By Boyd Wright
On April 12, 1861, guns that rimmed Charleston Harbor hurled shells upon Fort Sumter, beginning the bitterest brother-against-brother war the United States has endured. During a designated four years of national remembrance we might do well to ponder the feelings of those who, a century and a half ago, had to live through that fratricidal hell.
I look back at my own family and remember my mother’s mother, who grew up in New York City at that desperate time. I was 10 when she died, and my clearest picture is of a sweet, calming smile, irresistible to a child climbing onto her lap. She seems always to have dressed in black, and she clutched her prayer book on her way to our Episcopal church. I know my grandmother was devout because my mother often spoke of the faith she had inherited.
I remember my father’s mother better because I was 14 when she died. She spent her childhood during the war years in Richmond, Virginia, capital of the Confederacy. After marrying she moved to Augusta, Georgia. Almost every year during spring vacation in the 1930s my father would take our family from New York to his boyhood home for a week’s visit with Mamo, as all her grandchildren called her.
Mamo loved us but showed it less than my other grandmother. Long a widow, she too dressed always in black. An old-style Southern belle, she lived in her gently decaying mini-mansion, fronted by white pillars and surrounded by magnolia trees we liked to climb. Mostly she sat in her darkened parlor-library amid Confederate memorabilia, devotional books, crosses, and relics. She cherished her Methodist church and her faith.
Look back with me at the time these grandmothers lived. See the home of my mother’s mother, her father a well-to-do merchant in bustling New York City. Worry and grief spared no household during those war years. Family prayers must have implored God to save the Union and the brave men fighting for it.
Now look at the family of my father’s mother. Her father, a doctor, treated patients as Richmond changed in four years from the proud capital of a brand-new nation to a city so sick and starved that mobs looted stores and rioted for bread. Here too, amid the hardships, prayers must have mounted, first for the new fresh hope of the Confederacy, then for all the lives lost as the terrible tolls kept climbing.
On May 15, 1864, tragedy hit my grandmother’s home. Her oldest brother, William, died charging with the rebels at the Battle of New Market in the Shenandoah Valley. A Yankee bullet gravely wounded another brother, Robert, in the same battle.
New, fervent prayers must have come from Mamo’s home: prayers for the soul of a brother and for the recovery of another (he survived). And the prayers must have grown more desperate for the great lost cause of their beloved Confederacy, with only months to live.
We know now that some of those Southern prayers were granted and some were not. Meanwhile, up North, my other grandmother and her family found their prayers answered: they prayed for the Union and they won.
It’s easy to say God willed the North to win, to rebuild a divided nation, and to guide us on to forgiveness and prosperity. But if so, did the prayers of those devout Southerners not count? Make no mistake, they were devout. Read the letters and diaries of Johnny Reb and you find as many references to God as those by Billy Yank. On Richmond’s saddest day, April 2, 1865, when Gen. Robert E. Lee warned the president that the capital city finally must be evacuated, the message found Jefferson Davis at Sunday worship in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
If God granted the prayers of one side and denied the others, did he consider the North right and moral and the South wrong and evil? Abraham Lincoln, for one, refused to believe this. At war’s end, six weeks before he died, he declared in his second inaugural address that both North and South had suffered for the sin of slavery: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
Looking back, I can feel the faith of all who prayed. Is it fanciful for me to believe that my family stands as a microcosm of our nation? I cannot help thinking that somehow, as a symbol of God-given unity, a mystic chord stretches from those war years in the families headed by my great-grandparents in Virginia and New York on down seven generations to my own great-grandchildren (three in Florida, three in Massachusetts).
All those prayers helped build a nation, and the people who prayed, just by virtue of praying, became better people. Lincoln told us to “bind up the nation’s wounds.” We’re still trying, however imperfectly.
Maybe those long-ago prayers from North and South can teach Christians in America and elsewhere to understand that God, in his infinite compassion, knows which prayers to grant and which he must deny. We can thank him for that. And Americans can thank him for the blessings of 150 years of one nation, for ancestors who brought us here, for parents who nourished us, for the young to whom the world belongs, and, above all, for his love.
Boyd Wright is a retired journalist who lives in Mendham, New Jersey.