On Christmas day 1863, tension and bitter politics invaded
the joyful serenity of a congregation’s worship.
BY PEGGY ROBBINS
December 25, 1863, was warmer than the Christmases Union soldiers in Vicksburg, Mississippi, remembered from up North. Still, it was chilly enough to fog a man’s breath as worshippers–citizens of the Southern city and Union soldiers alike–made their way to Christ Episcopal Church for the morning service.
The members of Christ Church did not exactly roll out the red carpet for the Yankees. As far as they were concerned, it had been bad enough living under enemy rule for the six months since the Union army captured their city in July. They should not have to face their oppressors in their own church. But this Christmas day, sitting in the same pews as they were, singing the same hymns, and reciting the same prayers were soldiers in blue uniforms.
As the minutes ticked away and the service progressed, tension grabbed the Southerners in attendance. They knew the minister was about to make a critical decision. If he guessed wrong, tempers would surely erupt. If he guessed right…well, maybe there was no guessing right.
The tension centered around the fast-approaching moment in the service when, according to the Book of Common Prayer, the minister was to offer a prayer for the president of the country. Since February 1861, when the Southern Confederacy, of which seceded Mississippi was a part, elected Jefferson Finis Davis as its first president, the minister had regularly asked that God’s guidance be generously bestowed on Davis. Now, however, Vicksburg was a conquered city, and this Christmas day had drawn some of the conquerors to Christ Church. Would the minister have the audacity to pray for Davis in the presence of Federal troops?
The pastor looked about his congregation for a moment. He noticed some agitation in a pew occupied by five young women: Kate and Ella Barnett, the daughters of a local judge; a Mrs. Moore, wife of a vestryman at the church; and two others named Laura Latham and Ellen Martin. There was more than one flush face among the women, who seemed to expect their pastor to say the wrong thing. Turning his head, the minister cleared his throat and met the eyes of some Union officers. They looked as empty of emotion as the women were full of it.
Taking a deep breath and releasing it in a sigh of resignation, the minister began his prayer: “O Lord, our Heavenly Father, the high and mighty ruler of the universe, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon the earth, most heartedly we beseech Thee, with thy favor to behold and bless thy servant, the President of the United States and all others in authority….”
Immediately upon the utterance of the words “United States,” the five restless young women stood up and, with a swishing of long skirts, left their pew. Chins held high, they marched noisily down the aisle, out the front door, and into the December morning air.
Inside the church, there was silence, but the Union soldiers were visibly enraged, and because their army controlled the city at the time, they would get the last laugh. Punishment of the defiant women was quick and harsh. It came on December 27 from Union Major General James Birdseye McPherson, commander of the Army of Tennessee’s XVII Corps, in the form of General Orders No. 52:
The following-named persons–Miss Kate Barnett, Miss Ella Barnett, Miss Laura Latham, Miss Ellen Martin, and Mrs. Moore–having acted disrespectfully toward the President and Government of the United States, and having insulted the officers, soldiers, and loyal citizens of the United States who had assembled at the Episcopal Church in Vicksburg on Christmas for divine service by abruptly leaving said church at that point in the services where the officiating minister prays for the welfare of the President of the United States and all others in authority, are hereby banished, and will leave the Federal lines within forty-eight hours, under penalty of imprisonment.
Hereafter, all persons, male or female, who, by word, deed, or implication, do insult or allow disrespect to the President, the Government, or flag of the United States, upon matters of a national character, shall be fined, banished, or imprisoned, according to the grossness of the offense.
The five women left Vicksburg as ordered, and a new, darker despair settled over a people already over-burdened by the war. Their friends and relatives were dying in a war the South was losing, but not even at home, not even in their own church, could Vicksburg’s citizens find respite. Some members of Christ Church lost hope; some never forgave their minister; some refused to sit alongside the enemy in their own church. Whatever their personal reasons for avoiding church, many stayed away. It would be a long time before the pews of Christ Church were as full as they had been on Christmas day 1863.
Peggy Robbins is a longtime contributor to Civil War Times.