Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

BENJAMIN MORGAN PALMER
(January 25, 1818–May 28, 1902)

Jon L. Wakelyn

Both the Confederate government and the Southern people considered the Presbyterian minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer as its most famous preacher propagandist and regarded him as an important war leader. Ultraorthodox, prolific with pen and voice, he used his brilliant oratorical abilities throughout the war to stir his people to action. When he died, the press and the many attendees at his funeral eulogized him as the “preacher to the Confederacy.” Shortly thereafter, however, the Presbyterian Synod diminished his importance, perhaps because in his later years he forsook Southern-wide fame to labor close to home. His name now has faded in history. Even those who today inhabit New Orleans, the city that he so marked with his words and deeds, ask, Who is Palmer Street named after? To restore his place in Southern history and especially his contributions to the Confederacy, it is important to review how he became such a famous clergyman and just why his reputation has declined.

Like so many other great leaders of the Confederacy, Palmer’s American antecedents begin in the Calvinist Congregational world of New England. His grandfather, John, left Connecticut to become a contractor and builder in Charleston, South Carolina. He also served as clerk and sexton to the Congregational Circular Church there. Benjamin’s father, Reverend Edward Palmer, had attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and had studied for the ministry at the famous Andover Seminary. He later received an M.A. from Yale College. Edward returned home to hold pulpits in the Congregational churches of Dorchester and later Walterboro, South Carolina. Benjamin’s mother, Sarah Bunce, who greatly influenced his life with her stubborn will, intelligence, and desire for him to succeed, had been born in Connecticut into a merchant family. Benjamin’s namesake and uncle, Benjamin Palmer, also became a Congregational minister in Charleston and later edited an important religious journal. Into this family of powerful clergy, Benjamin was born in

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