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Civil War Blog

A project of PA Historian

A Civil War Masonic Story, Most Likely Fiction

Posted By on April 9, 2013

What was the role of Freemasonry during the Civil War?  Were members of Masonic lodges more loyal to Freemasonry than to the nation?

The story below is from the History of Roman Eagle Lodge No. 122, A. F. and M., Danville, Virginia, 1820-1895, a copy of which was presented by a member of that lodge to a resident of Gratz, who donated the book to the Gratz Historical Society.

The year 1860 was one of great trouble and anxiety. The civil war brought on by politicians, was seen to be inevitable.  It was not a pleasant sight.  Our section of the state was not for war or secession, but the South was in for war and we had to take our place with our kinsmen.  Many joined the lodge for protection in case of being taken prisoners or caught in situations where masonic recognition could be useful.  The lodge promised to charge no dues to those who entered the ranks and promised to see the families of those, who went to the front, protected, cared for, and supported during their absence….

The lodge also passed a resolution to buy a piece of land and build thereon small houses for the comfort and aid of their families.  This was not done , as it was found that they could get more work and better protection in the city that they could on farms, and they could be safer and better watched over.  When the wounded came home they were promptly attended to and supplied….

The meetings of the lodge were regularly held and a full account of every member was kept….  Our hearts were in the war, where our brothers were, and our sorrow and anxieties made our meetings not joyous, but sad….

The following incident may serve to illustrate the loyalty of the brethren of “the mystic tie” to masonic obligations and the readiness with which they responded to the claims of the fraternity, though made by an enemy.  Two days after the First Battle of Manassas, the 18th Virginia Regiment  [18th Virginia Infantry, Confederate], commanded by Colonel Robert E. Withers, was in camp near the battle ground of the 21st, when the pickets brought in as a prisoner a member of the 12th Brooklyn Regiment of Zouaves [12th Brooklyn Infantry], captured near their picket line the night before.  He was of course brought up to headquarters and examined by the Colonel, to which he reluctantly stated that the Colonel of his regiment, who was severely wounded, was concealed in the woods near the point at which he himself was captured, and offered to guide a party to his place of concealment, as he said he knew he would die unless he could receive surgical aid.  A detail of men was sent out with a small wagon to bring in the wounded Yankee.  They soon returned with Colonel Ben Wood, who was a near relative (brother or cousin) of the Honorable Fernando Wood, M. C. of New York, who was suffering severely from a gun-shot wound of the pelvis.  While conversing with him, Colonel Withers, who was, and is, an enthusiastic and zealous Mason, observed a masonic pin on the bosom of Colonel Wood, and at once proceeded by methods known only to the initiated to test the significance of the emblem.  Finding that the prisoner was indeed a brother in distress, Colonel Withers countermanded his first order to convey the wounded officer to the field hospital at the Lewis House and had him carried into his own tent, which he surrendered to him and his attendant who had been paroled to wait on him.  Here the wounded man was carefully nursed and waited on, fed and all his wants supplied, and learning that the surgeon of the 12th Brooklyn Regiment was amongst the prisoners, he asked to have him paroled and sent out to wait on his Colonel.  This was done and he was duly installed in the Colonel’s tent, and for two or three weeks these men continued to receive every care and attention which the critical condition of the wounded officer demanded. When he was sufficiently recovered to be safely moved, through the active instrumentality of Colonel C. C. Wertenbaker, at that time Adjutant of the 19th Virginia Regiment, and a zealous Mason, and order of transfer to the hospital at Charlottesville was procured and Colonel Wood sent to that post, where his wants were supplied and comfort secured by the fraternity of the place.  Colonel Wood ultimately recovered, and was exchanged and returned to New York, was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, but never returned to the field, as he repeatedly said he never would fight again the men who had so generously befriended him.  After his exchange and promotion he wrote to Colonel Withers a grateful and eloquent letter of thanks, which he received in some mysterious manner, but to which he did not reply, as he deemed it improper to hold correspondence with an officer of the Northern army, pending hostilities.  Having fully recognized his masonic duty of giving relief to a distressed brother, ministered to his wants and provided for his necessities, he was careful to do nothing which would conflict with his duties as an office of the Confederate army, and thus illustrated the possibility of fulfilling in good faith his duty to his country and his obligations to a brother Mason….

Did this incident actually happen?  A further analysis is required.

Ben Wood, brother to Fernando Wood can easily be located in a web search.  The following was found on Wikipedia:

Wood was the brother of U.S. congressional representative and New York City Mayor Fernando Wood. In 1860, he purchased the “New York Daily News” (not to be confused with the current “New York Daily News,” which was founded in 1919), of which he was the editor and publisher until he died in 1900.

In 1861 the federal government effectively shut down the paper (by suspending its delivery via the postal service) as being sympathetic with the enemy. Wood was able to re-open the paper 18 months later. During the interval, he wrote one novel: “Fort Lafayette or, Love and Secession.”

Wood was elected as a Democrat to the 37th and 38th United States Congresses (March 4, 1861 – March 3, 1865.) He was a member of the New York State Senate (4th D.) in 1866 and 1867 and elected to the 47th United States Congress (March 4, 1881 – March 3, 1883)

His wife, Ida Wood, became a famous recluse and miser whose true identity of Ellen Walsh became the subject of a famous court case after her death in 1932, the story of which is told in Joseph Cox‘s book “The Recluse of Herald Square.”

The Wikipedia article uses as a source, the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress:

Wood, Benjamin (1820-1900), (brother of Fernando Wood), a Representative from New York; born in Shelbyville, Shelby County, Kentucky, 13 October 1820; moved to New York City with his parents; attended the public schools; entered the shipping business; purchased the “Daily News in 1860 and was its editor and publisher until his death; chairman of Democratic Editors in 1860; elected as a Democrat to the Thirty-seventh and Thirty-eighth Congresses (4 March 1861-3 March 1865); member of the State Senate in 1866 and 1867; elected to the Forty-seventh Congress (4 March 1881-3 March 1883); died in New York City, 21 February 1900; interment in Calvary Cemetery, Long Island City, New York.

A biographical sketch can also be found at Findagrave, along with a portrait (below):

Another portrait of Benjamin Wood, although part of a group, can be found in the NARA photographic collection:

 

All the persons in the group photo are not identified.  However, the photo is captioned:  “Hon. George H. Pendleton (Ohio), Hon. William A. Richardson (Illinois), Hon. Clement Vallandigham (Ohio), and Benjamin Wood (New York).”  The photograph is attributed to Mathew Brady and was probably taken between 1860 and 1865.  In comparing the Findagrave photograph with the Brady photograph, it probably can be assumed that either the second person from the left (standing) or the fourth person from the left (standing) is Benjamin Wood.

So, if Benjamin Wood was a Member of Congress during the Civil War – it would seem that he was, at least according to the information in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congresswas he also a Colonel in the Union Army? Was he also wounded at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run)?  And, was he the same person who was treated and cared for by the members of the Roman Eagle Lodge in Danville, Virginia?

Another questionable statement in the Masonic story was that Ben Wood was related to Fernando Wood, a M.C. (Member of Congress) – without the Roman Eagle Lodge knowing whether that relationship was as a brother or as a cousin.  According to the Wikipedia article on Fernando Wood (1812-1881), Fernando was born in Philadelphia, and his brother was Benjamin Wood.  Although Fernando was a Member of Congress before the Civil War from 1841-1843, he was not a Member of Congress between 1861 and 1863 when the First Battle of Bull Run took place.  Fernando Wood was elected to Congress in 1863 and served from 1863-1865, and again between 1867 and 1881.  He appears in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress as follows:

Wood, Fernando (1812-1881), (brother of Benjamin Wood), a Representative from New York; born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 14 June 1812; attended the public schools; moved with his father to New York City in 1820; was engaged in business as a shipping merchant in 1831; elected as a Democrat to the Twenty-seventh Congress (4 March 1841-3 March 1843); unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1842 to the Twenty-eighth Congress; appointed by Secretary of State John C. Calhoun dispatch agent for the State Department at the port of New York; reappointed to the position by Secretary of State James Buchanan and served from 1844 to 1847; unsuccessful candidate for mayor of New York in 1850 and in 1867; retired as a shipping merchant in 1850; mayor of New York City in 1855-1858, 1861, and 1862; elected as a Democrat to the Thirty-eighth Congress (4 March 1863-3 March 1865); unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1864 to the Thirty-ninth Congress; elected to the Fortieth and to the seven succeeding Congresses and served from 4 March 1867, until his death at Hot Springs, Arkansas, 14 February 1881, before the beginning of the Forty-seventh Congress, to which he had been reelected; chairman, Committee on Ways and Means (Forty-fifth and Forty-sixth Congresses); censured by the Fortieth Congress on January 15, 1868, for use of unparliamentary language; interment in Trinity Cemetery, New York City.

What begins to emerge in researching the Wood brothers is that they were members of the Democratic Party, were extremely anti-war (Copperheads), and anti-Lincoln.  According to the Findagrave post on Fernando Wood, while mayor during the Civil War, he tried to make New York City a “free city” which would have allowed trade with the South.

Lee Pace as Fernando Wood

Lee Pace played Fernando Wood in the the Steven Spielberg movie, Lincoln.  In one of the “most remembered” scenes in the film, Pace portrays Rep. Fernando Wood, strongly leading the opposition to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment – which was approved with the help of two Pennsylvania Democrats.  Ironically (and not stated in the film), Fernando Wood was by birth a Pennsylvanian, although he was representing New York in 1865.

For another story on Benjamin Wood, we can turn to Benjamin Wood (1820-1900).  The web page of the Lincoln Institute, adds to the controversies surrounding Benjamin Wood, the accusation of being “blatantly racist,” of being a “propagandist” for the South and for secession, the accusation that he had communicated “Federal information to the enemy,” and the suggestion of “seditious utterances.”  The web page supports its contentions by quoting several prominent historians, including Allan Nevins, Robert S. Harper, and Sidney David Brummer.  That the Wood brothers were working together in these endeavors, including the political corruption taking place in the city, is amply documented on this page.  Finally, blame for “inspiring of the draft riots” that took place in New York was squarely placed on the Wood brothers – which leads to another perspective on the film, Gangs of New York,  and the portrayal of New York City’s mayor, probably Fernando Wood, by the actor Christian Burgess.

It is highly unlikely that either of the Wood brothers ever served in the military during the Civil War – which, of course, makes the story told in the history of the Roman Eagle Lodge, pure fiction, although more research is necessary to be completely certain of this conclusion.  Why the author of this supposed history of the Masonic Lodge at Danville, Virginia, chose to tell this story is unknown, and on what facts or stories did he rely in telling it (no sources are given for the information).  There are other Civil War stories reported in the volume – which will be the subject of later blog posts.  It is possible that they all may prove to be as equally preposterous as this one.

 

 


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