"Liberty" and "freedom" are words we as Americans, and especially as Christians, instinctively associate with patriotism and our unique heritage. But has patriotism become a mere cliché in the average American Christian's mind?
Certainly to our forefathers, patriotism was much more than an abstract concept, more than an idea discussed in political speeches and debates. Patriotism, and the love of liberty, was something very real, something tangible. These ideas were made tangible by the fact that many of our forefathers willingly sacrificed lands, riches, families, and futures. Our history is replete with such stories of heroism and self-sacrifice. From our Pilgrim progenitors to those in this century who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, we have, as King David wrote, "a goodly heritage." One of the best, but lesser known, examples of true patriotism and love of liberty was personified by the Liberty Hall Volunteers. Their example teaches us what true patriotism is and of the sacrifice that sometimes must be paid by patriots who value liberty. Their example also illustrates the rich Christian heritage of our nation's history.
The Liberty Hall Volunteers
Liberty Hall Academy was the forerunner of Washington College, which eventually became, as it is known today, Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. The school traces its roots to the year 1749, and to a Presbyterian preacher by the name of William Graham.1 Eventually fully funded and directed by Shenandoah Valley Presbyterians, the school boasts thousands of influential and renowned men as graduates.2
At the outbreak of the War Between the States, a group of young men who were students at Washington College formed a military company. This company would eventually become part of the legendary "Stonewall Brigade." These young patriots chose for their company the name, The Liberty Hall Volunteersa name used by a similar company of youths formed at the original Liberty Hall Academy. The original "volunteers" marched to repel a British invasion on the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains with William Graham during the American Revolution. The young men of Washington College also wanted to march to repel an invasion. Their motives were the same, but Providence would dictate a much different outcome. During the month of April in 1861, these young men did little more than "play army." The rules set up by the not-so-supportive administration did not allow them to carry firearms. The President of the college, Rev. Dr. George Junkin, being Pennsylvania born and a loyal Unionist, was so outraged by the "rebels" that he resigned his position as President. He then immediately left Virginia for good, and tradition has it that once he crossed the Potomac River into Maryland, he "alighted from his carriage and shook the dust of Virginia from his shoes."3 But when the school year ended in June, the boys took on a more serious disposition as they were drilled by West Point graduate and rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Lexington,4 William Nelson Pendleton. Pendleton would eventually become commander of the Rockbridge Artillery and name his most "famous" cannons, "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John," because, "they spoke a powerful language." Indeed.
Who Were They?
There are several things that make the story of these young patriots very interesting and very instructive. First, consider the fact that all the officers, as well as over half the privates, were professing Christians one fourth were candidates for the ministry. James J. White, professor of Greek at Washington College and son of the Reverend Dr. William S. White (Stonewall Jackson's Pastor), organized and commanded the company. This unit was likely the best educated Infantry Company in the Confederate Army.5 The artillery unit that Pendleton would later organize and command would also be comprised of highly educated and devout men, including "seven Masters of Arts of the University of Virginia, twenty-eight college graduates, twenty-five theological seminary students, and among the others many of the most accomplished young men of the South, including R. E. Lee, Jr."6
The Washington College boys received orders from Virginia Governor John Letcher on June 2, 1861 to report to Harper's Ferry immediately. The bugle sounded loud and clear on the bright morning of June 8 and the company readied for the march. Among its newest recruits was Hugh Augustus White, younger brother of the commander James J. White and another son of Stonewall Jackson's pastor, Dr. William S. White. The younger White had studied at Washington College and was at this time, a seminary student at Union Theological Seminary in Farmville, Virginia. After a day of fasting and prayer at the seminary, Hugh had written to his father on April 22 of that same year:
We of Virginia are between two fires. If we join the one party, we join friends and allies; if we join the other, we join enemies and become vassals. Our decision then is formed, and we will seek to break the oppressor's yoke. Our only hope, under God, is in a united resistance even unto death ... how delightful it would be to enter at once upon the work of saving men's souls, rather than in efforts to destroy their bodies....7
Dr. White implored his son to complete his seminary studies rather than fight for the Confederacy, but the youthful patriot replied:
I have thought and prayed much over this question for two months ... and the result is as firm a conviction that I ought at once to take part in the defense of my state ... as I ever felt that I ought to preach the Gospel.8
His father could only reply, "Go, my son, and the blessing of God go with you." The company of optimistic youths marched dutifully to the courthouse on Main Street where a crowd had gathered. There they were given a magnificent flag that had been hand stitched by the devout ladies of the Falling Springs Presbyterian Church. Upon the flag was emblazoned the immortal Latin phrase, "Pro Aris et Focis" the English translation being simply, "For Altar and Home."
No doubt as those brave young men read that Latin phrase, knowing full well what it meant, God confirmed in their hearts what they already knew. They were defending and fighting for everything they held near and dear their firesides, their native sod, and their sacred places of worship. As the pastor of Falling Springs presented them the flag with a fitting exhortation, these soon to be warriors were baptized with a benediction of fervent prayer by Dr. White and tearful good-byes were exchanged:
You could almost hear the heart-strings of mothers and sisters snap as they pressed sons and brothers in farewell embraces. In surrendering their boys to the services of Virginia, they were making sacrifices, such as their heroic ancestors were accustomed to make on the hills and among the mosshags of Scotland, for God and Presbytery. It was a willing sacrifice. And no less, yet more demonstrative than theirs, was the grief of the black mammies, who came to say good-by to their "chillum," now grown to be young masters, and press them to their warm hearts.9
After the emotional send off, the friends and relatives of the boys returned to the Presbyterian Church and petitioned their God for their safety and their victory. On June the 13, 1861, the Lexington Gazette wrote of the event:
[O]ne of the finest looking bodies of young soldiers that have been sent from this portion of the state.... The patriotic fire which animated the breasts of the boys of Liberty Hall in the days of our Revolutionary struggle is still alive in the hearts of their worthy descendants.10
The question Christians in the 21st century should ask themselves is this: Is that same patriotic fire to fight for "Altar and Home" still alive in us?
1. Oren F. Morton, B. Lit., A History of Rockbridge County Virginia.(Regional Publishing Company: Baltimore, 1980), 189.
2. Washington and Lee University no longer has any ties to any denomination.
3. W.G. Bean, The Liberty Hall Volunteers.(The University Press of Virginia: Charlottesville, 1964), 8.
4. This is the church where Robert E. Lee would attend worship after he became President of Washington College.
5. Charles W. Turner, Ted Barclay, Liberty Hall Volunteers: Letters From the Stonewall Brigade (Rockbridge Publishing Company: Berryville, VA, 1992), v.
6. Byron Farwell, Stonewall (W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 1992), 147.
7. Dr. William S. White, Sketches of the Life of Captain Hugh A. White (Sprinkle Publications, Harrisonburg, VA, 1997), 44-45.
8. Bean, 12.
9. Ibid., 18.
10. Ibid., 14.