Last week an impressive new monument was dedicated near my home on the site of a freed slave cemetery. About 1700 escaped slaves, or contrabands, were buried there during the Civil War and just after. For decades the site’s significance was forgotten, and in recent times a gas station was there. Now a poignant statue, and some symbolic grave markers, have restored the memory of tumultuous events 150 years ago.
Also relating to local history, I just read the Civil War Diary of Ann Froble. She and her sister owned a 100 acre farm near where I live in what is now suburban Virginia. Her diary records the hardships of living under continuous federal military occupation for four years, hardships that continued years after the war. Troops camped on her once prosperous farm, drank her well nearly dry, stole her livestock, denuded her property of wood, and often terrorized the two sisters, who never married, and whose brothers were in the Confederate army. They could barely leave their farm without federal army passes, which were often refused. They had to travel through army sentry posts. They were often insulted and humiliated.
The sisters were devout Episcopalians, but often federal forces blocked their passage to church on Sundays. In fact, their congregation had been effectively seized by Unionists. Another Episcopal church they tried to attend endured the drama of its pastor’s being dragged from his pulpit by federal forces for refusing to pray for Abraham Lincoln. Mostly the sisters and their remnant congregation, with their pastor, met in homes. Their parents had donated land for a small Episcopal chapel next to their farm. But federal forces occupied it and ultimately burned it.
Federal soldiers were constantly overheard cursing and blaspheming, even during their own chaplain-led worship services. One army tent on their property, the sisters discovered to their disgust, was a primitive pornographic studio, filled with obscene nude images etched in charcoal, into which soldiers regularly peered for their prurient gratification.
Sometimes the sisters were forced to board federal officers in their home, compelled to live with their enemies. Soldiers often randomly entered their kitchen demanding food, of which they had little. Other soldiers surrounded their home at night threatening to destroy it. Some soldiers openly speculated about their own future ownership of the property. The diary never mentions fear of rape, but it must have been an implied threat.
Often the artillery of the local federal fort target practiced. Local persons were often wounded or killed. Two little boys played with one cannon ball in their yard and were killed. Recently I visited their joint gravestone at the nearby Episcopal chapel, which rebuilt after the war.
Some of the sisters’ neighbors were forced to abandon their homes and dispatched into exile to the south by federal forces, with no means of support. Some homes were seized as military headquarters or hospitals, later burned. Personal belongings stolen from their neighbors was strewn throughout the camp on their property. Some of their male neighbors were forced to ride endlessly on federal trains as virtual hostages to deter Confederate attacks. Sometimes the sisters shivered their way through the Winter, having no firewood. They lived at times on tea and bread.
But the sisters heroically survived. One sister taught school in their home for neighborhood children, the occupation having closed all the schools. She also hosted Sunday school. The other sister kept her diary and pluckily challenged the occupying forces with her sarcasm and wit. Despite the dangers, the sleepless nights, the endless confrontations, they refused to quit the farm their parents built. At war’s end, local people were sometimes thrashed or imprisoned for not mourning Lincoln’s death or honoring the federal victory.
Perhaps some empathetic church activists of today would stand in political solidarity with these suffering sisters and their oppressed neighbors of occupied Virginia. Shouldn’t the Gospel always stand with the victims of empire? These sisters, and their neighbors, and much of the South, were subjects of imperialism and militarism. And they were devout Christians. What would Jesus say? Church activists might lock arms with the victimized sisters in defense of their liberation from occupation.
Except there was a larger story. The sisters owned over 20 slaves. Virginia and the South had succeeded after losing a democratic election to an anti-slavery party. The Confederate partisan Colonel John Mosby once visited the sisters’ neighbors on a raid. After the war he pronounced that Lincoln had freed more southern whites than black slaves because the whites were captive to a slave system that kept them backward.
For all the hardships the sisters survived, their cause would have wrecked American democracy and perpetuated slavery, leaving no winners, not the south or north, whites or blacks. Any do-gooding church activist who championed their cause, having met them, and heard their authentic story, would have ignored the wider reality. And their political advocacy, however well meant, would have been misdirected.
Reading Ann Froble’s diary reminded me of today’s church activists who champion Palestinian liberation against Israel. They emotively focus on the often genuine facts of the smaller picture while ignoring the larger picture. Visiting suffering people does not alone tell the whole story. There is history, and context, and experiences by others who suffer.
Today’s church activists who demonstrate against Israeli occupation, often because of missions relations with Palestinian Christians, typically sacrifice an objective perspective for a narrow subjective one. A Palestinian “triumph” against Israel would be disastrous, including for Palestinians, especially for the tiny Christian minority.
Too many Protestant and Evangelical activists react to emotional personal narrative without foresight and reflection. Few human dramas pit pure injustice against justice. And granting the “oppressed” what they demand often fuels greater oppression.
One federal colonel boarding with the southern sisters, no doubt hoping to provoke them, told them blacks would soon be voting. And likely there would even eventually be a black President. The sisters scoffed. I wonder what the sisters would say about the new nearby monument commemorating the countless newly freed slaves who streamed by their ravaged farm.