Jon L. Wakelyn
As the Union’s most famous preacher, Henry Ward Beecher’s support for the Northern war effort was of incalculable importance. Through work with friends and allies, he influenced President Abraham Lincoln’s (q.v.) policies toward slavery. Through his preaching for the cause, Beecher stirred his parishoners on to make great sacrifices for the Union. As the editor of an influential wartime periodical, he wrote important articles and published a number of his sermons, which allowed him to reach an even larger Northern audience with his message. As spokesman for a large number of Northern citizens, that superb preacherpropagandist met with President Lincoln to discuss war policies. If Lincoln did not heed his advice, he did cultivate Beecher’s public support. Because he had become a symbol of national sacrifice, the president chose Beecher to give the speech at Fort Sumter in April 1865 to commemorate the Union victory. Historian William G. McLoughlin claims that “no fact better testifies his spiritual leadership … than President Lincoln’s choice of him as the principal speaker at … that ceremony at Fort Sumter” (x). But membership in a famous family— he was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe—and a postwar personal scandal perhaps have overshadowed Beecher’s importance to this country in its greatest moment. To give his contribution its rightful importance in history, it is time once again to evaluate his life and what he meant to the Civil War years.
Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 24, 1813, Beecher was the son of the celebrated Congregational minister Lyman Beecher and his wife Roxana Foote. The ninth of eleven children, Henry early was neglected by his busy father and virtually raised by his famous sister Catherine. His closest friend was his sister Harriet, the later celebrated author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When he was three the shy and withdrawn child lost his mother. An aunt, Esther Beecher, took charge of the rebellious youth, as Henry never seemed to get along with his stepmother, Harriet Porter, a rather cold and aloof person. Lyman, a stern