Each spring, the Associated Church Press honors faith communicators’ best work published during the previous year with its ACP “Best of the Church Press” awards. In April 2021, Wendy McFadden won an “Award of Merit for theological reflection (long form)” for this article.
The Civil War ended generations ago, but the wounds are still with us. Our country has not healed from the sin of slavery and the resulting violence. That is especially clear right now as the nation convulses in the pain and rage of racism.
What can we learn from the Dunker meetinghouse that became the unwitting center of a theater of war during the Battle of Antietam? How can we be a witness for peace in the battles of today?
The Church of the Brethren Mid-Atlantic District hosted a (virtual) 50th worship service at the Dunker meetinghouse on the battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland, in September 2020.
If you type the book title Douglass and Lincoln into the search bar on a popular website, you will get a message that says, “Did you mean Douglas and Lincoln“?
When the two names are mentioned together, many people think of Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s political rival in Illinois. But when pondering the course of events that led to the Civil War and its conclusion, it would be more accurate to think of Frederick Douglass.
This fascinating and dynamic personality was the son of an enslaved Black woman and a white man who was probably his owner. He not only managed to escape to freedom, but he became an influential abolitionist speaker in both the United States and abroad in Ireland and Great Britain. He had the respect of a number of national leaders, most significantly President Abraham Lincoln.
Douglass urged the president to move more quickly on the matter of slavery. As part of his relentless efforts, he pushed for Black men to be able to fight for the Union. He saw this as a critical step toward citizenship. After the war, when Lincoln described slavery as America’s national sin, he was drawing on language that Douglass had published in 1861.
Within days after the Battle at Antietam, in September 1862, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Before long, the first Black Union regiments came into existence.
One of those regiments, the 2nd Louisiana Native Guard, was assigned to Ship Island, off the coast of Mississippi, where their job was to guard captured Confederate soldiers. This was indeed ironic for formerly enslaved Black people to be guarding white soldiers who had fought to keep slavery intact.
The Black regiments were not treated the same as white soldiers, however. Sometimes they were just the laborers, issued shovels instead of guns. They were given less pay and half the rations of white soldiers. At Port Hudson, Union General Nathaniel Banks called for a truce in order to bury his dead, but didn’t claim the Black soldiers from Louisiana, known as the Native Guards. Even more, when a Confederate officer asked permission to bury those soldiers, “Banks refused, saying that he had no dead in that area.” In a particularly brutal event: After a Black garrison surrendered at Fort Pillow, the soldiers were then massacred while Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest looked on (Native Guard, p. 48).
I’ve learned the stories of these Black regiments because of Natasha Trethewey, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former US poet laureate. A biracial daughter of the South, she has used poetry to probe the history of the Civil War and the overlooked memories of the Black experience, especially the Native Guards, three Black regiments from Louisiana. Her lengthy poem “Native Guard” is an intricate set of sonnets, each beginning with a date from November 1862 to 1865.
The narrator of the poem is a Black soldier who had been a slave and then was freed. In one of the stanzas, he takes a journal from a Confederate home and uses it as his own. The journal is nearly full, though, so the soldier writes his words in between the lines already written there. He describes it this way: “On every page, his story intersecting with my own.”
Ours is a nation of intersecting stories. The primary narrative has been a white story, but between those lines are written other stories. People like Frederick Douglass and Natasha Trethewey help us reckon with the stories written between the lines—and the deep wound that is our national sin of slavery and white supremacy.
The wounds of war
For 50 years the Church of the Brethren Mid-Atlantic District has hosted a worship service to commemorate the role of the Dunker church at the Battle of Antietam. The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest day in the Civil War, and indeed in the history of this nation. We know well the story of the Mumma meetinghouse, a place of worship for the people now known as the Church of the Brethren. The meetinghouse of a people of peace. The meetinghouse that was overtaken by violence almost too awful to describe.
For 50 years, we have gathered to remember and reflect. But this year, 2020, is different. We are in the midst of a pandemic, of course, which means our worship service is virtual.
But this year is different in another way, as well: In just a few months’ time, our country has been shaken awake. A majority of people see clearly now that we have a serious problem with racism. A startling number are marching about racism, reading about racism, talking about racism.
Perhaps there is a connection between the realities that the pandemic has revealed and the 2020 vision through which we are seeing the virus of racism. With new eyes we are seeing a connection between a war that ended in 1865 and a virus that has not yet ended. We are living out the wounds of war.
The prophet Jeremiah said, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). The prophet was speaking of a different time and a different people, but we can recognize the pain and danger of a wound that is treated carelessly.
But how can we say our national wound was treated carelessly when the Civil War was brought to an end and the chains of slavery were broken? Yes, the war came to an official end, but not all the chains have fallen away. Here are some of those chains:
- A period of Reconstruction that turned into a nightmare for Black people and laid the unjust foundation upon which today’s institutions have been built. In a new report, the Equal Justice Initiative describes in detail the reign of terror from 1865 to 1877. The wound of my people treated carelessly, says the prophet Jeremiah.
- Jim Crow laws that made it possible to arrest Black people for almost anything—laws that forced those formerly enslaved to return as indentured workers to the very people who had enslaved them. The wound of my people treated carelessly.
- Tactics to keep Black people from voting. The wound of my people treated carelessly.
- Lynching. The wound of my people treated carelessly.
- Redlining to confine Black people to certain neighborhoods and keep banks from lending them money. The wound of my people treated carelessly.
- Inequalities in education, health care, and the environment that shorten the lives of people of color. The wound of my people treated carelessly.
- A criminal justice system that treats people differently depending on the color of their skin and their social caste. The wound of my people treated carelessly.
When I studied the Civil War as a fifth grader in California, it felt far away in time and far away in miles. I lived a continent away from the battlefields, and the war had ended more than a hundred years before.
Later on, when I moved to Maryland, that geographical distance shrank considerably. In the years since, so has the time frame: The Civil War has begun to seem not that long ago. Not only are the effects present all around me, but our country is still awash in the symbols and the language. Jemar Tisby says, “More than 150 years after Union and Confederate forces laid down their guns, America is still fighting the Civil War” (The Color of Compromise, p. 200). Natasha Trethewey describes it as a “contest over memory.”
A place for peace
Back in 1862, when the war arrived at the homes and farms of the German Baptist Brethren, the Mumma meetinghouse became a place of utility and convenience for the military forces that swept over it. It was a focus for those developing military strategy. It was a hospital, an operating room, a morgue, a cemetery.
Today we remember the Battle of Antietam, the lives lost that day, and the Dunker church that seemed to some like a lighthouse in the midst of a raging sea. We have an annual worship service because of a place that meant something in 1862. It was a place for peace.
If our nation is still fighting the Civil War, how can we today be a place for peace? How can we give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death? How can we guide our feet into the way of peace?
First, we can be a hospital. The Dunker church was forced by circumstance to be a hospital, but we can be a hospital by choice.
If a wound in your body has not healed, there is something wrong and you must do something about it. If it’s an infection, your doctor might prescribe a strong antibiotic. If it’s a bone that has not been set right, you might need to have it rebroken and set again. If it’s cancer, you might need a serious course of treatment that actually damages your body—but is considered better than no treatment. Even when the diagnosis is hard to hear, the church must be a place for healing.
Days before his assassination, Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address. He said, “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
During the pandemic, I have done more walking than usual and have become acquainted with many of the forest preserves near me. In one, I saw a strange sight: A tree had grown around a chain-link fence. The fence ran right through the trunk of the tree. No lover of trees would plan for that to happen. The tree dealt with the wound as best it could, but it was disfigured.
Our country can’t remove the wounds of a war that scarred us a long time ago. But we can examine those wounds with 2020 vision. We can diagnose and treat those wounds. Yes, we can be a hospital.
But to become a place for peace we must also work to stop the wounding. After Frederick Douglass learned of Lincoln’s assassination, he attributed the killer’s action to “the concentrated virus the moral poison, accumulated by more than two centuries of human slavery, pouring itself out upon the nation as a vial of wrath in one dreadful and shocking crime” (Every Drop of Blood, p. 289).
We now have four centuries since slavery began on these shores, and the vial of wrath is still potent. The concentrated virus is still poisoning us today. We must stop the poison from being poured.
When it comes to rejecting the poison, the Church of the Brethren has something to build on. There were the clear antislavery convictions that kept this church from dividing, as Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists did. And there was a commitment to peace and nonviolence that gave the Dunker church its long-lasting power as a symbol for the whole country. These are important.
But we also have challenges: For most of our years we have been soaked in the same complicity with white supremacy that is in the American DNA. We have been comfortable with the status quo. Says Jemar Tisby: “Historically speaking, when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity” (p. 17).
The humble Brethren of Antietam may not have been trying to be courageous, but they certainly weren’t being complicit. They were practicing nonresistance in a time of war.
What are we called to today? How can we avoid being complicit, and how can we be courageous?
We can find our instructions in Isaiah 58. These words sound as if they were written for a people still suffering the wounds of a war. They sound like a message for this very moment.
Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
If you extend your soul to the hungry
And satisfy the afflicted soul,
Then your light shall dawn in the darkness,
And your darkness shall be as the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
And satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;
You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.
Those from among you
Shall build the old waste places;
You shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
And you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach,
The Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.
The repairer of the breach. The one who brings reparation to those who have been divided. That is what God calls us to in 2020—to be a place for peace that heals the wounds of war.
To learn more
The Color of Compromise, by Jemar Tisby, Zondervan, 2019.
September Mourn: The Dunker Church of Antietam Battlefield, by Alann Schmidt and Terry Barkley, Savas Beatie, 2018.
Wendy McFadden is Publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.