150 years after the Civil War, Fredericksburg remains a richly stocked laboratory for studying that conflict. You can see it in the homes and buildings that remain from the conflict; you can feel it in the vivid descriptions left by soldiers and observers. Rather than only a study of the combat, the next few months we will be looking at only St. George’s role in the conflict. Some background is necessary to connect the pieces. We functioned as more than a Church even while there were no services during most of the conflict. This included three key roles – a fortress, a center of revivals and a hospital twice during the war.
As the tallest building in Fredericksburg, St. George’s was a vivid Civil War landmark that participants would remember in later years. The Battle of Fredericksburg and the experience of St. George’s can be best summed up by a letter a Captain William Bartlett wrote which was printed by the Free Lance of November 8, 1889:
“On the night preceding the bombardment, the tall spire loomed like a spectre to the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac camped across the river. Regularly the belfry came the solemn record of the hour resounding among the hills. Driven by frayed nerves and tension, one officer vowed that ‘the first shot he put in that city should pass through that clock’ but the clock survived three days of battle, though in the din of cannonade its tolling could not be heard. On the night of December 14 as the Federal troops retreated back across the river under an injunction of silence, they suddenly heard the sound of the clock of the church ringing out the hour of two – it took up the thread of its monotonous story ringing out as though exalting with the victors, while the distant hills echoed back in solemn requiem”
In a time of without digital phones and watches, St. George’s marked the pace of life. Stephen Sears in his book on the Battle of Chancellorsville writes on April 29, 1863 that St. George’s bell was like an alarm clock. “Within moments the rest of Lee’s army was awakened when the bell in the tower of the Episcopal Church began toiling urgently.”
We gave the federal troops a lot of target practice as a city landmark when the battle took place in December, 1862. The Church was not off limits to the frustration of the northerners as noted above. We were not only tallest building but the most prominent part of the skyline, right in the middle between the Courthouse Building and our religious neighbors the Baptist Church. During the fighting the Church was hit between 20 and 30 times.
One of the few humorous episodes concerning St. George’s location actually took place about a half a year after the battle of Fredericksburg, Westwood A. Todd of the 12th Virginia Infantry was given an unusual assignment: “General Mahone…directed me to go up the highest church steeple in town, and from the belfry to observe and report any important movements in the enemy’s camp. I was furnished with a pair of field glasses for the purpose. My position in the belfry commanded a fine view of Stafford Heights along which the enemy were posted. The duty was pleasant at first, but became irksome after the novelty wore off. The enemy were very quiet while I was stationed there, which made it very dull… One afternoon, about sun set, orders came to withdraw the pickets from Fredericksburg. The men were ordered to leave the rifle pits gradually, and to conceal their movements as much as possible from the enemy. I was in the Church steeple, and had been forgotten. When I came down at night, and went to my old position in the rifle pits, I found that my whole company was gone. I was holding the town by myself.”
St. George’s was more than a point on the horizon or a time piece but a strategically located building that could be co-opted for a variety of purposes. The first takeover of Fredericksburg occurred in April, 1862. St. George’s was located across the street from the federal headquarters at the Farmers’ Bank, later the National Bank of Fredericksburg. The new rector, an avowed secessionist, had to watch his words in the pulpit as Federal troops visited the Church in May, 1862. The town briefly returned to Confederate control in August, 1862 as the war shifted to Maryland. The outward affect of the arrival of federal forces against in November, 1862 in preparation for and the eventual battle in December led to the closing of St. George’s for two years. The town was sacked during the battle but the church remained pretty much intact. Even while closed for services, the Church played three roles in the war – first as a fortress in 1862 on December 11 before the main battle of December 13, 1862 then as a center of revival in the spring of 1863 and also as a hospital in both 1862 and 1864. Few Churches in the war enjoyed such a varied role.
We have never left the influence and presence of the Civil War. Take a look at almost any issue of the Free Lance-Star on Saturdays and you will see weekly examples of Civil War displays and events. You participate weekly in one part of our Civil War history. We use silver weekly in our services that was stolen during that war at the time of the sacking of the town but miraculously recovered afterwards.
We were lucky compared to other churches, such as the Baptist Church in the extent of destruction. Still, it took 5 years until 1870 to repair the Church. We didn’t get it all. When the Church tin roof was replaced by slate and the steeple reworked in the late 1940’s, workman found civil war cannon balls embedded in some of the timbers. Faulkner Hall still shows burned rafters from the conflict.
Here at St. George’s the topic of the Civil War comes up in almost every tour of the Church – as it should.
The last ten years has provided a renewed interest in Fredericksburg during the Civil War which has benefited our understanding of St. George’s Civil War. There have been two major books on Fredericksburg published in the last decade, one by George Rable of the University of Alabama and the other by Frank O’Reilly, a gifted writer of the National Park Service. The Park historians have embarked recently on creating a Virtual Fredericksburg map with links to buildings and events along either street.
Another key change is the availability of more memoirs of participants and those within the city, such as Jane Beale and former slave John Washington. These sources have added significantly to the story. Our Vestry book in the 1850’s was lost before the war and the burning of Richmond presumably destroyed our records that had been sent to Richmond for safekeeping. Thus, the records of others become part of our record. We will investigate the records left by individual parishioners who served on the Vestry at the time.
Finally, technological change through digital photography has allowed us to see with greater depth Civil War photographs. We were fortunate to have at least three key photographers visit Fredericksburg during the war years. The Library of Congress has made available digital photographs that show more details clearer. Overall, the presence of the web has also uncovered many unknown documents. Witness our own National Park Service’s web site “mysteries and conundrums” (http://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/)
We will investigate several topics :
Part 2 – The Photographic Record of St. George’s Civil War
Part 3 – The Church in 1860
Part 4 – Parishioners in the Fray before the main battle in December, 1862
Part 5 – St. George’s as a Fortress, December, 1862
Part 6 – St. George’s and the Sacking of Fredericksburg, December, 1862
Part 7 – St. George’s as a Center for Religious Revival, 1863
Part 8 – St. George’s as a Hospital, 1862 and 1864
Part 9 – Aftermath