One hundred fifty years ago this week, in an elaborate ceremony, the American flag was raised over Fort Sumter in South Carolina marking a milestone in the Union victory in the Civil War. Two months earlier the U.S. Congress had adopted the 13th Amendment forever abolishing slavery.
Two longtime Brooklyn clergymen – Henry Ward Beecher and Henry Highland Garnet – were central to the ceremonies marking these events. Beecher (1813-1887) is described as the most famous man in America at the time of the Civil War, while Garnet (1815-1882) was well-known in the free blacks, but prior to the Civil War, was known to relatively few outside that community.
Both men, who spent a significant part of their careers as the leaders of churches within ten miles of each other in Brooklyn, were critical to the fight against slavery. Their contributions and religious philosophies were quite different however, and illustrate the differing roles that black and white leaders played in the struggle against slavery.
Beecher was selected by President Lincoln to provide the invocation for the flag raising at Fort Sumter. In making the selection, Lincoln allegedly said “were it not for Beecher there would be no flag to raise.” Garnet, then chaplain to the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., was selected by House of Representatives Chaplain William Channing (presumably with Lincoln’s consent) to preach a service in Capitol on February 15, 1865 in honor of the passage of the 13th Amendment. He was the first African American to address Congress, and those in the Capitol that day were said to be stunned by his eloquence, and his bluntness in describing the implications of slavery and its abolition.
Garnet was born a slave in Maryland. His family escaped to the North with the help of abolitionists and settled in New York City. As runaway slaves they were always at risk of being recaptured, and at least once narrowly escaped being returned to slavery. Young Garnet attended the African Free School established by the New York Manumission Society, whose graduate ranks included leading black abolitionists James McCune and Howard Russworm.
After graduating from the African Free School, Garnet attended several institutions in upstate New York that were willing to provide an education to African Americans, and was eventually ordained as a Presbyterian minister. His first position as pastor was in a black church in Troy, New York, where he gained a reputation among his colleagues as a leading black activist and intellectual, who held fairly radical views on slavery and race relations.
In 1842, at a conference in Buffalo, Garnet criticized the approach of leading abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas in seeking to end slavery through moral persuasion, and introduced a resolution calling on slaves in the South to arm themselves and rise against their masters. The resolution was narrowly defeated by Frederick Douglas and his allies, but it established Garnet as a leading proponent of armed resistance to slavery.
After a speaking tour of England, Garnet returned to New York and took the pulpit of the Colored Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn (near what is today Bedford Stuyvesant). In the 1850s, after the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act and following the Dred Scott decision made him extremely pessimistic about the prospects of American society, he helped found the African Colonization Society, whose purpose was to resettle African Americans in Africa.
Meanwhile, not more than ten miles away on Brooklyn Heights, Henry Ward Beecher was building Plymouth Church into one of the most important centers of the anti-slavery movement in America. Beecher was originally a much more moderate anti-slavery leader, in that he did not call for outright abolition, but only argued against its expansion. Over time however, he began to emphasize that slavery was a moral evil which should be eliminated.
Unhappy with William Seward’s role as the leading prospective Republican candidate in 1860, one of Beecher’s parishioners invited a politically active Whig lawyer from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, to address a meeting at Plymouth Church. When the weather didn’t cooperate the meeting was moved to Cooper Union in Manhattan. Lincoln’s Cooper Union address would catapult him into the Republican nomination and the Presidency.
The resulting Civil War would transform both Garnet and Beecher, and both would play important roles in the Union victory. Garnet abandoned his interest in emigration and strongly supported the United States of America. Beecher redoubled his anti-slavery activism with a trip speaking tour of England often credited with helping to prevent England’s recognition of the Confederate States of America.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, Garnet focused on getting permission to enlist African Americans in Union Army and then became a vocal recruiter. The radical idea he had advanced in Buffalo in 1842 – armed rebellion against slavery – was now mainstream. Almost 200,000 African Americans volunteered by the end of the war, not only fighting, but also actively disrupting the southern slave economy and southern morale. In March 1864, when the Union League Club in New York reviewed three black regiments in Union Square it had sponsored, Henry Highland Garnet was on the dais, as a guest of honor.
Garnet moved to Washington, D.C. to serve as a chaplain to black troops and became the pastor of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church. Recognized as one of the most important black clergymen in the country, it was fitting he was the first African American to address the U.S. Congress at the end of American slavery.
Photos: Above, Henry Highland Garnet (c.1881); and below, Henry Ward Beecher (c. 1855-1865).