Envisioning the Civil War

As the Civil War approached,many spiritualists saw the workings of the spirits in the gathering storm, and were convinced that heavenly ranks of spirits were assembling to bring slavery to a conclusion and to establish a new society.

  Spirit orators celebrate Lincoln’s election

Spiritualists, most of whom were in the North, lined up to support the War effort, with The Banner of Light encouraging military enlistment.  Spiritualism was closely enough entwined with the radical reform movements for which the North was known, that most spiritualists who lived in the South set aside their spiritualist lecturing and agitation (although not their séances) while the War continued.

Julia Howe receives the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” from whence she knows not

In response to the publication of this description (linked above) in the Atlantic Monthly, John Bundy, editor of the Religio-Philosophical Journal, commented: “Such words may well lead us to higher reverence of the spirit in man that giveth him understanding.  In such hours, too, the windows of heaven are open and the blessed immortals help and inspire us.  We are spirits clad in earthly bodies; they are kindred spirits clad in celestial bodies; in our highest moods they are nearest to us, and sometimes possess our whole being, psychologize and hold us in some noble service, and light our souls and touch our lips with fire from heavenly altars.” [“Inspirational Hours,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, October 29, 1887]

  Harriet Beecher Stowe—Only Holding the Pen

Spiritualism—by connecting the bereaved to their deceased loved ones—served in the Civil War to help ameliorate the personal grief that afflicted many.  But it expressed other feelings, too, more in line with the weird Gothic atmospherics in Ambrose Bierce’s short stories about battles—involving premonitions, secret coincidences, spies, premature burials, and vaporous entities.

  The Army of the Disembodied

Sherman’s Red Flannel Drawers

Some spiritualist mediums offered their military leaders their skills at clairvoyant travel, which they had tried to develop before the War.

Let it now be supposed that there is a desire to become acquainted with the Russian method of polishing iron.  It is a secret.  [. . .] A person may, when asleep, travel to Russia from the center of the United States in about 30 minutes, come into communion with the mind of an iron polisher, catch the thought from a weary iron worker, return, deposit it in the mind of a female, and in less than nine months, the thought may be so grown in her being that it can come forth in words.

—Benjamin Franklin [spirit], via John Spear, “Of Sleep,” April 6, 1861 [Thaddeus Sheldon Papers, Darlington Library, University of Pittsburgh]  This must be the first case of attempted industrial espionage by Americans on Russians via “remote viewing.”

Mediums also offered what they believed were their skills at mind reading at a distance as part of the gathering of military intelligence.

The Spiritualists, or at least some of them, think that the rebels get their intelligence of the designs of the Union Generals through mediums, who are able to get into their thoughts and swindle them out of their plans.  The only resource of our military leaders, on this theory, is not to think at all, but wherever they see the enemy to pitch in headlong.

—Boston Daily Evening Transcript, April 8, 1862.

The spiritualist newspaper The Banner of Light carried letters and testimonies from friends and acquaintances of General McClellan, arguing back and forth about whether he was a spiritualist.  Later, General Grant’s beliefs were also a matter of speculation.  Grant professed belief in no particular religion.  His wife Julia, however, was not only a firm spiritualist, but also believed herself to possess some mediumistic power.  Spiritualists made much of her visits to her husband in camp, where she would be seen sitting next to him at a table covered with maps.  Her memoirs say that, early on the day that Lincoln was assassinated, she felt “a premonition of some ‘great event’ about to take place,” and that she managed to pass a note to her husband during a Cabinet meeting he was attending, saying that she wished to cancel their plans to attend the theater that evening with the Lincolns.  The General made his excuses and bowed out of the engagement, she wrote.

  Uncovering a Nefarious Scheme

Mediums and their messengers delivered—or tried to deliver—“dispatches” from the spirit world to the nation’s leaders.  Lincoln, in particular, was the “beneficiary” of many of these, recommending various strategies for the War.

How shall these evils be arrested?  Only by immediate and vigorous prosecution of the war, by the government’s availing itself of every possible instrumentality in its power.  By arming the negroes wherever they can be reached, as rapidly as possible; and by discharging all officers who are not really in earnest in the work of crushing the rebellion.

—“Spirit Dispatch” for Lincoln, delivered to him by spiritualist and industrialist Thomas Richmond, God Dealing with Slavery; God’s Instrumentalities in Emancipating the African Slave in America (1870)

Mediums also sent Lincoln warnings about plots to assassinate him, which they said the spirits revealed to them.

Edward Baker (spirit) to Abraham Lincoln (via J. B. Conklin) [keywords: Baker, Conklin]; also, John Calhoun & Daniel Webster (spirits) to Abraham Lincoln (via J. S. Hastings) [keywords: Calhoun, Hastings], and Anonymous Clairvoyant warns Lincoln of Poison Attempt [keywords: poison, clairvoyant], from the Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

Spiritualists believed that spirits were working through the nation’s leaders, and believed that spirits had dictated speeches and policies, including particularly the Emancipation Proclamation.  Lincoln and his wife Mary went to at least one séance at the Georgetown home of Cranstoun Laurie, a Post Office clerk.  Laurie’s daughter was a medium whose particular power lay in her ability to levitate their parlor piano, which she did during the Lincoln visit.

  Unlocking the Mystery of a Lincoln Relic

It was Mrs. Lincoln, say many historians, who invited several mediums—including John Conklin, Lucy Hamilton, Charles Colchester, Charles Redmond, and Charles Foster—to the White House in order to conduct séances to contact the Lincolns’ recently deceased son, Willie.  One medium, young Nettie Colburn, had been introducted to the President one night in the summer of 1861.  She fell almost immediately into a trance, and lectured the President (or, rather, the spirits lectured him through her) about his duty to emancipate the slaves—“Sir, you have been called to the position you now occupy for a great purpose.  The world is in universal bondage; it must be physically set free, that it may mentally rise to its proper status.  There is a Spiritual Congress supervising the affairs of this nation as well as a Congress at Washington.  This Republic is leading the van of Republics throughout the world.”  During another visit to the White House, Nettie found herself waking from a trance, standing next to a table with Lincoln and two Union officers, who were pointing at a map.  Lincoln was smiling, said Nettie later, telling the officers that she could pinpoint, out of thin air, the disposition of military forces on the ground.

  Spiritualism at the White House

Opponents of the Administration also took up the rumors of spiritualist influence in high places, but used it as evidence of Lincoln’s “fanaticism.”

Mr. Lincoln, with his aiders and abettors, has assumed great responsibilities in thus revolutionizing the government; but unlike our old fashioned presidents who were compelled to consult the Constitution, he has, in a secret hole of the White House, a rapping table, which discourses sweeter music than ever issued from Hamlet’s pipe.  It is law, constitution and gospel; and the great magical power which gathers armies presages events, equalizes whites and negroes, and converts paper into gold.  Washington, Jefferson and Jackson, Caesar, Hannibal, Napoleon, Wellington, and all the other great men of history, wake from their slumbers and protrude their counsels through it; direct the plans of battles, the windings of anacondas, the policy of proclamations, and the movements of armies; so that a new dispensation looms up around the present power, while laws and constitutions flee before the mystical light, as ragged relics of the vulgar past.  Delphos had her oracles, Olympus her enchantments; but all now sink into insignificance before the superior powers of this wonderful table.

—David Quinn [“A Citizen of Ohio”], Interior Causes of the War: The Nation Demonised, and Its President a Spirit-Rapper (1863): 94-95.  Quinn, a Chicago lawyer, despite appearances here, was a spiritualist, although he had little sympathy for the progressive causes, such as Abolitionism, that were often associated with spiritualism.  After the War, he wrote and published the rather implausible Petition and Memorial of David Quinn, Asking for the Re-Establishment of Negro Slavery in the United States (1866).

Whether Lincoln was actually amenable to the notion of spirit guidance and premonitory dreams, or was simply humoring his bereaved wife (or protecting her from the mediums she insisted on consulting), or playing, with bemused or somewhat curious detachment, with the mediums who contacted him, was hotly debated among Lincoln’s supporters and detractors, and it remains contentious today, among those who still have a stake in making a judgment about Lincoln’s character.

  Spiritualists Write Home from the Front

The War convinced many of the radical reformers who had become spiritualists to reconsider their extreme distaste for organization and for “worldly” institutions and involvement with politics.  Although some continued through the War to repudiate violence and the notion that the Government could be used as an instrument of true reform, others reconciled themselves to the idea that the State could be harnessed to Heaven, and that angels and spirits were behind the liberation armies of an anti-slavery crusade.

  The Jubilee: A Song for the Anti-Slavery Crusade

The willingness of many spiritualists to link their religious goals to political means, and to regard the State as an effective tool for reform, would motivate spiritualists, like other reformers, after the Civil War, to contemplate centrally-controlled schemes of social engineering.

  Spiritualists Endorse Lincoln for a Second Term and Adopt a Political Agenda

But not all spiritualists were ready to back the Northern war effort, for one reason or another.

  Opposition to the Lincoln Supporters

At a Spiritualists’ meeting in Brooklyn last week, the ghost of John Wilkes Booth was called up and made to divulge.  Booth said he was sorry that he had killed Abraham Lincoln, but that they have since become reconciled.  They are now good friends and walk out together.  The assassination was based on an unfortunate misunderstanding.  Mrs. Surratt was entirely innocent.

—Titusville (Pennsylvania) Morning Herald, September 22, 1870

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