Just When You Die for Them, They Lynch Your Nephew

Mark Noll’s new history of God and Race in American Politics is permeated by the paradoxes of his theme. Nothing in history, it seems is simple. There is always another side. Every silver lining has a cloud.

Just when you think you are seeing virtue, the underbelly of sin exposes itself. Just when you think wickedness has fully triumphed, some upright soul takes a stand. Just when you think the North is worth dying for, it lynches your nephew.

Consider July, 1863.

Earlier in July, crucial victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg turned the military tide of the Civil War in favor of the North; a week later federal officials in New York City began to carry out the draft that Congress had authorized in order to meet the war’s escalating demands of manpower.

On Saturday, July 18, Sgt. Robert Simmons, an African American from New York City who had enlisted in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, was killed during the Union assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina.

His death occurred only days after anti-draft rioters in New York City, hell-bent on attacking the city’s Negro population, had destroyed Simmons’s family home and lynched his nephew.

The riots, as a protest against the draft in general and especially the provision that allowed men of means to hire a substitute, were fueled by the rage of poor white immigrants and left hundreds of African Americans dead.

The day before Robert Simmons’s death in far-away South Carolina, Maria Daly, a white diarist, had expressed fears that the New York mob would attack the block in which her home was located since it was situated near tenements below MacDoughal Street, where a band of African Americans had taken refuge on a rooftop. On that rooftop this black contingent was collecting firearms for self-defense and singing psalms for divine protections. (3-4, paragraph breaks added)

Only a few years later a German, Paul Joseph Münz, observed, “The North can free the slaves with force, but it cannot...deliver them from contempt and mistreatment. Here no one can help except the Church, whose main task is precisely this concern” (4).

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.