A National Treasure Preserved: Freemasonry and the Confederate War Records of Mississippi

January-February 2012

Christopher M. Reid, 32°

With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the Confederate States of America struggled with implementing standardized administrative policies regarding its military forces. Although the Confederate Congress delegated administrative control to the War Department, it granted tactical command to the Confederate President. This dichotomy proved troublesome and led to a great disparity among subordinate units regarding the timely and accurate collection of personnel records. Procedures regarding necessity, methodology, and most importantly storage, varied dramatically. This variance, coupled with the destruction of existing records as field headquarters were conquered or as seats of government collapsed, prompted custodians to seek safer repositories for these valued gems of military history. In some instances, when no other options seemed viable, officials relinquished custody of their records to private ownership such as individuals, families, or organizations. In the latter such scenario, the service records of Confederate soldiers from Mississippi were protected from the ravages of war by Freemasons.

During the early years of the Civil War, Mississippi possessed a limited account of its combatants in the field, especially those who had fallen in battle. This was not by any means a situation unique to Mississippi, as it had become an increasingly problematic occurrence across the South. In an effort to curb the issue, on February 16, 1864, the Confederate Congress passed into law an act providing for the collection and perfection of military records. In response, on April 30, 1864, Mississippi Governor Charles Clark appointed then Major John Logan Power, Adjutant of the 1st Mississippi Light Artillery, as Superintendent of Army Records for Mississippi.

John Logan Power was born in 1834 in Ireland and immigrated to the United States in 1850. Ultimately settling in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1855, he began a successful career as a newspaper editor and printer, soon after joining Silas Brown Lodge No. 65. In 1861, as the country was ablaze with the secession crisis, Power was appointed as the Reporter of the Mississippi Secession Convention and printed its proceedings. After the war began, he enlisted in the 1st Mississippi Light Artillery and quickly rose through the ranks to the position of Regimental Adjutant.

Colonel Power, originally tasked to collect data in the Army of Tennessee, was unable to perform that duty since the majority of that command was engaged in combat operations in the Franklin-Nashville campaign. He instead traveled to Richmond to begin his efforts in the Army of Northern Virginia. Arriving in February 1865, he set about the daunting task of collecting and compiling information on the three Mississippi brigades, representing twelve infantry regiments, assigned to that command.

On April 2, 1865, just two months after Colonel Power began his work; the Union Army captured Richmond and forced the Confederates to relocate their capital. As buildings were being torched, Power entrusted W. H. King, who had assisted him at the Confederate Treasury Department, with his compilations, with orders to get them safely to Mississippi as quickly as possible. After an arduous journey, in some cases on foot, through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama, King presented his precious cargo to Mrs. John L. Power, in the presence of Brigadier General William F. Tucker.

In the autumn of 1865, Colonel Power returned home to a devastated Jackson and a deposed state government replaced by Reconstructionists. This “changing of the guard” was highly unpopular in Mississippi and led to a widespread distrust by the general public of their new government that cared nothing at all for Confederate causes or sentiments. Colonel Power, being a staunch Confederate, certainly did not believe that the Reconstructionists would properly care for the rolls he so meticulously prepared, nor provide for their further compilation, as they were still grossly incomplete. So he continued to labor on his own, free from governmental interference, to properly chronicle the service of his fallen comrades.

Meanwhile during the post-war years, the general condition of other official state records was completely unacceptable by modern archival standards. The capital city of Jackson had been sacked in 1863, and the seat of government was forced to relocate several times as Federal forces continued to advance on southern territory.

Returning to Jackson in 1865, all records fell under the custody of a martial government and later indifferent legislatures. As a result, the official “archives,” which had become disorganized heaps of paper thrown into boxes due to repeated relocation, were shunted to the third floor of the Old Capitol building. There they were simply stockpiled in confusion until their sheer weight threatened the Supreme Court chamber located on the second floor below. At that point, they were moved to the old penitentiary building in the center of Jackson, where the New Capitol would later be erected. These facts only served to reinforce Power’s suspicion of the government’s unwillingness to care for precious documents.

Colonel Power finalized his compilations in the mid-1870s and afterwards faced a dilemma regarding the future of these documents. He could either surrender them to the government, now watching them deteriorate in the old penitentiary, or consider temporary alternate placement until such time as they would be given their rightful care and consideration by the proper authorities. It is unfortunate that Mississippi did not possess an archival institution or repository at that time, and with absolutely no glimmer of hope regarding their fate, Power turned to the Secretary of State for advice in 1878, who happened to be a personal friend and fellow Freemason.

Colonel Daniel Price Porter, a member of Pearl Lodge No. 23, was a former Confederate officer and Secretary of the Mississippi Senate in 1865. Porter agreed that the government was not ready to care for these one-of-a-kind historical treasures and laid out a plan to conceal them in Pearl No. 23, located in the top floor of the Jackson City Hall, until future administrations could properly provide for their care. Three large boxes containing the entirety of Power’s work were placed in secret above the main Lodge hall where they remained quietly unobserved and unknown for the next 25 years.

Finally in 1902, owing to a significant push in political circles for the state to properly preserve its history, the Mississippi Legislature formally established a Department of Archives and History, for the express purpose of caring and collecting for the official archives of the state. Under its Act of Establishment the Department’s director, Dunbar Rowland, was charged with “the collection of data in reference to soldiers from Mississippi in the war between the United States and the Confederate States.” Amidst all his outlined duties, Rowland was instructed to concentrate most significantly on this objective.

Porter died in 1899 and Power shortly after in 1901, so neither of them lived to see their hope of a proper repository realized. By 1902 when the Department of Archives and History was established, there were only a handful of Freemasons in Jackson who were privy to the knowledge of the property they possessed. The information had deliberately not been passed down within the Lodge, and those that were within the “inner circle,” so to speak, were unsure of exactly what Porter or Power would have wished. So as Rowland made his inquires among state officials, members of the United Confederate Veterans, and old residents of Jackson, they chose to simply remain silent. However, William Calvin Wells, a judge in Jackson, took the bold step and relayed to Rowland that Colonel Eugene E. Baldwin of Hinds County knew the location of the lost records.

Wasting no time, Rowland dispatched a letter to Colonel Baldwin inquiring as to the validity of this claim. Baldwin, who himself was a veteran of Barksdale’s Brigade and by that association included in the rolls Power had compiled, was deeply interested in the military history of the state and thus inclined to assist Rowland in his endeavor. On July 25, 1902, Colonel Baldwin made the trip to Jackson and escorted Rowland to Pearl Lodge No. 23 where two of the lodge’s officers, George F. Swann and George B. Power, were on hand to guide them inside. It was fitting that George Boyd Power was in attendance because as Colonel Power’s son, he fulfilled his father’s dreams of preserving the rolls he labored so long to prepare.

Rowland prepared an inventory of the material he discovered which included historical data on some 600 different companies, battalions, regiments, and brigades from Mississippi. The historical significance was enormous as these records contained soldier’s names, unit information, and other genealogical data. Rowland was ecstatic over the discovery and would later write:

    The officials of the fraternity were exceedingly kind and courteous to the representative of the State and were much pleased at the thought that their Order had been the unconscious keepers for so many years of such priceless records. This is not the first time that the State of Mississippi has been placed under obligations to the noble Masonic fraternity.

As Superintendent of Army Records in Mississippi, Colonel Power was duty-bound to compile and preserve the military records of his adopted state. Despite the fall of the Confederate government, he never lost sight of the importance of his mission and continued faithfully in the discharge of that duty until its completion. Always mindful of their fate, he sought refuge for them from Reconstructionist regimes and indifferent state legislatures and secured the records within a fraternity that placed no value at all on political divisions, military agendas, or personal gain. Had Power been composed of a lesser character or the Masonic fraternity unwilling to assist in such a noble endeavor, the State of Mississippi would have virtually no first-hand accounting of the sacrifices of its Confederate veterans some 150 years ago, nor would the world at large know of the state’s contribution to this epic chapter of American history. 

Christopher M. Reid is the Grand Librarian and Grand Orator for the Grand Lodge F.&A.M. of Mississippi, is actively involved in promoting Masonic history in Mississippi, and is Managing Editor of the Mississippi Freemason magazine. RW Reid is a Fellow and Founding Master of the Mississippi Lodge of Research No. 640 where he currently serves as Secretary. He is also Past Master of John P. Byrd Lodge No. 629, Pearl, Mississippi, and is a member of the Valley of Jackson.