been accused of crimes and investigated for what they said in a sermon preached as part of regularly scheduled religious services.

The official investigation of my “allegedly criminal conduct” in preaching the sermon was grueling. I was called into the investigating officer’s office and read my rights. I refused to answer questions without a lawyer. I had to retain legal counsel and went to Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation who has become a close personal friend. He spoke at my retirement ceremony where his words were remarkably similar to two of my previous commanding officers emphasizing my personal integrity, moral courage and commitment to care for all in my charge, regardless of their beliefs.

The investigating officer interviewed over half of the people present in the service as well as every member of my staff. My attorney handled the situation and in the end I was exonerated and no charges filed. I still have the investigation filed away, but it is now boxed up. Sadly, some of the people who denied that I said the things I was accused of saying also threw in political barbs. All were White male retirees and none ever spoke to me again. I was shunned, but the Black members of the chapel congregation were very supportive, some still keep in touch with me. One said that my sermon was like “hearing the thunder of the voice of God.” Honestly I do miss preaching, but I want nothing to do with the politics of the church.

I elected never to preach in that chapel again, in fact it was the last time I stood in the pulpit for anything other than an official ceremony or memorial service.

The assault on me and my rights by this Trump supporter and my treatment afterwards by the older White members of the chapel made me much wiser about the nature of the Trump Cult. It transitioned from a personality cult to a profoundly religious cult in which any disagreement with the former President was considered heresy and  met by virulent attacks on the offenders, and if they were Republicans saw many expelled or driven from the Party, sometimes even threatened with violence.

The Trump Cult is deeply racist, openly White Nationalist and authoritarian in nature, and supported by violent Neo-Nazi groups, militias and Christian Nationalists, who are probably the most disreputable of the lot.

I get online threats on a fairly regular basis for what I write and truthfully I no longer feel safe in my country, a country I served for nearly 40 years in the military. Sadly, most claim to be “Christians” as if they even know what being a follower of Jesus means. It does not mean making death threats on behalf of a would be dictator, as a good number have done.

Less than a month after my sermon those White Supremacist groups conducted a violent demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump said that there “were very good people” on both sides. Of course he and they only grew more threatening and violent and culminated in the 6 January insurrection and assault on the Capitol, but I digress…

The letter from that man reminded me just how personal this threat is for anyone who actually believes in truth, believes in the promise our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There are so many times that I resist the urge to spam my accuser’s name all over the world. That man is a despicable moral coward who refused to even follow the clear teachings of scripture of how to confront another Christian over a matter of faith, and instead attempted to use the power of military law in order to destroy me. Of course for him like most of these Christofacists, the teachings of Jesus, Scripture, or the testimony of the Church mean nothing, because the worship Trump uber Alles. They would kill for him, not die for Jesus. That my friends is idolatry and a denial of their Christian faith.

But for me this is a fight that I will not shirk. I cannot stomach supposed Christians who have a higher loyalty to Trump and his racist Cult than they do to Jesus. I quote General Henning Von Tresckow who helped lead the opposition to Hitler and died after the failed assassination attempt, “We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.”

Yes, I compared Trump to Hitler. This is because Trump has repeatedly shown that he wants to be like Hitler. True, he is not as smart and unlike Hitler never volunteered to serve his adopted country in wartime, and he has no one as gifted as Joseph Goebbels as his chief propagandist. Nor does he have anyone as Lani Riefenstahl  to promote him as a God as she did in the film The Triumph of the Will. 

That being said, Trump is both a demagogue and coward. He loves authoritarian government and hates the system of checks and balances created by our founders. Today he registered his disappointment that the Courts would not overturn the election, despite the fact nothing he and his lawyers could come up with that could win a single court case of over 60 they filed because they had no evidence and the facts did not support them. His continuous assault on facts and truth bodes ill for all of us, even his followers. Thus he and them and his followers remain a danger to anyone who actually believes that the Declaration or the Constitution. 

But had Trump won the election, or had his insurgents prevented Congress from fulfilling its obligations under the Constitution there is no doubt that he would have gone full Fuhrer.  Had he won or succeed in His coup attempt no opponent would be safe from his Neo-Nazi thugs backed by the full police power of the government and his Christian Theocratic base. The sad thing is that even though he is out of office the threat still remains, largely because of his Cult and a spineless Republican Party that sold its soul to Trump.

I’ll stop for now as it is late. However, it is a good thing that the man who tried to destroy me coming up on four years ago never properly introduced himself to me in person, thus I can’t match his face to my memories. It is a good thing for him because if I recognized him I might be tempted to beat him within an inch of his life if he did not admit his sin against me before my left jab right hook combination  struck his jaw. Of course if that ever happened that sonofabitch would be the victim and I would be in jail. So I won’t give him that as strong as the temptation might be. But to quote the Psalmist in Psalm 139:22 when it comes to men like Jack who tried to destroy my life to defend Trump, “I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.”

That they are so until next time,

Padre Steve+

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“How can we hope for success to our arms or God’s blessing, while we as a people are so blind to justice?” Emancipation, Black Soldiers and the Continuing Scourge of Racism in the Aftermath of the Insurrection of 6 January 2021

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

February is Black History Month, it’s something that no American of any race, color, or creed should forget. African Americans, the decendants of slaves and slaves themselves fought for freedom that was only at best was in the promissory note of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Those men, and women in the case of Harriett Tubman and Sojourner Truth, paved the way for freedom for African Americans and all others who benefited from what they fought for: women, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and other Hispanics, Asian Americans, and LGBTQ Americans.

That promise being made then, must be kept today, to the descendents of  this men, as well as all who benefited through their sacrifice: even the Southern Whites who at the time did not know then, or all too often today, that they too needed emancipation.

Unfortunately in our day a major faction of what calls itself the Republican Party but in fact is nothing more that the rebirth of the Secessionist, Jim Crow, and Dixiecrat element of American political history. Add to this a Know Nothing element united with  Neo-Nazi and Fascist groups, all emboldened by Former President Trump to mount a violent insurrection and coup attempt against Congress on 6 January 2021.

Thousands of people took part in it and it resulted in the murder of Capitol Police Office Brian Sicknick who died defending the Capitol. Likewise over 140 other officers were injured, quite a few seriously. One officer, led attackers away from the Senate Chamber, his action probably saving the life of former Vice President Mike Pence. His name, Eugene Goodman, and by the way he is Black.

This is a chapter of my book “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory!” Racism, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era and their Continuing Importance.” In it I spend much time dealing with the importance of emancipation and the role of Black soldiers during the American Civil War. Tomorrow, at long last I will finish the photo credit page and get it to the publisher and my agent.

I think it is important to remember as we begin Black History Month just how important these men are to American history and for the civil rights of all Americans and that what they fought for is still up for grabs. The descendants of the Confederate cause, no longer confined to the South were in the forefront of the insurrection and coup attempt on 6 January. Confederate Flags, Neo-Nazi, White Nationalist, and Christian Dominionist/ Nationalist symbols and banners were prominent among the sea of Trump banners, as was a gallows that they brought to the Capitol. They are truly part of the all enemies foreign and domestic clause of my oath to the Constitution.

The title of this article comes from Colonel Edward Hallowell, the White Colonel of the Heroic, trailblazing Black  54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, when Massachusetts Governor John Andrew attempted to grant a State commission to Sergeant Stephen Swails, which refused to discharge Swails from his enlisted rank until after the war was over. Hallowell was enraged and asked:

“How can we hope for success to our arms or God’s blessing… while we as a people are so blind to justice?” 

I think that his indictment of the racism of his time is as applicable today, and maybe more. Since the organizers and most of the perpetrators of the insurrection against Congress who carried the Confederate Battle Flag through the halls of Congress and used the staffs of those flags to assault Capitol Police Officers remain unrepentant and legislators in various states are further restrict voting rights of Blacks whose votes were instrumental in turning Trump out of office.

I ask the same question Hallowell asked then today and I will fight for the rights of Blacks and all others that the White Nationalist, Neo-Confederate, and Neo-Nazi conspiracy theorist ruled GOP, who attempted to overthrow our Republic, Democracy, and Constitution did. and continue to do. I say: If not us? who? If not now? When?

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Emancipation and the U.S. Military

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Men of the 4th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops

The war brought about another change to warfare in America. This was a societal and political change that has shaped American military history, culture and life ever since. The Emancipation Proclamation gave African Americans, both Freedmen and recently freed slaves the opportunity to serve in the Union Army. The change of policy instituted by Lincoln was revolutionary as well as controversial and it had strategic implications for the war effort. There were many doubters in the north whose attitudes towards African Americans were not much different than Southerners, especially among the Copperheads.

Prior to the Emancipation some Union commanders in occupied Confederate territory “had unofficially recruited black soldiers in Kansas and in occupied portions of South Carolina and Louisiana in 1862. But the administration had not sanctioned these activities.” [1] The issue for Lincoln in 1861 and 1862 was the necessity of keeping the Border-Slave Sates of Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland, which had not seceded from the Union. Lincoln repudiated the orders of General John Fremont, in Missouri, and his friend General David Hunter, who commanded the Department of the South regarding emancipation, not because he was in complete disagreement, but because he felt that the officers had overstepped their authority.

Lincoln understood that this might hurt him with the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party. While Lincoln was certainly sympathetic to their cause, he insisted that such decisions were not within the prevue of local commanders, but that any such proclamations had to come from him, as Commander-in-Chief. He told Treasure Secretary Salmon Chase, who supported the measures of Hunter and Fremont, “No commanding general shall do such a thing, upon my responsibility, without consulting me.” [2] Lincoln’s decision to reverse and repudiate the decisions of local commanders infuriated some in his cabinet and in the Congress. But Lincoln remained firm in that conviction due to the need to ensure the cooperation of the Border States the continued loyalty of which were absolutely vital to winning the war, without which no meaningful emancipation would be possible.

However, Lincoln did support the efforts of General Benjamin Butler. Butler commanded the Federal forces at Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads. Butler had been a former pro-slavery Democrat who learned that the Confederates were using slaves to construct fortifications and to support their army on the Peninsula. In May 1862 twenty-three slaves escaped to his lines and their owner, a Confederate Colonel, “demanded the return of his property under the Fugitive Slave Law! With as deadpan expression as possible (given his cocked eye), Butler informed him that since Virginia claimed to have left the Union, the Fugitive Slave Law no longer applied.” [3]Butler then declared that since the escaped slaves had worked for the Confederate Army that they were “contraband of war – enemy property subject to seizure.” [4] It was a solid argument, since Southerners themselves referred to African American slaves as property was subject to seizure. Lincoln and Secretary of War Cameron approved of Butler’s action and “eventually, the Congress passed a confiscation law ending the rights of masters over fugitive slaves used to support Confederate troops.” [5]

Salmon Chase and other strong abolitionists opposed Lincoln vehemently for this, but it would not be long until Lincoln made the decision for full emancipation. This was first accomplished by the Emancipation Proclamation, a military order that only applied to the states that had seceded. However, Lincoln would follow this by pushing for a constitutional amendment to end slavery.   The latter occurred when Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in January 1865. This amendment abolished slavery in the United States.

Lincoln had already decided upon emancipation in the spring of 1862, however, following the defeat of McClellan on the Peninsula he decided to postpone announcing it, Secretary of State Seward recommended against it until “until you can give it to the country supported by military success.” Otherwise the world might view it as an incitement for slave insurrections, “as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help…our last shriek, on the retreat.” [6] The wisdom of Seward’s advice was profound, and Lincoln put off the announcement until after the Battle of Antietam.

McClellan, true to form opposed any such policy. When Lincoln visited him after his withdraw from the Peninsula, the defeated but still arrogant General handed Lincoln a memorandum on what McClellan viewed as the “proper conduct of the war.” McClellan advised Lincoln that the war “should not be a war looking to the subjugation of any State in any event…but against armed forces and political organizations. Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, the territorial organization of States, or the forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.” [7]

Lincoln was not seeking advice from his recalcitrant commander and put the letter in his pocket and simply told McClellan, “All right.” Interestingly enough just a few months earlier Lincoln would have agreed with McClellan’s views on the conduct of the war. However, with the passage of time and the realization that the Confederacy was fully committed to its independence as well as the continuance and even the expansion of slavery had come to the view that fighting a limited war with limited aims was foolish. He told another Unionist Democrat a few days after McClellan offered his advice that the war could not be fought:

“with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water….This government cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing. Those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy this government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt.”[8]

From Slavery to Soldiering

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Gun Crew of 2nd Colored Light Artillery 

But as the war continued on, consuming vast numbers of lives the attitude of Lincoln and his administration began to change. After a year and a half of war, Lincoln and the closest members of his cabinet were beginning to understand that the “North could not win the war without mobilizing all of its resources and striking against Southern resources used to sustain the Confederate war effort.” [9] Slave labor was essential to the Confederate war effort, not only did slaves still work the plantations, they were impressed into service in war industries as well as in the Confederate Army.

Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Freemantle, a British observer who was with Lee’s army at Gettysburg noted, “in the rear of each regiment were from twenty to thirty negro slaves.” [10] The fact is that the slaves who accompanied the army remained slaves, they were not the mythical thousands of black soldiers who rallied to the Confederate cause, nor were they employees. “Tens of thousands of slaves accompanied their owners to army camps as servants or were impressed into service to construct fortifications and do other work for the Confederate army.” [11] This fact attested to by Colonel William Allan, one of Stonewall Jackson’s staff members who wrote “there were no employees in the Confederate army.” [12] slaves served in a number of capacities to free up white soldiers for combat duties, “from driving wagons to unloading trains and other conveyances. In hospitals they could perform work as nurses and laborers to ease the burdens of patients.” [13] An English-born artilleryman in Lee’s army wrote in 1863 that “in our whole army there must be at least thirty thousand colored servants….” [14] When Lee marched to Gettysburg he did so with somewhere between ten and thirty-thousand slaves in support roles and during the advance into Virginia Confederate troops rounded up and re-enslaved as many blacks as they could, including Freedmen.

 

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                                      Secretary of War Edwin Stanton

Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton; who was a passionate believer in the justice of emancipation, was one of the first to grasp the importance of slave labor to the Confederate armies and how emancipation was of decided military necessity. Stanton, “Instantly grasped the military value of the proclamation. Having spent more time than any of his colleagues contemplating the logistical problems facing the army, he understood the tremendous advantage to be gained if the massive workforce of slaves could be transferred from the Confederacy to the Union.” [15]

Lincoln emphasized the “military necessity” of emancipation and “justified the step as a “fit and necessary war measure for suppressing the rebellion.” [16] The process of emancipation now became not only a moral crusade, but now became a key part of national strategy, not just in a military means, but politically, economically and diplomatically as Lincoln “also calculated that making slavery a target of the war would counteract the rising clamor in Britain for recognition of the Confederacy.”  [17]

Lincoln wrote to his future Vice President, Andrew Johnson, then the military governor of occupied Tennessee that “The colored population is the great available and yet unavailed of, force for restoration of the Union.”[18] The idea of simply mollifying the border states was dropped and policy changed that of “depriving the Confederacy of slave labor. Mobilizing that manpower for the Union – as soldiers as well as laborers – was a natural corollary.” [19] Reflecting President Lincoln’s and Stanton’s argument for the military necessity of emancipation, General Henry Halleck wrote to Ulysses Grant:

“the character of the war has very much changed within the past year. There is now no possibility of reconciliation with the rebels… We must conquer the rebels or be conquered by them….Every slave withdrawn from the enemy is the equivalent of a white man put hors de combat.” [20]

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Ulysses Grant concurred with Lincoln’s decision. Grant wrote to in a letter to Lincoln after the assault on Battery Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts, “by arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weakens him in the same proportion as it strengthens us.” [21] William Tecumseh Sherman was supportive but also noted some facts that some radical abolitionists did not understand. He noted in his correspondence that, “The first step in the liberation of the Negro from bondage will be to get him and his family to a place of safety… then to afford him the means of providing for his family,… then gradually use a proportion – greater and greater each year – as sailors and soldiers.” [22] Lincoln wrote after the Emancipation Proclamation that “the emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion.” [23] The change was a watershed in both American history as well as for the future of the U.S. Military services.

In conjunction with the Emancipation Proclamation Secretary of War Stanton “authorized General Rufus Saxton to “arm, uniform, equip, and receive into the service of the United States such number of volunteers of African descent as you may deem expedient, not exceeding 5,000, and [you] may detail officers to instruct them in military drill, discipline, and duty, and to command them.”  [24] The initial regiments of African Americans were formed by Union commanders in liberated areas of Louisiana and South Carolina, and most were composed of newly freed slaves. Others like the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiments were raised from free black men in the north. Stanton’s authorization was followed by the Enrollment Act passed by Congress in March of 1863 which established the draft also allowed blacks to serve. By March Stanton was working with state governors to establish more black regiments. The units became known as United States Colored Troops, or U.S.C.T. and were commanded by white officers and organized into the infantry, cavalry and, artillery regiments organized on the model of white regiments. The U.S.C.T. “grew to include seven regiments of cavalry, more than a dozen of artillery, and well over one hundred of infantry.” [25]

Some Union soldiers and officers initially opposed enlisting blacks at all, and some “charged that making soldiers of blacks would be a threat to white supremacy, and hundreds of Billy Yanks wrote home that they would no serve alongside blacks.” [26]  But most common soldiers accepted emancipation, especially those who had served in the South and seen the misery that many slaves endured, one Illinois soldier, stationed who served in the Western Theater of war wrote, “the necessity of emancipation is forced upon us by the inevitable events of the war… and the only road out of this war is by blows aimed at the heart of the Rebellion…. If slavery should be left undisturbed the war would be protracted until the loss of life and national bankruptcy would make peace desirable on any terms.” [27]

Another soldier’s letters home show his conversion from being against emancipation to being fully for it. Corporal Chauncey B. Welton from Ohio wrote to his father after the Emancipation proclamation:

“Father I want you to write and tell me what you think of Lincoln’s proclamation of setting all the negroes free. I can tell you we don’t think much of it hear in the army for we did not enlist to fight for the negro and I can tell you that we never shall or many of us any how[.] no never.”

Following over two years of combat in which he served with Sherman’s army he became a vocal critic of the anti-abolitionist Copperheads in the North, especially former Ohio Governor Clement Vallandigham, as well as a strong proponent of abolition and opponent of slavery. By February 1865 his tone had changed “dear parents let us trust in Him that never forsakes the faithful, and never cease to pray… that soon we may look upon an undivided Country and that Country free free free yes free from that blighting curs[e] Slavery the cause of four years of Bloody warfare.” [28]

Even so racial prejudice in the Union ranks never went away and sometimes was accompanied by violence. It remained a part and parcel of life in and outside of the army, even though many Union soldiers would come to praise the soldierly accomplishments and bravery of African American Soldiers. An officer who had refused a commission to serve with a U.S.C.T. regiment watched as black troops attacked the defenses of Richmond in September 1864:

“The darkies rushed across the open space fronting the work, under a fire which caused them loss, into the abattis… down into the ditch with ladders, up and over the parapet with flying flags, and down among, and on top of, the astonished enemy, who left in utmost haste…. Then and there I decided that ‘the black man could fight’ for his freedom, and that I had made a mistake in not commanding them.” [29] Likewise, “Once the Lincoln administration broke the color barrier of the army, blacks stepped forward in large numbers. Service in the army offered to blacks the opportunity to strike a decisive blow for freedom….” [30]

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The Defense of Milliken’s Bend 

Emancipation allowed for the formation of regiments of United States Colored Troops (USCT), which were mustered directly into Federal service. In sheer numbers the U.S.C.T. formations soon dwarfed the few state raised Black Regiments.  However, it was the inspiration provided by those first state raised regiments, the heroic accounts of those units reported in Northern newspapers, as well as the unprovoked violence directed against Blacks in the 1863 New York draft riots that helped to provoke “many northerners into a backlash against the consequences of violent racism.” [31]

Despite the hurdles and prejudices that blacks faced even in the North, many African Americans urged others to enlist, self-help mattered more than self-preservation. Henry Gooding, an black sergeant from Massachusetts wrote the editor of the New Bedford Mercury urging fellow blacks to enlist despite the dangers, “As one of the race, I beseech you not to trust a fancied security, laying in your minds, that our condition will be bettered because slavery must die…[If we] allow that slavery will die without the aid of our race to kill it – language cannot depict the indignity, the scorn, and perhaps the violence that will be heaped upon us.” [32]

The valor of the state regiments, as well as the USCT units that managed to get into action was remarkable, especially in regard to the amount of discrimination levied at them by some northerners, including white Northern soldiers, and the very real threat of death that they faced if captured by Confederates. In response to the Emancipation Proclamation and to the formation of African American regiments the Confederate Congress passed measures that would make Union officers who commanded African American troops as war criminals and return any black soldier captured by Confederate forces return to slavery, if those blacks captured in battle were not summarily tortured by their captors or executed as happened at Fort Wagner, Petersburg, and at Fort Pillow.

In late 1862 Major General Nathaniel Banks was in desperate need of soldiers and received permission to form a number of regiments of free blacks. Known as the First, Second and Third Regiments of the Louisiana Native Guards they were primarily composed of former slaves who had escaped to Union lines, as well as some mulattos who were the children of prominent white citizens of the city. During an inspection, the white Colonel of the Guards told another officer:

“Sir, the best blood of Louisiana is in that regiment! Do you see that tall, slim fellow, third file from the right of the second company? One of the ex-governors of the state is his father. That orderly sergeant in the next company is the son of a man who has been six years in the United States Senate. Just beyond him is the grandson of Judge ______ …; and through all the ranks you will find the same state of facts…. Their fathers are disloyal; [but] these black Ishmaels will more than compensate for their treason by fighting in the field.” [33]

In May of 1863 Banks dared to send the First and Third Regiments of “Louisiana Native Home Guard regiments on a series of attacks on Confederate positions at Port Hudson, Louisiana” [34] where they received their baptism of fire. They suffered heavy losses and “of the 1080 men in the ranks, 271 were hit, or one out of every four.” [35] A white Wisconsin soldier commented that the black soldiers “fought like devils,”while a soldier of the 156th New York wrote, “They charged and re-charged and they didn’t know what retreat meant. They lost in their two regiments some four hundred men as near as I can learn. This settles the question about niggers not fighting well. They on the contrary make splendid soldiers and are as good fighting men as we have.” [36] Banks too was caught up in the moment and said of these troops in his after action report: “They answered every expectation…In many respects their conduct was heroic…The severe test to which they were subjected, and the determined manner in which they encountered the enemy, leave upon my mind no doubt of their ultimate success.” [37]

 

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54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner 

But the most famous African American volunteer regiment was the 54thMassachusetts, commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the “North’s showcase black regiment.” [38] Raised in Boston and officered by many men who were the sons of Boston’s blue blood abolitionist elite, the regiment was authorized in March 1863. Since there was still opposition to the formation of units made up of African Americans, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew authorized the formation of the 54th under the command of white officers, a practice that with few exceptions, became standard in the U.S. military until President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948. Governor Andrew was determined to ensure that the officers of the 54th were men of “firm antislavery principles…superior to a vulgar contempt for color.”[39]

The 54th Massachusetts first saw action in early June 1863 and at Shaw’s urging were sent into battle against the Confederate positions at Fort Wagner on July 18th 1863. Leading the attack the 54th lost nearly half its men, “including Colonel Shaw with a bullet through his heart. Black soldiers gained Wagner’s parapet and held it for an hour before falling back.” [40]Though they tried to hold on they were pushed back after a stubborn fight to secure a breach in the fort’s defenses. “Sergeant William H Carney staggered back from the fort with wounds in his chest and right arm, but with the regiment’s Stars and Stripes securely in his grasp. “The old flag never touched the ground, boys,” Carney gasped as he collapsed at the first field hospital he could find.” [41] Shaw was buried with his men by the Confederates and when Union commanders asked for the return of his body were told “We have buried him with his niggers,” Shaw’s father quelled a northern effort to recover his son’s body with these words: We hold that a soldier’s most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen.” [42] As with so many frontal attacks on prepared positions throughout the war, valor alone could not overcome a well dug in enemy. “Negro troops proved that they could stop bullets and shell fragments as good as white men, but that was about all.” [43]

Despite the setback, the regiment went on to further actions where it continued to distinguish itself. The Northern press, particularly abolitionist newspapers brought about a change in the way that many Americans in the North, civilians as well as soldiers, saw blacks. The Atlantic Monthly noted, “Through the cannon smoke of that dark night, the manhood of the colored race shines before many eyes that would not see.”  [44]

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55th Massachusetts being welcomed in Charleston SC 

In the African American 55th Massachusetts, which was recruited after the 54th, twenty-one year old Sergeant Isaiah Welch wrote a letter which was published in the Philadelphia Christian Recorder from Folly Island South Carolina:

“I will mention a little about the 55th Massachusetts Regiment. They seem to be in good health at the present and are desirous of making a bold dash upon the enemy. I pray God the time will soon come when we, as soldiers of God, and of our race and country, may face the enemy with boldness. For my part I feel willing to suffer all privations incidental to a Christian and a soldier…. In conclusion, let me say, if I fall in the battle anticipated, remember, I fall in defense of my race and country. Some of my friends thought it very wrong of me in setting aside the work of the Lord to take up arms against the enemy…. I am fully able to answer all questions pertaining to rebels. If taking lives will restore the country to what it once was, then God help me to slay them on every hand.” [45]

Like the 54th Massachusetts, the 55th would see much action. After one particularly sharp engagement in July 1864, in which numerous soldiers had demonstrated exceptional valor under fire the regiment’s commander, Colonel Alfred S. Hartwell “recommended that three of the black sergeants of the 55th be promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.” But Hartwell’s request was turned down, and a member of the regiment complained, “But the U.S. government has refused so far to must them because God did not make them White…. No other objection is, or can be offered.”[46]

 


                                               Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, who had two sons serving in the 54th Massachusetts, understood the importance of African Americans taking up arms against those that had enslaved them in order to win their freedom:

“Once let a black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S… let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny he has won the right to citizenship in the United States.” [47]

Douglass urged African American men to enlist to secure their freedom, even while noting the inequities still prevalent in society and in the military, in which they did not receive the same pay as whites, nor could they become officers. Appealing to duty and reality Douglass noted in a speech in Philadelphia urging black men to volunteer. In it he carefully defined the real differences between the purposes of the Confederacy which was to “nothing more than to make the slavery of the African race universal and perpetual on this continent,” which was “based upon the idea that colored men are an inferior race, who may be enslaved and plundered forever.” [48]

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     Sergeant William Carney 54th Massachusetts, Medal of Honor

But the premier leader of the African Americans of his day, who had himself suffered as a slave, did not stop with that. Douglass understood that winning the war was more important that to what had been the attitude of the Federal government before the war and before emancipation, “Now, what is the attitude of the Washington government towards the colored race? What reasons have we to desire its triumph in the present contest? Mind, I do not ask what was its attitude towards us before the war…. I do not ask you about the dead past. I bring you to the living present.” He noted the advances that had been made in just a few months and appealed to his listeners. “Do not flatter yourselves, my friends, that you are more important to the Government than the Government to you. You stand but as the plank to the ship. This rebellion can be put down without your help. Slavery can be abolished by white men: but liberty so won for the black man, while it may leave him an object of pity, can never make him an object of respect…. Young men of Philadelphia, you are without excuse. The hour has arrived, and your place is in the Union army. Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all the mere parchment guarantees of liberty. In your hands that musket means liberty…” [49]

Other African American units less famous than the illustrious 54thMassachusetts distinguished themselves in action against Confederate forces. Two regiments of newly recruited blacks were encamped at Milliken’s Bend Louisiana when a Confederate brigade attempting to relieve the Vicksburg garrison attacked them. The troops were untrained and ill-armed but held on against a determined enemy:

“Untrained and armed with old muskets, most of the black troops nevertheless fought desperately. With the aid of two gunboats they finally drove off the enemy. For raw troops, wrote Grant, the freedmen “behaved well.” Assistant Secretary of War Dana, still with Grant’s army, spoke with more enthusiasm. “The bravery of the blacks,” he declared, “completely revolutionized the sentiment in the army with regard to the employment of negro troops. I heard prominent officers who had formerly in private had sneered at the idea of negroes fighting express after that as heartily in favor of it.”[50]

The actions of the black units at Milliken’s bend attracted the attention and commendation of Ulysses Grant, who wrote in his cover letter to the after action report, “In this battle most of the troops engaged were Africans, who had little experience in the use of fire-arms. Their conduct is said, however, to have been most gallant, and I doubt not but with good officers that they will make good troops.” [51] They also garnered the attention of the press. Harper’s published an illustrated account of the battle with a “double-page woodcut of the action place a black color bearer in the foreground, flanked by comrades fighting hand-to-hand with Confederates. A brief article called it a “the sharp fight at Milliken’s bend where a small body of black troops with a few whites were attacked by a large force of rebels.” [52] In the South the result was chilling and shocked whites, one woman wrote “It is hard to believe that Southern soldiers – and Texans at that – have been whipped by a mongrel crew of white and black Yankees…. There must be some mistake.” While another woman in Louisiana confided in her diary, “It is terrible to think of such a battle as this, white men and freemen fighting with their slaves, and to be killed by such a hand, the very soul revolts from it, O, may this be the last.” [53]

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Louisiana Native Guards at Port Hudson 

By the end of the war over 179,000 African American Soldiers, commanded by 7,000 white officers served in the Union armies. For a number of reasons most of these units were confined to rear area duties or working with logistics and transportation operations. The policies to regulate USCT regiments to supporting tasks in non-combat roles “frustrated many African American soldiers who wanted a chance to prove themselves in battle.” [54] Many of the soldiers and their white officers argued to be let into the fight as they felt that “only by proving themselves in combat could blacks overcome stereotypes of inferiority and prove their “manhood.” [55]Even so in many places in the army the USCT and state regiments made up of blacks were scorned:

“A young officer who left his place in a white regiment to become colonel of a colored regiment was frankly told by a staff officer that “we don’t want any nigger soldiers in the Army of the Potomac,” and his general took him aside to say: “I’m sorry to have you leave my command, and am still more sorry that you are going to serve with Negroes. I think that it is a disgrace to the army to make soldiers of them.” The general added that he felt this way because he was sure that colored soldiers just would not fight.”  [56]

The general of course, was wrong, for “Nothing eradicated the prejudices of white soldiers as effectively as black soldiers performing well under fire. And nothing inspired black soldiers to fight as desperately as the fear that capture meant certain death.” [57]  In the engagements where USCT units were allowed to fight, they did so with varying success most of which was often attributable to the direction of their senior officers and the training that they had received. As with any other unit, well led and well trained regiments performed better than those whose leaders had failed their soldiers. When given the chance they almost always fought well, even when badly commanded. This was true as well when they were thrown into hopeless situations.

One such instance was when Ferrero’s Division, comprised of colored troops were thrown into the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg when “that battle lost beyond all recall.” [58] The troops advanced in good order singing as they went, while their commander, General Ferrero took cover in a dugout and started drinking; but the Confederate defenders had been reinforced and “Unsupported, subjected to a galling fire from batteries on the flanks, and from infantry fire in front and partly on the flank,” a witness write, “they broke up in disorder and fell back into the crater.” [59] Pressed into the carnage of the crater where white troops from the three divisions already savaged by the fighting had taken cover, the “black troops fought with desperation, uncertain of their fate if captured.”[60] In the battle Ferrero’s division lost 1,327 of the approximately 4,000 men who made the attack. [61]

Major General Benjamin Butler railed to his wife in a letter against those who questioned the courage of African American soldiers seeing the gallantry of black troops assaulting the defenses of Petersburg in September 1864: The man who says that the negro will not fight is a coward….His soul is blacker than then dead faces of these dead negroes, upturned to heaven in solemn protest against him and his prejudices.” [62]

In another engagement, the 1864 Battle of Saltville in western Virginia the troops of the 5th USCT Cavalry who had been insulted, taunted, and derided by their fellow white Union soldiers went into action against Confederate troops defending the salt works in that town. The regiment’s commander, Colonel Wade, order his troops to attack. Colonel James Brisbin detailed the attack:

“the Negroes rushed upon the works with a yell and after a desperate struggle carried the line killing and wounding a large number of the enemy and capturing some prisoners…. Out of the four hundred men engaged, one hundred and fourteen men and four officers fell killed or wounded. Of this fight I can only say that men could not have behaved more bravely. I have seen white troops in twenty-seven battles and I never saw any fight better…. On the return of the forces those who had scoffed at the Colored Troops on the march out were silent.” [63]

The response of the Confederate government to Emancipation and African Americans serving as soldiers was immediate and uncompromisingly harsh. “When in the autumn of 1862 General Beauregard referred the question of a captured black soldier to Davis’s latest Secretary of War, James A. Seddon, the later replied “…my decision is that the negro is to be executed as an example.” [64] Davis approved of the summary executions of black prisoners carried out in South Carolina in November 1862, and a month later “on Christmas Eve, Davis issued a general order requiring all former slaves and their officers captured in arms to be delivered up to state officials for trial.” [65] Davis warned that “the army would consider black soldiers as “slaves captured in arms,” and therefore subject to execution.” [66] While the Confederacy never formally carried out the edict, there were numerous occasions where Confederate commanders and soldiers massacred captured African American soldiers.

The Lincoln administration responded to the Confederate threats by sending a note to Davis that threatened reprisals against Confederate troops if black soldiers suffered harm. It “was largely the threat of Union reprisals that thereafter gave African-American soldiers a modicum of humane treatment.” [67] Even so, they and their white officers were often in much more danger than the officers and soldiers of all-white regiments if captured by Confederate forces.

When captured by Confederates, black soldiers and their white officers received no quarter from many Confederate opponents. General Edmund Kirby Smith who held overall command of Confederate forces west of the Mississippi instructed General Richard Taylor to simply execute black soldiers and their white officers: “I hope…that your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers. In this way we may be relieved from a disagreeable dilemma.” [68] This was not only a local policy, but echoed at the highest levels of the Confederate government. In 1862 the Confederate government issued an order that threatened white officers commanding blacks: “any commissioned officer employed in the drilling, organizing or instructing slaves with their view to armed service in this war…as outlaws” would be “held in close confinement for execution as a felon.” [69] After the assault of the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner a Georgia soldier “reported with satisfaction that the prisoners were “literally shot down while on their knees begging for quarter and mercy.” [70]

                                                Fort Pillow Massacre 
On April 12th 1864 at Fort Pillow, troops under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred the bulk of over 231 Union Soldiers, most of them black as they tried to surrender. While it is fairly clear that Forrest did not order the massacre and even may have attempted to stop it, it was clear that he had lost control of his troops, and “the best evidence indicates that the “massacre”…was a genuine massacre.” [71] Forrest’s soldiers fought with the fury of men possessed by hatred of an enemy that they considered ‘a lesser race’ and slaughtered the Union troops as they either tried to surrender or flee; but while Forrest did not order the massacre, he certainly was not displeased with the result. His subordinate, General James Chalmers told an officer from the gunboat Silver Cloud that he and Forrest had neither ordered the massacre and had tried to stop their soldiers but that “the men of General Forrest’s command had such a hatred toward the armed negro that they could not be restrained from killing the negroes,” and he added, “it was nothing better than we could expect so long as we persisted in arming the negro.” [72] It was a portent of what some of the same men would do to defenseless blacks and whites sympathetic to them as members of the Ku Klux Klan, the White Liners, White League, and Red Shirts, during and after Reconstruction in places like Colfax Louisiana.

Ulysses Grant was infuriated and threatened reprisals against any Confederates conducting such activities, he a later wrote:

“These troops fought bravely, but were overpowered I will leave Forrest in his dispatches to tell what he did with them.

“The river was dyed,” he says, “with the blood of the slaughtered for up to 200 years. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed; but few of the officers escaped. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.” Subsequently Forrest made a report in which he left out the part that shocks humanity to read.”  [73]

The bulk of the fanatical hatred of Forrest’s troops was directed at the black soldiers of the 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, which composed over a third of the garrison. “Of the 262 Negro members of the garrison, only 58 – just over 20 percent – were marched away as prisoners; while of the 295 whites, 168 – just under sixty percent were taken.”  [74] A white survivor of the 13th West Tennessee Cavalry, a Union unit at the fort wrote:

We all threw down our arms and gave tokens of surrender, asking for quarter…but no quarter was given….I saw 4 white men and at least 25 negroes shot while begging for mercy….These were all soldiers. There were also 2 negro women and 3 little children standing within 25 steps of me, when a rebel stepped up to them and said, “Yes, God damn you, you thought you were free, did you?” and shot them all. They all fell but one child, when he knocked it in the head with the breech of his gun.” [75]

A Confederate Sergeant who was at Fort Pillow wrote home a week after the massacre: “the poor deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy, but were ordered to their feet and shot down.” [76] The captain of the Union gunboat Silver Cloud was allowed by the Confederate to bring his ship to the Fort to evacuate wounded, and to bury the dead was appalled at the sight, he wrote:

“All the buildings around the fort and the tents and huts in the fort had been burned by the rebels, and among the embers of the charred remains of numbers of our soldiers who had suffered terrible death in the flames could be seen. All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy…. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen, Bodies with gaping wounds,… some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that little quarter was shown…. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and the hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter…. Of course, when a work is carried by assault there will always be more or less bloodshed, even when all resistance has ceased; but here there were unmistakable evidences of a massacre carried on long after any resistance could have been offered, with a cold-blooded barbarity and perseverance which nothing can palliate.” [77]

The rabidly pro-slavery members of the Confederate press lent their propaganda to cheer the massacre of the captured blacks. John R. Eakin of the Washington (Arkansas) Washington Telegraph, who later became a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court after Reconstruction, wrote,

“The Slave Soldiers. – Amongst there are stupendous wrongs against humanity, shocking to the moral sense of the world, like Herod’s massacre of the Innocents, or the eve of St. Bartholomew, the crime of Lincoln in seducing our slaves into the ranks of his army will occupy a prominent position….

How should we treat our slaves arrayed under the banners of the invader, and marching to desolate our homes and firesides….

Meanwhile, the problem has been met our soldiers in the heat of battle, where there has been no time for discussion. They have cut the Gordian knot with the sword. They did right….

It follows that we cannot treat negroes in arms as prisoners of war without a destruction of the social system for which we contend. We must be firm, uncompromising and unfaltering. We must claim the full control of all negroes who may fall into our hands, to punish with death, or any other penalty, or remand them to their owners. If the enemy retaliate, we must do likewise; and if the black flag follows, the blood be upon their heads.” [78]

However, when African American Troops were victorious, and even after they had seen their brothers murdered by Confederate troops, that they often treated their Confederate with great kindness. Colonel Brisbin wrote that following Battle of Saltville that “Such of the Colored Soldiers who fell into the hands of the Enemy during the battle were murdered. The Negroes did not retaliate but treated the Rebel wounded with great kindness, carrying them water in their canteens and doing all they could to alleviate the sufferings of those whom the fortunes of war had placed in their hands.” [79]

African American soldiers proved themselves during the war and their efforts paved the way for Lincoln and others to begin considering the full equality of blacks as citizens. If they could fight and die for the country, how could they be denied the right to votes, be elected to office, serve on juries or go to public schools? Under political pressure to end the war during the stalemate before Petersburg and Atlanta in the summer of 1864, Lincoln reacted angrily to Copperheads as well as wavering Republicans on the issue of emancipation:

“But no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done.” More than 100,000 black soldiers were fighting for the Union and their efforts were crucial to northern victory. They would not continue fighting if they thought the North intended to betray them….If they stake their lives for us they must be prompted by the strongest motive…the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept…There have been men who proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors. “I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will.”  [80]

The importance of African Americans cannot be minimized, without them the war could have dragged on much longer or even ended in stalemate, which would have been a Confederate victory. Lincoln wrote about the importance of the African American contribution to the war effort in 1864:

“Any different policy in regard to the colored man, deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear. We can not spare the hundred and forty or hundred and fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and Steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.” [81]

Despite this, even in the North during and after the war, blacks, including former soldiers faced discrimination, sometimes that of the white men that they served alongside, but more often from those who did not support the war effort. Lincoln wisely took note of this fact, and wrote that after the war:

“there will there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, the clenched teeth, the steady eye, the well poised bayonet, they have helped  mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.” [82]

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Lt Stephen Swails, First African American Officer of 54th Massachusetts 

Those rights would be fought for another century and what began in 1863 with the brave service and sacrifice of these African American soldiers began a process of increased civil rights that is still going on today. It would not be until after the war that some blacks were commissioned as officers in the Army. When Governor John Andrew, the man who had raised the 54th Massachusetts attempted to “issue a state commission to Sergeant Stephen Swails of the 54th…the Bureau of Colored Troops obstinately refused to issue Swails a discharge from his sergeant’s rank, and Swails promotion was held up until after the end of the war. “How can we hope for success to our arms or God’s blessing,” raged the white colonel of the 54th, Edward Hallowell, “while we as a people are so blind to justice?” [83]

The families of the free blacks who volunteered also suffered, especially those who still had families enslaved in Confederate occupied areas or Union States which still allowed slavery. One women in Missouri wrote her husband begging him to come home “I have had nothing but trouble since you left….They abuse me because you went & say they will not take care of our children & do nothing but quarrel with me all the time and beat me scandalously the day before yesterday.”  [84]

However, the Emancipation Proclamation transformed the war, and even jaded White Union soldiers who had been against emancipation and who were deeply prejudiced against blacks began to change their outlook as the armies marched into the South and saw the horrors of slavery, Russell Weigley wrote that Union soldiers: “confronting the scarred bodies and crippled souls of African Americans as they marched into the South experienced a strong motivation to become anti-slavery men…Men do not need to play a role long, furthermore, until the role grows to seem natural and customary to them. That of liberators was sufficiently fulfilling to their pride that soldiers found themselves growing more accustomed to it all the more readily.” [85]

A sergeant of the 19th Michigan who had already lost a stepson in the war wrote to his wife from Georgia before being killed in action during the Atlanta campaign; “the more I learn of the cursed institution of Slavery, the more I feel willing to endure, for its final destruction…. After this war is over, this whole country will undergo a change for the better…. Abolishing slavery will dignify labor; that fact will revolutionize everything…. Let Christians use all their influence to have justice done to the black man.” [86]

But even more importantly for the cause of liberty, the sight of regiments of free African Americans, marching “through the slave states wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army and carrying rifles on their shoulders was perhaps the most revolutionary event of a war turned into revolution.” [87]

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At peak one in eight Union troops were African American, and Black troops made an immense contribution to the Union victory. “Black troops fought on 41 major battlefields and in 449 minor engagements. Sixteen soldiers and seven sailors received Medals of Honor for valor. 37,000 blacks in army uniform gave their lives and untold sailors did, too.” [88] To fully appreciate the measure as to the importance and significance of the numbers of African American troops serving in the Union ranks has to compare that number with the number of active Confederate troops serving toward the end of the war. The approximately 180,000 African Americans serving in Union ranks at the end of the war outnumbered the “aggregate present” in Confederate ranks on January 1st 1865 by over 20,000 men. Of these troops “134,111 were recruited in states that had stars in the Confederate battle flag, and the latter figure in turn was several thousand greater than the total of 135,994 gray-clad soldiers “present for duty” that same day.” [89]

Of the African American soldiers who faced the Confederates in combat, “deep pride was their compensation. Two black patients in an army hospital began a conversation. One of them looked at the stump of an arm he had once had and remarked: “Oh I should like to have it, but I don’t begrudge it.” His ward mate, minus a leg, replied: “Well, ‘twas [lost] in a glorious cause, and if I’d lost my life I should have been satisfied. I knew what I was fighting for.” [90]

22nd-usct-flags
Flags of the 22nd U.S. Colored Troops 

After the war many of the African American soldiers became leaders in the African American community and no less than 130 of these former soldiers held elected office including in the U.S. Congress and various state legislatures. The liberating aspect of “the black military experience radiated from black soldiers and their families into the larger black community, so it spread into white society as well.” [91]  Many abolitionists who had served as officers, and officers who were assigned to the USCT or volunteered to serve with state raised African American regiments became leaders continued to be voices for expanding civil rights in the years following the war.

Following war’s end, the demobilized African American troops became the target of racial discrimination and violence, but even so, “black veterans continued to play a central role in black communities, North and South. The skills and experience black men gained during the war not only propelled many of them into positions of leaders and sustained the prominence of others, but it also shaped the expectations and aspirations of all black people. The achievements and pride engendered by military service helped to make a new world of freedom.” [92]

Sadly, much of the nation has forgotten the efforts of the Free Black Soldiers and Sailors who fought for freedom, but even so their legacy remains in the “contribution of black soldiers to Union victory remained a point of pride in black communities. “They say,” an Alabama planter reported in 1867, “the Yankees never could have whipped the South without the aid of the Negroes.” Well into the twentieth century, black families throughout the United States would recall with pride that their fathers and grandfathers had fought for freedom.” [93]

Notes 

[1] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

[2] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p.435

[3] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.58

[4] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.58

[5] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p.369

[6] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.109

[7] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.531

[8] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.503

[9] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War p.101

[10] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.160

[11] Foner, Eric Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2005 p.45

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.160

[13] Ibid. Glatthaar General Lee’s Army from Victory to Collapse p.313

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.160

[15] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p.465

[16] Egnal, Marc Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War Hill and Wang a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York 2009 p.318

[17] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.48

[18] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.159

[19] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword p.159

[20] Ibid. McPherson Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution p.35

[21] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.381

[22] Ibid. Dobak Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 p.10

[23] Ibid. McPherson Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution p.35

[24] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.31

[25] Ibid. Dobak Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 p.11

[26] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.31

[27] Ibid. Gallagher, Gary W. The Union War Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 2011 p.103

[28] Welton, Chauncey B. A Union Soldier’s Changing Views on Emancipationin The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William Gienapp, W.W. Norton Company, New York and London 2001 pp.242 and 245

[29] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.34

[30] Glatthaar, Joseph T. Black Glory: The African American Role in Union Victory in Why the Confederacy Lost edited by Gabor S. Boritt Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1992

[31] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.686

[32] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.282

[33] Jones, Terry L. The Free Men of Color Go to War in The new York Times Disunion: 106 Articles from the New York Times Opinionator edited by Ted Widmer with Clay Risen and George Kalogerakis, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, New York 2013 p.403

[34] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.379

[35] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.398

[36] Ibid. Trudeau Like Men of War p.44

[37] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.379

[38] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.686

[39] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword p.101

[40] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.686

[41] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening pp. 380-381

[42] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom pp.686-687

[43] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.697

[44] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.686

[45] Welch, Isaiah H. Letter in the Christian Recorder 24 October 1863 in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 pp.225-226

[46] Trudeau, Noah Andre, Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865 Little, Brown and Company, Boston, New York and London, 1998 p.262

[47] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 381

[48] Douglass, Frederick Philadelphia Speech of July 6th 1863 recorded in the Liberator in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 pp.220-221

[49] Ibid. Douglass Philadelphia Speech of July 6th 1863 p.221

[50] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.634

[51] Ibid. Trudeau Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865p.58

[52] Ibid. Gallagher The Union War p.97

[53] Ibid. Trudeau Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865 p.59

[54] Ibid. Gallagher The Union War p.92

[55] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword p.89 p.

[56] Catton, Bruce. A Stillness at Appomattox Doubleday and Company Garden City, New York 1953 p.227

[57] Berlin, Ira, Riedy, Joseph P. and Rowland, Leslie S. editors, Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York 1998 pp.133-134

[58] Ibid. Catton A Stillness at Appomattox p.249

[59] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Three Red River to Appomattox Random House, New York 1974 p.537

[60] Ibid.Wert The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac pp.384-385

[61] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.537

[62] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.34

[63] Ibid. Berlin et al, Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War  p.135

[64] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.189

[65] Ibid. McPherson Battle Cry of Freedom p.566

[66] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p. 280

[67] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.188

[68] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 377

[69] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 377

[70] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.281

[71] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.189

[72] Ibid. Dobak Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 p.208

[73] Grant, Ulysses S. Preparing for the Campaigns of ’64 in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume IV, Retreat With Honor Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel Castle, Secaucus NJ pp.107-108

[74] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.111

[75] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p. 378

[76] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.112

[77] Ibid. Dobak Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 p.208

[78] Eakin, John R. The Slave Soldiers, June 8, 1864  in Loewen, James W. and Sebesta, Edward H. editors, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about “The Lost Cause” University of Mississippi Press, Jackson 2010 pp.210 and 212

[79] Ibid. Berlin et al, Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War  p.47

[80] Ibid. McPherson Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution p.89

[81] Ibid. Glatthaar Black Glory: The African American Role in Union Victoryp.138

[82] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 113

[83] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p. 376

[84] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.282

[85] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.192

[86] Ibid. McPherson For Cause and Comrades p.130

[87] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.191

[88] Gallagher, Gary, Engle, Stephen, Krick, Robert K. and Glatthaar editors The American Civil War: The Mighty Scourge of War Osprey Publishing, Oxford UK 2003 p.296

[89] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Three Red River to Appomattox p.756

[90] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.36

[91] Ibid. Berlin et al, Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War  p.47

[92] Ibid. Berlin et al. Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War pp.49-50

[93] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.55

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“The notion of a Christian Commonwealth should be exploded forever…” The Virginia Statute on Religious Liberty at 235 Years

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Two hundred and thirty five years ago, in the year 1786, the the legislature of the Commonwealth Of Virginia ratified a law written by Thomas Jefferson. It was the precursor to the Establishment and the Free Exercise Clauses Of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

It is the antithesis of, and the antidote to all theocratic movements, to include contemporary Christian Nationalism and it’s close cousin Christian Dominionism, or as it is sometimes called Seven Mountains Theology. The tragic thing is that despite their declining numbers the theocrats have continued to gain power and influence government policy over the last four years in way the framers would have opposed. Not only do this they attempt to threaten and shout down their opponents in the most unseemly manner. I have had to deal with one of these asshats over the past week.

Likewise I continue to discover that with few exceptions that if you are a minister that with few exceptions most ministers or chaplains will use you, abuse you and when done abandon you. Truthfully, most ministers are thin skinned, cowardly sonsofbitches who if you are a ministerial colleague will smile to your face as they plunge a dagger into your back, this is especially true of Christian ministers across the theological and political spectrum. They would rather make their beds with the powerful than care for the weak, broken, hurt, or damaged in their ranks. I know this from personal experience, the experience of my friends, and from numerous amounts of analytical and polling data, but I digress.

In the 1770s and 1780s Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and their Virginia Baptist ally, John Leland understood the threat to a republic such as ours posed by religious theocrats of any type, to include Christians.

The Virginia statute was necessitated by militant Anglicans who desired to re-establish themselves as the state religion in Virginia and had gone about using physical violence against various dissenters, especially Virginia’s Baptist minority. It is fascinating, in a frightening and grotesque sense of the word to see Virginia Baptists like Jerry Falwell Jr., and other Evangelical leaders of the Free Church tradition, including Pat Robertson, Franklin Gresham, Paula White, Tony Perkins, John Hagee, Robert Jeffress, Rick Wiles, and a host of other contemporary theocrats interpreting Religious Freedom in a manner similar to the Anglicans of Virginia in the 1780s, or in the manner of all Christians who follow the path of Constantine.

Not all of these religious leaders are Baptists, but many are independents, charismatics, Pentecostals, and other conservative Evangelicals of many denominations have thrown their lot in the hat of theocracy and authoritarian rule.

The late great Southern Baptist Pastor and seminary president George Truett, wrote about them:

“Constantine, the Emperor, saw something in the religion of Christ’s people which awakened his interest, and now we see him uniting religion to the state and marching up the marble steps of the Emperor’s palace, with the church robed in purple. Thus and there was begun the most baneful misalliance that ever fettered and cursed a suffering world…. When … Constantine crowned the union of church and state, the church was stamped with the spirit of the Caesars…. The long blighting record of the medieval ages is simply the working out of that idea.”

The Virginia Statute stood in complete opposition to theocratic minded Americans then, and now. The statute which I post below in its entirety is must reading for anyone who thinks that they understand what the founders of the United States believed about religious liberty:

An Act for establishing religious Freedom

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;

That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do,

That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;

That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical;

That even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the Ministry those temporary rewards, which, proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;

That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry,

That therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right,

That it tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it;

That though indeed, these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way;

That to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own;

That it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;

And finally, that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

Please, take some time to let those words sink in, especially if you think that religious liberty is only for people of your favorite religion, or the one that you belong to. The fact is, that those who established religious liberty in the United States, many of them like John Leland, professing Christians, did not think that religious liberty was for the powerful, or those who wanted to dominate others on the basis of religion wedded to government and political power.

Leland wrote:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

With that I bid you a good night, or maybe a troubling one. It all depends on ones perspective. I don’t say that lightly; but really, considering my vivid dreams, nightmares, and night terrors brought on by PTSD and a neurological condition that ensures that those dreams, nightmares, and terrors are acted out when I am in REM sleep, maybe it is a necessary step to healing.

If you value freedom those words may be hopeful; but if you don’t, they are a threat, a threat of unlimited government and religious power. The fact is, that all of us, regardless of our religious beliefs, or lack thereof must take them to heart when we proclaim our loyalty to the Constitution, and our belief in the First Amendment to it, if we don’t we actively proclaim our opposition to the ideals of our Founders, but I digress. The simple fact and problem is that authoritarians and theocrats hate the First Amendment, and have to twist it to ensure that only their rights are protected and enhanced. However, the Virginia Statute, and the First Amendment at meant by the Founders, threatens their desires of theocracy and unbridled state power, and so long as we believe it and fight for it, undermines their power. My friends, if you know history, that is not a bad thing. As John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton wrote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”,

Think about it, the police power of the state married to religion. For God’s sakes, we are not Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Taliban, the perverted Shinto of Imperial Japan, the Tsarist and Putin’s Russia, or any other state that relies on the unwavering loyalty of its religious majority, or powerful minority, to maintain power. In time they all come crashing down, as will Trump’s Cult.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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There is Nothing More Difficult than Understanding Evil: Dealing with the Evils Unleashed By President Trump

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”

Back in 2010 I had a creditable and very specific death threat from a Neo-Nazi in East Tennessee. The man had a formidable internet presence, many publications online, including articles on how best to assassinate people. So I did my research, figured out who he was and reported him to the FBI. A week later his internet presence disappeared. I don’t know what happened to him, but I watch my back.

Over the past few days I have been helping a Jewish friend who is dealing with many Neo-Nazi threats and harassment for supporting an effort to have headstones replaced at the San Antonio Military Cemetery. The headstones were of German POWs but each had a Swastika and the words “he died for his Fuhrer and Fatherland” on them. The fact is that such words and symbols are not allowed by the German Government on the graves of their WWII soldiers in Germany or at any German military cemetery in Europe. Why they ended up on headstones here I don’t know. When an United States Army Colonel complained to the VA about them he was brushed off. That man asked my friend to help. As a result the VA relented, removed the headstones and replaced them with headstones giving the soldier’s names, ranks, military service, and dates of birth and death. But to Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists this was unforgivable.

My friend forwarded those emails to me for assistance. Two were smart enough to use fake email addresses, but one of those revealed his actual name. Another was stupid enough to use his real name and email address. Within 15 minutes I found a plethora of incriminating evidence against him revealing his Nazi affiliations, statements, and all kinds of things easily available through a Google search and tools that are available to purchase. After the first death threat I learned and am continuing learn how to track these people down and expose them to the public from the internet slime they hid in. Sadly, there are a lot more of them now than a decade ago.

But despite attacks and mass murders at synagogues and Jewish Schools, centers, and the vandalism of Jewish businesses, cemeteries, schools, shrines, and synagogues most Americans don’t see the threat. Nor do they when Black Churches are burned, bombed, or attacked by mass murderers. The problem is that most people, even those repulsed by the vile criminals who do such things really don’t want to understand why these people do such things.

I admit that it is uncomfortable and deeply unsettling to do the work needed to understand them, because to do so we have to understand evil and our vulnerability to resorting to evil ourselves. However, it is necessary if we are to stop the scourge of Anti-Semitism and racism in our country. But let me explain.

I think one of our problems is that we want to believe that evil is simply done be evil people. That is why when we see a Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or the monsters of the so-called Islamic State, we are often strangely comforted. This is often  because we can point to a single person with a wicked ideology and say “they are evil,” all the while forgetting that they are, or were, like us, also human. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us of the folly of that type of thinking:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

A few years ago I took a break from my Gettysburg studies and writing and dusted off an old academic paper dealing with the one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews. I did that because I felt that I needed to reexamine the nature of evil in the modern world. Since that time I have gone back, done more study, more writing, and made more visits to locations of Nazi evil.

When I ponder the evil committed by supposedly civilized men and women of Germany, I realize that they are little different than others who share the culture of the West. These people were the products of a culture of learning, and of science. They were part of a culture formed by the Christian tradition, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, the age of Reason. As I pondered this I came to remember something said by the late Iris Chang“civilization is tissue thin.”

Omaha_courthouse_lynching

                                    Lynching in the American South

That series of articles about the Einsatzgruppen dealt with the ordinary men, and the bureaucratic systems that implemented an ideology so twisted and evil that it is unimaginable to most people. In fact even in the Nazi system the much of the genocide was not committed in the death camps, but up close and personal by men standing over pits with pistols, rifles, and machine guns.

While most people in the United States know a little about the Holocaust, most do not fully comprehend how devilish and insidious the crimes of the Nazis were. More frightening is the fact that in a 2015 survey 46% of people worldwide have never heard of the Holocaust, and of the 54% who are aware of it some 32% think it is a myth or has been greatly exaggerated. The numbers will only get worse as we become farther removed from these events and the survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators die off. The same is true for other genocidal acts.

We typically know about the extermination camps like Auschwitz, but the lesser known dark side of the Holocaust, perhaps the scariest part, is the story of the men of the Einsatzgruppen. The Einsatzgruppen and affiliated units, including those of the Wehrmacht, the Waffen SS, the mobilized battalions of the Order Police, and locally recruited units, rounded up massive numbers of people and killed them up close and personal. In all these units murdered over two million people, about 1.3 million of whom were Jews.

My study of the Holocaust began in college as an undergraduate. My primary professor at California State University at Northridge, Dr. Helmut Haeussler had been an interpreter and interrogator at the Nuremberg trials. I was able to take a number of lecture classes from him a large amount of research and independent study courses in a year of graduate work while finishing my Army ROTC program at UCLA. It was an immersion in the history, sociology, and the psychology of evil, during which I was able to meet and talk with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

mass killing einsatzgruppen

                       Einsatzgruppen and Ordungspolizei in Russia

Since then I have continued to read and study. I lived in Germany for over four years, and made many other visits, during which I went to a number of Concentration Camp sites. I have been to Dachau more times than Incan count since 1996, Bergen-Belsen, Flossenbürg and Buchenwald. I visited the T4 Euthanasia Center at Hadamar, the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, the Wannsee House and many other sites of remembrance in Germany. Likewise I visited the rebuilt synagogue in Worms which had been destroyed during the infamous Kristallnacht, and other museums and Holocaust memorial sites in Germany. I visited the Zeppelin field, the site of Hitler’s massive Nazi Party rallies in Nuremburg, as well as the graveyards which contain the victims of other Nazi crimes, including the Nacht und Nebel or night and fog actions, where people simply disappeared and were murdered by the Gestapo.

For me, those visits were sobering, maybe even more so because I understood exactly what happened in those sites. These are uncomfortable places to visit, and I can understand why many people would not want to visit them, or even study them. But once the COVID-19 Pandemic travel restrictions are over I will go to Auschwitz and the sites like Babi Yar outside Kiev where the Einsatzgruppen killed 33,000 Jews up close and personal in three days. I refuse to stop learning, remembering, walking, or bearing witness.

The darkness that they remind us of  is a part of our human condition. Traces of the evil on display in those places is present in every human being regardless of who we are. Frankly, most people cannot bear looking into that abyss, for fear that they might be swallowed by it. I choose to go there knowing the danger because it is the only way to bear witness and not forget.

nankino-masakra-1

                                                            Nankingnanking_massacre_1

I can understand why most people don’t want to go to dark places,  and I have to admit that it is hard to do so. I am a historian as well as a clinician with much experience dealing with death and trauma. With my training I do a pretty good job of keeping my emotional distance to maintain objectivity when confronted with evil. However, it is hard for me not to have some emotional reaction when visiting these places, or reading about the events and people, and in writing about them. That happens even more when I have to deal with them after I find them and confront them. None are ever sorry or have any capacity for empathy. They are sociopaths and therefore dangerous.

Likewise, I am very troubled by the growing lack or awareness or denial of the Holocaust. It is very hard for me not to have a virulent reaction when I see books and websites dedicated to Holocaust denial, or that minimize other well documented genocides, and crimes against humanity.

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                                      Soviet Mass Killings in Ukraine

My sensitivity to human suffering and the terrible indifference of people in this country to it was greatly increased by my experience of war, and my post-war struggles with PTSD, depression, anxiety, which at points left me very close to committing suicide. A non-chaplain friend, a now retired Navy Command Master Chief Petty Officer that I served with at my last duty station recently remarked that I am a tremendously empathic person, and that I have a large capacity to feel the pain and suffering of others. This capacity for empathy and the ability to feel the suffering of others is part of who I am.

That is a good thing, but it makes my work studying and writing about the Holocaust, other genocides, crimes against humanity, and subjects like American slavery, racism, and Jim Crow a sometimes difficult and often very emotionally consuming task. This sometimes leaves me even more sleepless and anxious than normal; especially when I see the indifference of so many people to the suffering of others today.

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                                                  The Killing Fields

It is that indifference which motivates me to write; because if these events are not recalled and retold, they, like any part of history will be ignored and then forgotten. The statistics bear this out. There are people today, who say that we should stop talking about these events, that they are old news, and they cannot happen again; but history tells us different, and not just the Holocaust, but indeed every genocide. Then there are those who shamelessly use the Holocaust imagery to spread fear among their followers even as they openly demonize minority groups and religions as the Nazis did to the Jews.

I have to agree with Elie Wiesel who said, “Indifference to me, is the epitome of all evil.”

The late Iris Chang, who wrote The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II wrote something that is pertinent to almost every modern episode of genocide, or other crime against humanity. It is the ability of leaders, be they political, military, or religious to convince people to rationalize actions that they normally would find repulsive.

“After reading several file cabinets’ worth of documents on Japanese war crimes as well as accounts of ancient atrocities from the pantheon of world history, I would have to conclude that Japan’s behavior during World War II was less a product of dangerous people than of a dangerous government, in a vulnerable culture, in dangerous times, able to sell dangerous rationalizations to those whose human instincts told them otherwise.”

There are many other such events that we could note; the American decimation and genocide committed against native American tribes that spanned close to two centuries, the 1915 Turkish genocide of Armenians, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the Serbian atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Chinese Communist “Great Leap Forward,” the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the more recent but seldom discussed action of the Myanmar government and military against its Rohingya Muslim minority.

                        Rwandan Genocide

What we call civilization, to use the words of Iris Chang, is tissue thin. That is why we must never forget these terrible events of history, and that part of human nature, and in a sense part of every one of us, that makes them so easy to repeat. That is why we must periodically take the time to remember and reflect on the Holocaust, other genocides and crimes against humanity.

It is even more important now with the rise of fascist, nationalist, and racist regimes around the world. Even in the United States these demons of the past, racism, nationalism, and fascism have come out into the open as those who believe in them have become emboldened by the words of President Trump and members of his administration. Trump’s time as President is about up, but he as awoken and emboldened an evil that was always a part of American life, but needed permission to go public.

In 2017 Trump briefly attempted to clean up his inaction after the violence committed by neo-Nazis and KKK sympathizers in Charlottesville.  He equated the Nazis and Klansmen with the people that they attacked. Under pressure made a speech condemning the Nazis and Klansmen. According to Bob Woodward, when a Fox News correspondent said his statement was almost an admission that he was wrong,” the President exploded at Rob Porter, the aide who convinced him to make the speech: “That was the biggest fucking mistake I’ve made,” the President told Porter. “You never make those concessions. You never apologize. I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place. Why look weak?” A few days later the President returned to the subject and again made the argument of moral equivalence.

Coupled with so many of the President’s words and policies directed against Blacks, Mexicans and Central Americans, Arabs, Africans, and others; as well as his attacks on the First Amendment and his praise and defense of cold blooded dictators around the world one has to take it more seriously. Even though he is soon to leave officer his Neo-Nazi and White Nationalist supporters will remain as dangerous as ever.

This is not an issue that simply lurks in the past, it is a very real part of the present. I wish that was not the case, but it is. Historian Timothy Snyder wrote:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

Yes, these are terribly uncomfortable subjects, but we cannot allow this generation to allow them to be forgotten, lest they be repeated. That is why that I must continue to write about them and do my best to make sure that they are not forgotten as we cannot afford to let them happen again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Christmas in the Cauldron: Dr. Kurt Reuber and the Madonna of Stalingrad

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is Christmas Eve and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. In such an environment I reflect on men who lived in a human made hell, a hell made by hate filled ideologues who launched the world into its bloodiest war and Genocide and I wonder, could it happen again? A decade ago I would have said it never could again happen, but now I am not so sure. After the ravages that Donald Trump leveled on the world, promoting instability, lawlessness, enabling and emboldening enemies of the United States and our allies, coupled with the Coronavirus 19 Pandemic I must try to find hope wherever I can find it.

I think most of my readers know that I am a very soon to be retired career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German Lutheran Pastor and Medical Doctor named Kurt Reuber.

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A Self-Portrait of Reuber

As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer and in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. He was opposed to the Nazis and had a love of the Russian people, who when he was not treating German wounded attempted to care for, especially the children. He was also an artist who used what he could to draw portraits of soldiers to send home to their families. Many of these still exist.

By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

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However, unlike most physicians, the care Reuber offered care included spiritual matters, as he sought to help his soldiers deal with the hopelessness of their situation. As Reuber reflected on the desperation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

The picture was drawn with charcoal on the back of a captured Soviet map and depicted a Russian Madonna and child. When he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine to German soldiers. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

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As the siege continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froehliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battalion commander as the officer was too ill to carry on and that man was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket. Reuber’s commander carried the Madonna out of the pocket and returned it delivered it to Reuber’s family, preserving it for all.

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth.

In a farewell letter to his wife that accompanied his portrait out of Stalingrad he wrote:

“Look in the child the firstborn of a new humanity, born in pain, outshining all darkness and sadness. Let it be for us a symbol of a victorious and joyful life in the future, which we want to love more genuinely and warmly after all of death’s experiences, a life, which is worth living only if it is radiating light and pure warm love.” 

I wonder if the American Christians that continue to swear fealty to President Trump despite the elector defeat he continues to deny will ever have the capacity to reflect and repent for the evil they helped support. Sadly, twenty or so years ago I would have likely been part of Trump’s cult of “Christian” followers, or if not a part of the cult, a bystander who helped him by choosing to ignore the evil out of Party loyalty. Thankfully my tour in Iraq cured me of that and because I left the GOP was not deceived by Trump.

Reuber wrote at Yelabuga:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

prisoner's madonna

Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, at Yelabuga not long after writing this and about a month after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home.

His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin after it was restored as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel.

I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office since until a few weeks ago. I have it at home but I think I have to wait in until we sell our townhome and move to a new place before I can display it in my home office. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. I miss looking on it every day. To me the print is a symbol of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

Praying for an end to war, the Coronavirus Pandemic and the hell of the past several years.

Peace and Merry Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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“The Wrong Shall Fail, the Right Prevail” I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day in the Final Days of Trump

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

After another long day, most of it spent in the Dental Clinic getting examined, x-rayed and when that cut into the time to do the concluding work on the root canal. So I had to go back in the afternoon. In between I went to deal with making sure the lady correcting my DD-214. So from 8:00 to 9:00 AM, that’s 0800-0900 military time, I was getting x-rayed and prodded. From nine to 1215 on the road and working on my personnel records to correct the DD-214 before being in the chair another couple of hours getting prepped and completing what had been started a couple of weeks ago. The problem was that in dental-speak the inside of that molar had “unusual architecture” only found in about 6% of people. That being said the did well, I suffered no undo pain, was informed that the other teeth they checked were not in need of any immediate treatment and for that I am glad. But I digress…

I could be writing about the travails being inflicted on the country and the world by our soon to be former President Donald Trump, but I do enough of that. Christmas is coming and even when I don’t explicitly write about Trump the message of the season stands against him and against all that he stands. Frankly I couldn’t give a horses patoot what his Court Following of Evangelical Christian Leaders or his Cult of badly compromised Conservative, Evangelical, Charismatic, Pentecostal, and Catholic followers, who choose him over Christ on a daily basis.

I cannot be part of that despite what such people call me on social media and in comments I will not approve on this blog. Christmas of 2020 comes amid social and religious turmoil not seen since the 1850s that led up to the American Civil War. The rhetoric across the politic spectrum is becoming more uncompromising, and especially in the case of Trump supporters tinged by threats of violence, and even killing political opponents, and this is condoned by supposedly Christian people. Trump demands their fealty and most regardless of the reality of his election loss many if not most continue to worship at his electroplated golden calf.

It is in such times that I reach back to history and often music that came out of the tumult. The American Civil War was such an occasion.

The great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned these words of hope on Christmas Day, 1863:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Christmas is coming and I feel that Longfellow’s words are as pertinent today as when he first penned them. The thought of what is to come in the next few years, in the United States and in many other liberal democracies bodes ill for our future as authoritarian and often xenophobic leaders like Trump rise to power. The world that we grew up is is passing away, and what comes in its place, a dystopian world where hope will be a rare commodity beckons.

Longfellow’s words became the heart of the song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.  I have heard it a number of times in the past few days and each time it really touches me, because it is real. In it reality and faith come face to face, and both win. No-matter what Trump and his cult do, they will fail and the right will prevail.

The song has been recorded in a number of versions by different artists over the years. However, the words of the song go back to the American Civil War. Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863 following the serious wounding of his son Charles, a Lieutenant in the Union Army at the Battle of New Hope Church during the Mine Run Campaign (not to be confused with a battle of the same name outside Atlanta in 1864) and the death of his wife in a fire two years before. Longfellow had much to despair about, but he maintained a faith in God, as well as the founding principles of the United States.

Longfellow’s words are haunting. Probably because they demonstrate the profound tension that lies at the heart of the Incarnation, which is the heart of Christmas and the Christian faith. the tension, played out so well in the song is the existence of a message of peace and reconciliation in a world where war and hatred of many kinds rip human beings apart coupled with the tragic inability of Christendom, especially American Conservative Evangelicalism to even come close to the message of Christmas.

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along th’ unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

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The reality of this is seen in the third verse. It is a verse that echoes throughout history and seems to be true even today, in fact it seems to be the most real as we deal with war, hatred, terrorism, killing in the name of God, and political fratricide.

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

The interesting part about the songs as opposed to the poem is that they omit three of Longfellow’s verses that admittedly in a reunited country would not help record sales. Those verses speak to the heart of the Civil War.

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But Longfellow hears in the bells something more powerful. It is the message of Christmas and the incarnation. The message that justice and peace will finally embrace.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till ringing, singing on its way

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The song has been recorded many times by many artists. I like the version sung by Frank Sinatra, which the music was composed by Johnny Marks, composer of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Another earlier version composed by John Baptiste Calkin has been recorded by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash among others.

As wars rage in the Middle East, tensions rise in Asia, Africa and even Eastern Europe while the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers, led by the American President rage as we go into another, and even more perilous year with the possibility of nuclear war more probably than not, people still look for hope.

Longfellow, who lost so much in a short time in the midst of a terrible Civil War, reminds us that in such times, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

In a time like this when the world led by the American President seems to be hurtling into the abyss, it is important to remember Longfellow’s words and the message of Christ and the Incarnation. The child born as an outcast in a manger would die as a criminal, crucified by an occupying power with the full support of the leaders of the occupied country. As the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” 

Yes, the wrong shall fail, and the right prevail, but it in the age of Trump it will certainly involve much travail. As for the travail, it is just beginning.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Christmas Coda: Joyeux Noel and My Call after the Military

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As a veteran who served in the badlands of Al Anbar Province during Christmas of 2007 I can relate to Father Palmer, the British priest and chaplain in the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) when he makes the comment “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

I again watched that film tonight. The film is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it. It reminds me of serving in Iraq, at Christmas from my perspective as a Chaplain, and thereby giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me. It reminds me of how much I hate war, and how much I often hate the clergy who are all too often, bloodthirsty

 

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre in the film, who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead. His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within this country.

I was reminded of that last night and today as the now Impeached President called upon and received the fealty and obedience of his Imperial Court Clergy, and the ever faithful cult of conservative and Evangelical Christians while pledging to destroy his enemies. In such a time I cannot

The Bishop who relieved Father Palmer went on to preach a sermon to newly arrived troops.

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.” Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact until very recently they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.

When I left Iraq the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie. While I cannot prove it I do believe, and have heard from others who used to work at the Chief of Chaplains office that I have been shunned and punished by past and present leaders of the Chaplain Corps because of my witness in being open about my struggles with faith and PTSD. A can recount a number of incidents that would be of circumstantial evidence, but I digress. That being said I am much better off for that experience than I would be had it not occurred.

It has been thirteen years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Just a year later I was walking home from church where my wife was to sing in the choir during the Christmas vigil mass. I couldn’t handle the crowds, the noise, and I felt so far away from God. That night I walked home in the dark looking up into the sky asking God if he still was there. If there had been a bar on the way home I would have stopped by and poured myself in.

Since Iraq I have dealt with severe and chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, but even more so and maybe more importantly by my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy. It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many. Unlike a few years ago they now occupy the seat of political power as sycophants of our soon to be ex-President, offering no prophetic voice but speaking the words of death covered in the veneer of the Christian faith.

As for me I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance that summer. I have a REM sleep disorder in which my body doesn’t shut down when I get into REM sleep. This reacts well with the Nightmare and Night Terror disorders because I act out my responses to those terrors. In 2014 I ended up with a visit to the medical clinic with a concussion and sprained jaw and neck. In 2016 I broke my nose, and dark and early this morning I busted my head open  requiring 9 stitches, 2 deep ones and 7 on top. Thankfully Judy got my stubborn ass to the ER. Coupled with my other ongoing maladies of the past couple of months I am really getting too old for this shit.

As for faith, I do believe again, more often than not, though at the same time I doubt. Though I believe I think I still consider myself to be a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and yet, I don’t and I don’t think that is a bad thing, I think it helps me understand those who no longer believe, those that struggle, and those who raised as Christians have left the faith.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will be retired, unless some massive war breaks out and they start calling back recent retirees to service. That has happened before and the Soviets, Chicoms and Iranians aren’t taking time off for Christmas.

However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home. Three years ago I hosted the NATO contingent at my former chapel, and had the honor of preaching an Advent message in German.

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Over the last year of my service I continued speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel as well as the leaders of the so called “Conservative Evangelicals” who supported a President who says “Merry Christmas” even as he continues to defecate on all who believe in the God who became incarnate as a helpless babe in a manger and who died on a cross.  Last year I saw a mocking meme of Trump saying “Merry Christmas” as he holds a bigger than life Bible to his chest from a very conservative evangelical friend on Facebook, it was blasphemous. Those people remind me of the hate filled nationalist British Bishop.

The French mystic Simone Weil said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” I think that sums up the President and his ardent Evangelical supporters. I don’t think they would recognize Christ if he walked among them and would have been among those shouting “Crucify him!” but of course I could be wrong in some individual cases.

So, this Christmas, like the theologian Paul Tillich I have come to believe  that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  In other words I am going to be faithful to the Crucified Christ and remain a complete pain in the ass to them until the day that I die, a real Padre Smedley if you get my drift.

Once again I watched Joyeux Noel, and as usual I cried. Though I had my retirement ceremony Monday, and am officially retired on 31 December and I am praying for peace in hopes that someday it becomes real. St. Francis prayed:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hated, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may no so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying hat we are born into eternal life. 

After all, I still belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, whether I am in the Navy or not.

So until tomorrow,

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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“ I pray to you to help me, and every day I get worse. Are you deaf, too?“ Thoughts of a Washed up Priest and Chaplain at the End of a Military Career


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A few nights ago I watched the final episode of the television series M*A*S*H “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” As I mentioned in my last blog both the series and the film have been important and long lasting parts of my life. It is interesting because when I was first commissioned as an Army Second Lieutenant on 19 June 1983 in the Medical Service Corps, and September 1992 became a Chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard, subsequently serving in the Virginia Army National Guard and Army Reserve as a Chaplain. I also served as a Armor Officer in Texas during seminary. On 9 February 1999 I turned in my Gold Oak Leaf as a Major in the Army for the two Silver Bars of a Navy Chaplain Corps Lieutenant.

Now, 21 years after that move I am a washed up Chaplain and Navy Commander mostly abandoned by fellow Chaplains for openly and honesty dealing with the ravages of PTSD, abandonment which created moral injury that I have never recovered from, no matter how hard I prayed the Daily Office, or studied scripture and theology. Without going into such detail that it would harm me even more in much current fragile emotional state, I can only say that I was abandoned, ghosted, and off revamped by the senior Chaplains who sent me to war, of course I was a very willing volunteer, and then ensured that every subsequent assignment would be harmful to my career, while certain senior chaplains treated me in the most malicious and evil manner knowing I needed a continuity of psychiatric, psychological, and spiritual care, ripped me away from it sending me on a three year geographic bachelor tour, away from home and those supports.

I also continue to suffer physical and neurological disorders related to combat. One is a combination of serene Tinnitus, and abnormal degraded speech comprehension without corresponding hearing loss. The neurologist thought it was due damage to my auditory nerves and auditory processing center related to PTSD. My speech comprehension was rated in the third percentile, meaning that 97% of people process speech better than me. In order to understand speech in individual conversations or in large groups I have to be completely focused and not have any cross talk or background noise. This makes it difficult to function. Basically, I am functionally deaf unless I am completely focused on whoever is talking and they are speaking clearly enough for me to understand. Judy is really deaf, and she understands speech better than me much of the time.

During Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen the 4077th’s Chaplain, Father Francis Mulcahy is exposed to a mortar blast and suffers Tinnitus and hearing loss, which continue to get worse despite his prayers.

In one of his prayers to God, one which resonates much with me, he cries out:

“Dear Lord, I know there must be a reason for this, but what is it? I answered the call to do your work. I’ve devoted my life to it, and now, how am I supposed to do it? What good am I now? What good is a deaf priest? I pray to you to help me, and every day I get worse. Are you deaf, too?“ 

My situation doesn’t simply involve my inability to understand speech but the residual effects of PTSD: hyper vigilance, anxiety, severe depression, sleep disorders, nightmare and night terror disorders that have resulted in injuries including a broken nose when battling the phantom like images of assailants in my dreams.And most recently under the stress I feel, horrible angry outbursts that are so unlike me. They make me feel horrible, but a decade of death threats, internet stalking, being called an “enemy of America”, and for supporting the rights of Blacks a “nigger lover” and “wigger,” and condemnation by Christians for caring about the rights, safety, and decent treatment of LGBTQ as enabling sin against God, but I never saw Jesus turn anyone away. The greatest hurt I experience is when Christian friends attack, condemn, and abandon me, especially over the past five years as so many became members of the Trump Dictatorship Cult. It took a while but I don’t take it anymore and after slicing and dicing their arguments leave things in their hands as where to they want to go with our relationship. Some cut me off and others make sure I know how rotten I am before they cut things off. Back in the early days after returning from Iraq while melting down and being thrown out of my former Church I culled a lot of them preemptively from my social contacts. A few have since renewed and reconciled but not all.

No amount of praying ever changed anything. I still believe in God, but I struggle every day. Sometimes I don’t feel that I am of any use, but too many people tell me that I do. Even so the fourth verse of the M*A*S*H them song, Suicide is Painless rings true for me now. I don’t have the answers. That verse says: A brave man once requested me to answer questions questions that are key, “Is it to be or not to be” and I replied “oh, why ask me?” 

Something that Colonel Potter said to Father Mulcahy and Mulcahy’s reply seems a pretty good place to end this before I sign off from this post:

Col. Potter: Well, Francis, you’ve been a godsend.
Father Mulcahy: Look on the bright side: When they tell us to serve our time in Purgatory, we can say, “No thanks, I’ve done mine.”

So here I am, an old, broken, washed-up Chaplain and priest who is a better historian than many looking to the next phase of my life, with Judy and the puppies, but even so, without a Parish, without an institutional Chaplain position, or any formal place of ministry, I will still be a Priest, and serve whoever comes into my life, even when I struggle and doubt.

Since I am going to have to get a bit of work done  house and do my damnedest to finish the illustration section of my book so I can send it to my agent and publisher tomorrow, which means whenever I wake up, I wish you all peace and safety.

Blessings and Peace,

Padre Steve+

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