Nathaniel Hawthorne—who was never a Lincoln man—told the story about his discovery of an old “rag of scarlet cloth,” greatly faded and frayed, among the cobwebs at Salem’s Custom House. You probably know the story that Hawthorne dreamt up from there.
I thought about Hawthorne’s embroidered letter after two colleagues, Cliff Hersey and David Goss, discovered their own cloth at the Second Church in Dorchester. Looming over Codman Square, the weathered clapboard church is one of Boston’s largest historic buildings, complete with a bell from Paul Revere’s foundry. It was dedicated in 1806 by descendents of the Puritan migration, though the church is now home to modern immigrants—two Nazarene communities, primarily from Cape Verde and the West Indies. For the past few semesters, the church has provided space for our Gordon in Boston program. Cliff, David and some of our students occasionally lend the pastors and the congregations a hand with their archives.
And it was while digging through some overloaded storage that Cliff and David ran across two hand-painted campaign banners from the 1864 presidential election. Within the asylum of a cardboard box, the banners had escaped decades of moisture and moths. The edges of the stark black letters have not run over the painter’s stenciled lines, still evident on a thick muslin only slightly bronzed with age. Some eight or nine months before Appomattox, the members of the church raised subscriptions for these banners, no small feat given the wartime austerity and the loss of Southern cotton, when the price of bunting rose six-fold almost overnight. One banner lobbies for the National Union ticket of “Lincoln and Johnson,” while the other pleads for the Union itself, insisting “It must and shall be Preserved.” That motto—actually, an echo of a famous toast by slaveholder Andrew Jackson—had helped carry Lincoln to the presidency in 1860. Now, after four years of carnage, it pressed to keep him there.
Strung up over Washington Street in the autumn of 1864, the banners still bear threads from the massive American flag once stitched to them. To mark Lincoln’s bicentennial, Gordon College displayed the campaign streamers in a celebration at Salem’s Old Town Hall, filled with muskets, fife, drum and hoop skirts. John Sarrouf, escorted by Union re-enactors, recited the Second Inaugural, urging care for the one who has “borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” Between events, David Goss and members of his South Carolina String Band sang a few wartime standards, including “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Lincoln and Liberty Too,” an 1860 campaign lyric fitted to an old Gaelic drinking tune.
It was a sportive remembrance, just as we had hoped. Yet even as we planned for the festivities I tried to imagine, as Hawthorne once did, some of the somber mysteries behind an old cloth.
As late as the spring of 1864 there was no certainty that it would be Lincoln’s name on the fabric. By then, at least one Cabinet officer, Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, had made a backroom play for the nomination himself. Northern radicals, eager for an anti-slavery amendment, were frustrated with Lincoln’s hedges, and proposed delaying the convention to buy time for a challenger. Even after Lincoln did secure the nomination, hopes for a quick end to the bloodshed waned. Grant lost thousands in a drunken charge into a crater at Petersburg, and Sherman’s march to the sea stalled. As the historian of the Second Church recalls, in the spring and summer of 1864 the “war presented a dark and gloomy aspect.”
The church did not escape the shadows. It had been a more luminous scene, four years earlier, when Dorchester’s streets were filled with torch-bearing “Railsplitters” and “Wide Awakes,” young paramilitary crusaders for the Lincoln-Hamlin ticket. When the surrender of Fort Sumter prompted calls for Union recruits, Dorchester exceeded its quota. Eventually fifty-four parishioners from the Second Church enlisted, among them more than a few commissioned officers. But death knells came quickly. News from the Second Battle at Bull Run, which struck hard at the Dorchester volunteers, suspended Sunday worship, as families raced home to rip old linens into bandages. As fathers and sons kept returning in caskets, some congregants may well have shared their governor’s fear that Lincoln’s nomination had been folly. By 1864, fifteen soldiers from the Second Church had fallen, laid to rest in the nearby Codman Cemetery or buried, in unmarked graves, at Manassas, Gettysburg and Richmond.
Earlier this month, I walked over the icy turf of Codman Cemetery looking for Civil War graves. The burial ground, now under restoration, has long suffered from neglect: many of the markers and obelisks have eroded, or have been twisted downward by decades of untended weeds and vines. Here, in this one small overgrown plot of land, are some of mounting losses that in 1864 threatened Lincoln with electoral defeat. Lincoln actually increased his own vulnerability after some Union victories, when he began to link the sacrifices of youth to the anti-slavery cause, never truly popular in the Northeast. In the midsummer of 1864, with an armistice possibly in sight, Lincoln angered several Northern editorialists by requiring Confederate emissaries to include abolition in any proposal for peace. Soon after, the New York Herald predicted that the president’s chances for re-election were dead. “You think I don’t know I am going to be beaten,” Lincoln confessed that August, “but I do and unless some great change takes place beaten badly.”
It was just weeks later, on the heels of such pessimism, that the banners rose over Washington Street. It is not hard to imagine that the hands that painted them were nervous about the incumbent’s chances. Dorchester's citizens knew the risk of losing the commander-in-chief while the Union was still fractured. What we can only guess, however, is whether many of the subscribers to those banners actually embraced the president’s rising faith that their own grief had been a price for emancipating slaves.
True, Dorchester did have its clusters of anti-slavery ardor. Some of the older residents would have recalled the great abolitionist meeting at Second Church on the Fourth of July in 1835. At that time, at least three Second Church congregants became officers in the new Dorchester Anti-Slavery Society. William Lloyd Garrison delivered the oration, even though Dorchester’s “anti-slavers” took pains to distance themselves from Garrison’s fury, promising never to vindicate slaves’ “rights by resorting to physical force.” At the meeting, several ministers from the town rallied the audience behind hymns, prayers and Jefferson’s Declaration. One prominent voice in the midst of it all was Nathaniel Hall, the young, newly ordained Unitarian from the First Parish in Dorchester, a gentle speaker who devoted his life to resist the “monstrous evil” of slavery and to deplore the “prejudice against abolition.” “No other pulpit in America,” the Christian Register would one day declare about Hall’s ministry, “was more earnestly or powerfully outspoken in behalf of human freedom in the most critical day of the anti-slavery struggle.”
But on that Fourth of July in 1835 John Codman, the pastor of the Second Church, was in Europe, and his return doused the anti-slavery sparks in his own parish. Embattled by the Unitarian challenge to Reformed orthodoxy, Codman purchased tranquility in the flock by excluding political diatribes or debates. A devout Calvinist, Codman had already been censured for refusing to share his pulpit with liberals, and he had watched with dismay as Massachusetts disestablished Congregationalism as the state religion in 1833. To the consternation of both liberals and conservatives, the antebellum battle over religious liberty often impeded the public consensus on slavery, since it tended to entrust questions of justice to private conscience or voluntary creeds. After the Second Church kept anti-slavery petitions and speakers out of the pulpit, the young Hiriam Blanchard publicly lashed out at the “cold, sanctimonious caution” silencing the abolitionists and placating the “wealthy and influential parishioners.” Codman and his successor James Means—who pastored the Second Church through the Civil War—preached patriotism and holiness but steered wide of anti-slavery sentiments in their published sermons and wartime eulogies. Most New Englanders, in fact, still clung to the belief of the late Daniel Webster—an occasional worshipper at the Second Church—that immediate emancipation was a threat to national survival. Garrison and his followers were widely disparaged as zealots willing to break up the Union for principle. Abolitionism, in most American minds, was still a scarlet brand.
Lincoln’s bicentennial has once again exposed the raw nerves in the debate over his enigmatic views on race and emancipation. Though he often deplored slavery, Lincoln spent most of his life disavowing abolitionist aims, even during the initial years of his presidency. When he was a young man in rural Indiana, he worried that emancipated blacks would snatch jobs away from poor whites. On the circuit in Illinois, he earned a reputation as a case lawyer, willing to plead the causes of his clients, whether a free slave or a Kentucky landowner chasing a fugitive. Under pressure from Stephen Douglas during their famous debates, Lincoln conceded that blacks should never achieve social and political equality with whites nor earn the rights to vote and to serve on juries. He opposed racial intermarriage and married the daughter of a slave-owner himself. At his first inauguration, with the nation already scarred by secession, he promised the South that he would not press for an end to its peculiar institution.
Early in his presidency, Lincoln tried to draw Americans to this fragile middle ground, with just enough moral lilt to entice liberals, but sufficient caution to appease the border states. He tried, unsuccessfully, to sell Congress on various plans to compensate Confederates for their slaves’ liberty. As the war progressed, the president distinguished between his political duty to save the Union and his “personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.” He exercised the right, as commander-in-chief, to free the slaves in the rebellious regions, but then, lawyer that he was, left the liberation of slaves within the Union to the legislature. When he issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation late in 1862, he still clung stubbornly to the belief that freed slaves would be better off re-colonized in Liberia or the Caribbean.
But by 1864, especially during the months when Dorchester flew those banners, Lincoln’s anti-slavery convictions had hardened. His schemes for colonization eroded, partly due to rebuttals from former slave Frederick Douglass. He had abandoned his opposition to enlisting blacks in the military. In a remarkable letter to a Kentucky editor, Lincoln declared that he had always been “naturally anti-slavery,” though he “never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling.” But now, in scrapping his former pledge not to interfere with Southern slavery, he appealed to the invisible hand of God. “I claim not to have controlled events,” he admitted, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me . . . If God now wills the removal of a great wrong . . . impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.” Three days after the Emancipation Proclamation, Nathaniel Hall had said as much from his Dorchester pulpit, saluting not Lincoln but the Lord: “Plainly, man has meant one thing by this war, and God another. . . . We sought in it but the maintenance of our nationality. God has sought in and by it the redemption and elevation of his bound and down-trodden children.”
An appeal to God is now attached to one of the Second Church’s banners—but as an addendum, laced with its own ironies. Below the cloth placard that pleads for the preservation of the Union (or, as Reverend Hall would say, the “maintenance of our nationality”) someone eventually stitched a shorter piece of linen, thinner, lighter in color, and bearing the words “In GOD we Trust.” That motto was the invention of treasurer Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s Cabinet rival, who forged the phrase of civil piety out of the numerous Christian petitions for a religious slogan on the national currency. Just a few months before Lincoln’s re-election, the motto made its first appearance on an American coin, adorning the obverse of the 1864 copper-and-zinc two-cent piece.
Most likely, Dorchester’s small linen banner—painted in a different font—was attached to the larger cloth several months later, after Chase’s motto had grown familiar. By then, Lincoln was gone, Johnson impeached, and the Second Church ready to support Ulysses S. Grant as the new preserver of the Union. By then, Chase had also been pushed out of Lincoln’s Cabinet and into the Supreme Court, allowing him, as luck would have it, to preside over Johnson’s trial. Today the original 1864 Dorchester banner—much like the Lincoln penny—bears Chase’s pious motto, belatedly stitched to the cause of candidates whom he resented and rebuffed.
Tides did turn for Lincoln in the fall of 1864. Sherman reached Atlanta. The president secured the begrudging support of his Republican doubters, Chase among them, who all fretted that the Democrats would buy peace with surrender. Massachusetts, in the end, gave Lincoln his largest margin of popular votes. By November, Paul Revere’s bell would inform Dorchester of the president’s landslide.
Yet, after reading through the wartime memoirs and eulogies of the Second Church, I think of the banners less as a harbinger of Lincoln's political triumph than as a reminder of hometown wounds. When I see the painted linen, I can imagine the Dorchester mothers who shred their tablecloths to stop the soldiers’ bleeding. There is not, in the parish records, a grand call for emancipation of the slaves, but rather the shared sorrows of plaintive neighbors, eager to commend the fortitude and courage of their own. On a late spring day in 1863, Reverend Means turned to Ecclesiastes to mark the “last sad rites” of Captain William Hewett, brought home from Chancellorsville in a metal coffin. The father of Dorchester’s Martin Stone—unable to identify his son’s body after it lay for days in the Gettysburg heat—soon succumbed to a heart attack, presumably from grief. To be honest, it is difficult to imagine what comfort Mr. Stone could have taken from when reading the brief remarks that Lincoln had given on the Gettysburg battlefield, when he recast such Pennsylvania bloodshed as a “new birth of freedom.” Across town, Dorchester’s fiercest anti-slavery pulpit took its own measure of the cost of liberty. In June of 1864 the body of Henry Ware Hall, son of the abolitionist First Parish minister, was buried at Kenesaw Mountain, his body too mutilated by bullets to be carried home in linen.
And no one, of course, could have anticipated that five months after banners flew over Dorchester the bells would toll again, spreading the news of Lincoln’s murder. If Hawthorne had lived to see the president’s martyrdom, he might have regretted writing the Atlantic Monthly and depicting “Uncle Abe” as homely and “uncouth.” “I doubt whether his words would be worth remembering,” Hawthorne declared, “even if I could remember them.” The Salem novelist could never have anticipated that the same journal, 140 years later, would select Lincoln as the most influential American of all time, not the least because his words have been so long remembered.
Lincoln, though, could have never risen to that stature if he had not put his re-election at risk by recasting the sacrifices of youth into a promise of human liberty. We are still carried by the biblical cadences and imaginative portent of his late rhetoric. Fragments of his eloquence, sometimes cut away from his lawyerly parsing, transcend their moment, as new generations re-embroider his words into their own pleas for justice.
Like the president, the Second Church journeyed through the war years with its own sorrows and equivocations. For many parishioners, rallying for Lincoln’s re-election may well have been a reflex, a longing for a steady hand in a time of violence. But many of those who lost fathers, brothers and sons in the conflict may have struggled to accept Lincoln’s growing conviction that a “living God” had permitted “this terrible war as the woe due” to both North and South for permitting the “offense” of “American slavery” to fester for so long.
Abolitionism, of course, had not entirely lost its scarlet hue. Looking over the Dorchester banners, you do wonder if Lincoln's new rhetoric of liberty actually stirred some of the latent anti-slavery sentiments in the congregation. Throughout the war their minister spoke on the "secular duties" of believers without alluding to the great political question of the day, and he reminded them to keep their "consciences watchful" and their "wills free" without mentioning freedom for the enslaved. But, among those who lost loved ones, there were undoubtedly some who would have been deeply consoled that their own sadness had made possible the relief of the bound and downtrodden. Some of the mourners in Dorchester knew that those banners—bearing slaveholder Andrew Jackson’s old slogan—were being caught up by new winds. The Union could not simply be preserved; its new liberties would change the nation’s contours.
In the last decade, the Second Church has undergone its own new birth, a revival far different than the Civil War survivors could have imagined. Antebellum Dorchester, like most any New England town, had its fair share of xenophobic nativists and Know-Nothings. Without doubt, they would have shuddered to see the day when the Second Church turned over its sanctuary to immigrants, many from Caribbean nations with a heritage of slavery at its most savage.
But I suspect that Lincoln, especially after his own late awakening, would have taken heart at the vitality of the immigrant congregations today. “How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes,” he once wrote, degrade the “foreigners”? “I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty.”
*This presentation began as a column ("Ancient Banners") in the Salem News, February 12, 2009.
Notes and Sources
“rag of scarlet cloth”: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850; New York: Penquin Books, 2003), 31.
Strung up over Washington Street in the autumn of 1864: a note left in the box containing the banners identified where the banners were displayed.
“war presented a dark and gloomy aspect”: Collections of the Second Church of Dorchester, ed. Cliff Hersey (published by the church, 2009), 6.
fifteen soldiers from the Second Church had fallen: Collections of the Second Church, 8.
angered several Northern editorialists by requiring Confederate emissaries to include abolition in any proposal for peace: See discussion of Lincoln’s “To Whom It May Concern” Letter, in David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 522-523.
“You think I don’t know I am going to be beaten”: Jesse Ames Marshall, ed., Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler (Norwood, Mass: Plimpton Press, 1917), 5: 35.
“by resorting to physical force”: Dorchester Anti-Slavery Society charter, quoted in William Dana Orcutt, Good Old Dorchester: A Narrative History of the Town, 1630-1893 (Cambridge, MA: John Wilson & Son University Press, 1893), 182. For the agenda of the meeting, see broadside publication of the “Order of Exercises” for the “Dorchester Anti-Slavery Society’s Celebration, July 4,” 1835, Online publications of the Massachusetts Historical Society, http://www.masshist.org/database/img-viewer.php?item_id=1597&mode=small&img_step=2&tpc=&pid=#page2.
“No other pulpit in America”: Tribute to Nathaniel Hall on the fortieth anniversary of his ministry, quoted in Good Old Dorchester, 182.
“cold, sanctimonious caution” and “wealthy and influential parishioners”: Hiriam Blanchard, An Open Letter to the Second Congregational Church, of Dorchester, Mass., (Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection, Cornell University Library Digital Collections), 6.
Codman and his successor James Means . . . preached patriotism and holiness but steered wide of anti-slavery sentiments: See James Howard Means, Sermons Preached in the Second Church of Dorchester (Boston: Alfred Mudge and Son, 1865). For example, Means’s sermon on “Religion and Our Secular Duties,” delivered during the Civil War, claims that “for all our secular actions we are accountable to God” but makes no reference to the slavery question, focusing instead on the duties of “day laborers” (94).
“personal wish that all men everywhere could be free”: Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862, published in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, (Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 5: 388-389.
“I claim not to have controlled events but confess plainly that events have controlled me”: Letter to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864, in Collected Works, 7: 281-282.
“Plainly, man has meant one thing by this war, and God another”: Nathaniel Hall, A Proclamation of Freedom, a Sermon Preached in Dorchester, January 4, 1863, (Boston: Crosby and Nichols, 1863), 9.
motto made its first appearance on an American coin: See U.S. Treasury Department Fact Sheet, http:// www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/in-god-we-trust.aspx
“last sad rites” of Captain William Hewett: Collections of the Second Church, 23.
the body of Henry Ware Hall, son of the abolitionist First Parish minister: Letter of Chaplain Lewis Raymond, Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1864; Hall’s captain, Theodore Brown, recalls the young man’s death in his reflections on the war published in the National Tribune, September 9, 1909.
homely and "uncouth . . . I doubt whether his words would be worth remembering, even if I could remember them”: Nathaniel Hawthorne's depiction of Lincoln appeared in "Chiefly About War Matters," Atlantic Monthly, July 1862. The editor originally left out the reference to "uncouth," but that angered Hawthorne, and it has since been restored in most editions of Hawthorne's works.
“this terrible war as the woe due”: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Collected Works, 8; 322-323.
"our consciences watchful" and "our wills free": Means, "The Connection between the Present and the Future Life," in Sermons Preached, 116.
“How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes”: Collected Works, 2: 322-323.