Conquering Evil In Spite of Ourselves

As part of our family vacation to Key West, Florida, last week, we took a tour of Fort Jefferson, America’s largest 19th century coastal fort on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas.  Originally started in 1846, the fort was intended to guard the Gulf of Mexico and US ships, but by the time of the Civil War, it was used as a prison for Union deserters even though construction was never finished.  The most legendary prisoner housed at the fort was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after he had assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

Although Mudd’s guilt has never been completely proven, it was well-known that he was a slave owner and a Southern sympathizer.  He was tried on charges of conspiracy and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Once at Fort Jefferson, conditions were so hard that he attempted to escape by stowing away on a supply ship, only to be discovered.  His punishment was to be shackled in the “dark and gloomy dungeon,” as the post commander called it, where the words from Dante’s Inferno were posted over the door:  “Whoso entereth here leaveth all hopes behind!”

With scarce or rotting food rations, sewage smell arising from the moat into the dungeon, and hard labor wearing leg irons, Dr. Mudd probably felt as if he were in hell, without hope of ever seeing his family again.  This would make the most stalwart of persons grow bitter with hatred, especially if he was convicted unjustly.  Interestingly, when a yellow fever epidemic struck the fort, killing the army doctor, Dr. Mudd stepped in to care for his captors, saving many lives.  In a letter to his wife dated October 27, 1867, he shares his struggle to help those who had mistreated him:

            It was but natural that resentment and fear should rankle in my heart, and that I should stop to discuss mentally the contending emotions that now rested upon a horrid recollection of the past…although the rule of conduct upon which I had determined was not in accord with my natural feelings, yet I had the sanction of my professional and religious teaching and the consciousness of conforming to that holy precept, “Do ye good for evil…”

Dr. Samuel Mudd found himself in a position where he had to choose to do good to those who had hurt him, despite his natural feelings of resentment.  His “holy precept” of doing good for evil sounds a lot like:

            Do not be overcome by evil, overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21 NIV)

Even though we don’t often face mistreatment to the degree that Dr. Mudd suffered, we tend to accumulate or tally up the times we’re offended, keeping track on a mental scorecard of the times we were wronged.  What if we let go of our need for fairness and justice, and instead, recognize the opportunities we are given to do good and take them, lavishing the love of the Triune God even on the undeserving?  By refusing to be conquered by evil, we become the conquerors through good.

Out of the 400 residents at the fort, 270 caught the yellow fever, and 38 died.  As a result of Dr. Mudd’s decision to do good, many lives were saved that could have been lost.  A petition to President Andrew Johnson was signed by 300 surviving soldiers at the fort, requesting a pardon for Dr. Mudd due to his efforts during the epidemic.  While President Johnson did not respond immediately because of his own political troubles, he ultimately did pardon and release Dr. Samuel Mudd on February 8, 1869.

In reflecting on the hardships endured and overcome by Dr. Mudd, we can put the slights and offenses we encounter into the proper perspective. True forgiveness comes through accepting (but not necessarily liking) the past, including our mistreatment from others.   By allowing the good of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to flow through us, without blocking it, we can take part in conquering evil in this world.

~by Nan Kuhlman

4 comments so far

  1. Leona Forste on

    Thank you Nan, for this article. While most of us do not have the trials of life that were presented to Dr. Mudd, we do face making that conscious decision to choose on a daily basis. Its been a number of minutes since I read your article, but the stench and pain of existance still lingers from your description for times of trial in my own life. There are times when we each are caught in filth and pain that we have no power over, and want to strike out. But God in us is there to say “this is the way, walk ye in it!”

    • Nan Kuhlman on


      You’re right – it’s hard to take the “high road,” and we often don’t choose to do it. But what a difference we could make if we did!


      • Leona Forste on

        I recieve a blog “Thoughts” by Richard Parker in Bellflower GCI in Calif. It was on “be ye perfect” and it it just added to this recent article you wrote. God never fails to keep whispering words of hope in our ears. Thank you for your writings.

      • Nan Kuhlman on


        Thanks for your encouragement!


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