Even the casual student of Freemasonry is aware that Freemasonry has survived many calamities over her long recorded history. Natural disasters, powerful tyrants that considered Freemasonry to be an enemy, and wars have come and gone while Freemasonry continued to exist and sometimes flourish. Freemasonry, however, is not immune to the effects of outside, negative influences. The stresses of war, in particular, have pushed Freemasonry to the brink of disaster in many jurisdictions.
Evidence of the damaging effects of war on the Fraternity can be found by examining the history of the Grand Lodge of Ancient Free Masons of South Carolina during the dreadful years of the War Between the States. When the Grand Lodge of South Carolina met for its annual communication in November 1861, the State of South Carolina had – eleven months prior – already seceded from the Union and the firing on Fort Sumter had occurred just seven months earlier. The proceedings of that Grand Communication give a glimpse of the troubles to come. Following the installation of the new Grand Master, David Ramsey, on 19 November 1861, this statement was entered into the proceedings of the Grand Lodge.
The Grand Master being compelled, by urgent public business, to depart immediately for the city of Charleston, the remaining officers were installed by Past Grand Master B. R. Carroll…1By the next annual Grand Communication in November 1862, the stress of the war was rather evident. Initially, not enough lodges were represented in order to constitute a quorum. The Grand Master, Deputy Grand Master, Senior Grand Warden, Junior Grand Warden, Grand Treasurer, Grand Chaplain, the Senior and Junior Grand Deacons, the Grand Pursuivant, and at least one Grand Steward were absent when the Grand Lodge was to be opened at noon on 18 November 1862. The Deputy Grand Master and one other Grand Lodge officer, along with representatives from nineteen more lodges eventually arrived later in the evening.2
The proceedings of this communication in 1862 speak of money being sent to “suffering soldiers,” the failure of many lodges to submit annual returns, and a Grand Lodge budget that was running a deficit. Times were about the get worse, however.3
When the Grand Lodge met again on 17 November 1863 in Columbia, South Carolina, the Grand Master – David Ramsey – had been dead for three months after to succumbing to battle wounds he received while being a part of the defense of Battery Wagner on Morris Island, Charleston, South Carolina. The proceedings of the Grand Communication indicated that the treasury of the Grand Lodge continued to shrink and the list of lodges failing to provide returns had grown. All but the most urgent of Grand Lodge business was suspended by suggestion of the acting Grand Master, Deputy Grand Master D. J. Barnett.4
Again meeting in Columbia, Grand Master John H. Boatwright opened the November 1864 Grand Communication on the following note.
While without the startled ear is struck on every side with the crash of conflicting arms, and the sky is overcast with the lurid clouds of was, here, at least, for a brief period, around this sacred altar, and within this holy temple, all is serenity and peace.5Despite this optimistic statement, gloom surrounded the Fraternity in the Palmetto State. The physical home of the Grand Lodge and many subordinate lodges in Charleston had been struck by shells from Union forces on more than one occasion – forcing the Grand Lodge to move its offices to another part of the city. Half of the lodges in the State had gone dark – or dormant – though the Grand Lodge wisely and justly decided not to arrest the charters of these lodges. The Grand Master was also forced to address the increased popularity of Freemasonry in some parts of the State that had led to desires for a shortening of the time required for initiating and advancement in the three degrees of Freemasonry. There was a “dramatic upsurge for admission to the Order by candidates who came seeking the comfort and reassurance of an old and relatively stable institution in an age when all institutions were threatened.”6 Grand Master Boatwright stated…
At no time since the organization of the first Lodge in this State has there been so much danger as there is at the present day from the popularity of masonry.7By the next annual meeting of the Grand Lodge, however, much more serious matters than the popularity of the Fraternity would show just how close to the brink the war had pushed the whole of Freemasonry in South Carolina.
When the Grand Lodge met again in Columbia on 21 November 1865, the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox on 9 April 1865 was still a fresh memory. More telling of the horrors of war to the attendees of the Grand Communication was the destruction that surrounded them. Columbia had been burned as it fell to the advance of General Sherman’s forces. All three lodges in Columbia escaped not this burning – each of them lost their halls and furniture.8
The Grand Lodge could not open at the appointed time – noon – due to the absence of so many lodge representatives. It was not until seven thirty in the evening of 21 November 1865 that enough delegates finally arrived. The Senior Grand Warden, W. T. Walter, found himself as the acting Grand Master due to the deaths of the Grand Master and Deputy Grand Master just a few months prior. Walter addressed the Grand Lodge with these words.
In that portion of the jurisdiction through which the armies have passed, our Lodges have been destroyed, our altars thrown down, and it is with maimed rites we can practice our ceremonies. That errors and irregularities have crept into our Lodges I have little doubt. These are, no doubt, caused by the disorganized state of the country, and the irregularity of the mails. In the decision of every trespass against our rules, I trust you will act with moderation, mercy, and charity…9Freemasonry in South Carolina had been brought to the brink of the abyss by the stresses of war. She did survive, however, and begin to rebound once the conflict and its aftermath had subsided and – from the end of this dark period – examples of what Freemasonry is all about can be found. The acts of Brotherly love displayed by Masons in the states that had been the enemies of South Carolina was duly recorded in the proceedings of the Grand Lodge annual communication of November 1866. These included such things as: one thousand dollars donated to the South Carolina Grand Lodge by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania; a new set of jewels donated to Orange Lodge No. 14 by “some wealthy brethren in Boston;” from a New York Mason, a return to Landmark Lodge No. 76 of a Past Master’s jewel which had been stolen during the war; and the return by a Illinois Brother of the warrant of constitutions which had been taken from Allen Lodge No. 38.10
War can stress Freemasonry and push her to the brink, but it can not kill her.
1, Cornwell, Ross & Willis, Samuel M. A History of Freemasonry in South Carolina; The Years 1860 - 1919. The Grand Lodge of Ancient Free Masons of South Carolina, 1979, p. 9.
2. Ibid, p. 10.
3. Ibid, pp. 10-11.
4. Ibid, pp. 12-13.
5. Ibid, p. 15.
6. Ibid, p 16.
7. Ibid, p 16.
8. Ibid. pp 18-19.
9. Ibid, p. 19.
10. Ibid, p. 23.