of a Christian Soldier: Rufus Kinsley and the Civil War
Gerardo Del Guercio
David C. Rankin’s Diary of a Christian Soldier: Rufus Kinsley and the Civil War follows the nineteenth-century abolitionist dogma that education produces enlightenment and freedom. Rufus Kinsley’s diary debates the various definitions of liberty. The Confederate states defined liberty as their constitutional right to practice slavery south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The Union maintained that liberty meant keeping the United States intact. Rufus Kinsley advocated that true liberty must follow the Garrisonian Abolitionist tenant that stated
Slavery is therefore a national shame and form of manipulating Africa American labor. Throughout my review, I will be arguing that David C. Rankin’s edition of Rufus Kinsley’s memoir provides readers of American Civil War history with the story of a soldier who educated ex-slaves to be productive citizens instead of exploiting their work. Rankin’s book is unique in that it extols a military figure who never participated in armed battle.
David C. Rankin begins his text with a lengthy introduction on Rufus Kinsley’s family and military life. Ben Alva Kinsley raised his son, Rufus, with a Christian education. Rufus Kinsley brought his father’s teachings to the Civil War. Rankin notes that Alva Ben Kinsley’s "communitarian" values hinted “at one of the Kinsley’s most fundamental beliefs, that education was useless unless it was tested and tempered within a Christian context” [p. 8]. The Christian context that Ben Alva Kinsley suggested was an environment that practiced benevolence and equality with the intent of generating a “purely secular education.” Embedded in Rufus Kinsley’s definition of liberty is the notion that everyone possesses the ability to learn. Slavery therefore continued for centuries because African Americans were kept uneducated and not because of an inherent cognitive superiority held by Caucasians.
Alva Ben Kinsley taught Rufus that egalitarianism and liberty are possible only once one practices temperance. Rufus Kinsley entered adulthood with the Independent Order of Good Templars’ creed that sobriety clears one’s mind, and persuaded Americans to embrace “a universalist ideology that offered full membership rights to the young, the poor, the black and the female” [p. 65]. Kinsley believed that temperance would create a utopian non-slaveholding nation. The correlation that Kinsley drew between temperance and liberty implied that freedom was achievable if one had full control over body and soul. Kinsley’s estimation is correct for the reason that alcohol creates a dependence on a substance that is deemed unnecessary to sustain human life. A temperate nation would have better control over its political scene and a clearer mind to focus on pertinent issues such as slavery.
The state of Vermont donated a large segment of its population to the Union army. Rankin reports, “Vermont’s response to the call for troops was impressive. A small state with a shrinking population, Vermont nevertheless contributed some 32,000 soldiers to the Union war effort” [p. 18]. Vermont’s role in the Civil War is a crucial feature of Rankin’s text that exemplifies the dedication that the small state had towards keeping America unified by donating a large portion of its population to the emancipation movement. The Kinsley household made a singular contribution to the Union “in offering the army 5 out of its 10 members, and 5 of its 7 military-aged males.” Such statistics demonstrate the anxiety that soldiers must have felt towards the possibility of witnessing a close friend or kin murdered or severely wounded in battle.
The Eighth Vermont Regiment was significant because it was an interracial contingent. Kinsley joined the Union army on November 29, 1861 in St. Albans for the Eighth Vermont Regiment under General Benjamin F. Butler. The Eighth Vermont Brigade was assembled “to operate in the Gulf of Mexico, against New Orleans, Mobile, and other rebellious cities of the South” [p. 87]. The primary goal of Kinsley’s regiment was to dissemble Southern plantations and bid “thousands of negroes welcome” [p. 92]. Escaped slaves were then ordered to labor in fields and serve white soldiers under General Butler’s command. Rufus Kinsley’s battalion obviously defied the Fugitive Slave Laws by not returning renegade slaves to their masters.
Rufus Kinsley was against the re-enslavement of rescued fugitives. Serving in the Eighth Vermont Regiment allowed Kinsley to witness “enough of the horrors of slavery to make [him] an Abolitionist forever” [p. 98]. Kinsley sought to minimize the exploitation that his battalion was subjecting African Americans to by founding a school for fugitive slaves at the Swedenborgian Temple. The lectures provided escaped slaves with “the rudiments of an education” [p. 107]. The goal of Kinsley’s school was to supply ex-slaves with the necessary education to enter the workforce after emancipation. Education would therefore enlighten African Americans with knowledge that extended beyond the limits of bonded labor. Embodied throughout Kinsley’s journal is the notion that liberty is possible once America understands that slavery is based on keeping slaves unaware of the possibility of a life without bondage.
A major theme of David C. Rankin’s Diary of a Christian Soldier: Rufus Kinsley and the Civil War is that slavery had diminished the state of the slaveholder and the American South. Kinsley’s diary entry dated November 30, 1862 exemplifies the condition of the Confederate states:
Kinsley’s digression is rooted in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic. Hegel’s dialectic inverts the master-slave relationship by arguing that the master cannot survive without the slave’s services. What subsequently occurs is that the slave will hold power over the master because the master requires the presence of the slave to reinforce his presumed supremacy. The American South was slowly eroding with “[t]he wail of the oppressor mingle[ing] with the wail of his victim” [p. 106] causing the South to be “made desolate” to the point where “National honor and permanent peace” were impossible. In Kinsley’s opinion, liberty is possible only in conjunction with emancipation.
Rufus Kinsley was not alone in his struggle to use education to abolish slavery. After the Eighth Vermont Regiment’s capture of New Orleans, Kinsley met Mother Taylor and Mrs. Lee at Taylor’s Girl’s High School. These facilities included sub-divisions for ex-salves. A native of New England, Mother Taylor moved to New Orleans to instruct females and black adolescents. What Kinsley discovered while residing with Mother Taylor and Mrs. Lee was that female abolitionists were suffering the same degree of “social ostracism, and exclusion from home” [p. 175] as male freedom fighters were for breaking the Fugitive Slave Laws.
Radical Reconstruction was to begin by establishing a Common School System that would include African American students and educationalists. The Common School System was to instruct Southern whites along with emancipated slaves with an abolitionist mindset. Rufus Kinsley underscores how “[v]ery few of those who have lost their slaves will cease to hate the Emancipation Proclamation and Common School System, while they live” [p.175]. Slaveholders staunchly opposed a regulation that would regard blacks and whites as equals and consequently terminate the slave master’s primary source of income. Abolitionists like Kinsley countered the sentiment expressed by plantation owners by hypothesizing that America would “see the hand of God” [p. 176] that created liberty, and emancipate the slaves. Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was possible as soon as America agreed to free its slaves. Although abolitionists understood that God would never forgive humanity for having practiced slavery, liberation would at least cleanse America’s consciousness.
David C. Rankin bases his study largely on a series of interviews he conducted with Rufus Kinsley’s granddaughter Reba Kinsley Hall—who provided Rankin with the original manuscript of the journal. The interviews with Reba Hall gave Rankin a glimpse of Kinsley’s apprehensions about education, and daily accounts of his story. Reba Hall unfortunately died before the publication of her grandfather’s chronicle. Rankin’s text would have been incomplete and unreliable had Reba Hall not shared “her photo albums, newspaper clippings, family histories, and most important, her memories” [p. xix] along “with copies of Kinsley’s Civil War diary and letters.”
David C. Rankin’s Diary of a Christian Soldier: Rufus
Kinsley and the Civil War is an effectual text that draws a
parallel between education and liberty. The greatest post-Civil
War battle that Kinsley fought was proving to the United States
government that he deserved a disability pension. Kinsley attributed
the harsh climatic conditions and undernourishment that he endured
while on Ship Island as the cause of his lame knee. He insisted
that his injuries could not allow him to work and support his family.
He prevailed by winning a veteran’s annuity and was hence
able to support his family. The dilemmas concerning race relations
as presented in Kinsley’s journal continue to prevail today
in contemporary America through violence against African Americans,
and the large economic cleavage that exists between black and whites.
American race relations have yet to reach the acceptable standard
that Rufus Kinsley argues for in his diary.