St. George’s Civil War – Part 4 – Parishioners in the Fray

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Rev. Alfred M. Randolph
Rev. Alfred M. Randolph

Even before forces clashed Fredericksburg, we were close to the early battles in central Virginia to have an affect on life here. Confederate troops were garrisoned here and unfortunately fell victim to disease. Minutes from a City Council meeting on Nov. 1, 1861, record how a section of the city-owned Potter’s Field cemetery for indigents would be set aside “as a burying ground, exclusively for the remains of soldiers of the Army, and of such white persons, as their friends may wish to inter there.”  The Confederate section was equal to the cemetery’s length along Barton Street and ran back 100 feet from the street.  From Oct. 1861 to March, 1862 St. George’s rector Alfred M. Randolph conducted burials for 51 confederate soldiers buried in this cemetery.

Prior to the main battle on December 13, 1862, there were two distinct periods of federal occupation and incidents that involved the Church and some of its parishioners.  The earliest thrust that involved Fredericksburg occurred as the Federals mounted the Peninsula campaign to try to take Richmond from the east.

Union forces under General Irwin McDowell advanced to Fredericksburg as the Federal forces under General McClellan were advancing on Richmond. On April 18, 1862 the Confederates set fire to the bridges and military stores to delay the advance.  Mayor Slaughter called an emergency session of Council. The following were appointed to confer with them:  Mayor Slaughter, William A. Little, Thomas Barton, Dr. J. Gordon Wallace, Rev William F. Broaddus D.D. and Governor John L. Marye.  (Barton and Slaughter were members of St. George’s and possibly William Little)  They were instructed to inform McDowell that the Confederate forces having evacuated the town would offer no resistance but that the population was loyal to the Confederate government. This possibly saved the town from destruction at the time.

The town fell to the Union army on April 19, 1862. Jane Beal in her diary reported:

“Fredericksburg is a captured town, the enemy took possession of the Stafford hills (across the Rappahannock River from the town) on Friday the 18th, and their guns have frowned down upon us ever since. It is painfully humiliating to feel one’s self a captive, but all sorrow for self is now lost in the deeper feeling of anxiety for our army, for our cause, we have lost every thing, regained nothing, our army has fallen back before the superior forces of the enemy until but a small strip of our dear Old Dominion is left to us, our sons are all in the field and we who are now in the hands of the enemy cannot even hear from them.”

The Union forces completed a canal boat bridge by May 2, a pontoon bridge by May 5 and established telegraph communications. The federals setup their headquarters at Chatham and at the Farmers’ Bank directly across from St. George’s. By May 19th the Rappahannock was again opened to railroad traffic.

McDowell’s policy was to treat local citizens with dignity and to punish his soldiers that disobeyed him which reduced tensions. (This contrasts with the situation after the Battle of Fredericksburg later in the year). Probably their worst enemy was the white females who dealt with them “by the most insulting, odious, aggravating, indecent and unladylike language and deportment.”

A Union Colonel attended May 18, 1862 services at St. George’s and noted that Rev. Alfred M. Randolph skipped the prayer for the US President (though he also did not include the President of the CS which was attributed to the fact that union soldiers were attending). He conducted services through November 17, 1862.  Church life was probably not normal. Local resident Betty Herndon Maury notes in her diary a sudden closure of the Church on a Friday, May 16 without explanation.  As she noted later, “the town is intensely Yankee and looks like never had been anything else.”

Change was in the air with runaway slaves and soldiers coming in between citizens and these people. Betty Herndon Maury describes the scene:  “Runaway Negroes from the country around continue to come in every day. It is a curious and pitiful sight to see the foot sore and weary looking cornfield hands with their packs on their backs and handkerchiefs tied over their heads, men, women, little children and babies coming in gangs of ten and twenty at a time. They all look nervous and unhappy. Many of them are sent to the North.”

By the end of May both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln had visited Fredericksburg.  The situation changed after the Seven Days Battles around Richmond when General McClellan was superseded by General John Pope who reversed McDowell’s policies. They would live off the land taking supplies from the enemy and arrested civilians who refused to take the oath of allegiance to the US.  The Confederates retaliated that all commissioned officers taken prisoner should not be treated as prisoners of war but placed in irons and held hostage in retaliation for Confederates arrested.

The most famous incident during his time was the Federal arrest of 19 prominent citizens of Fredericksburg where were sent to Old Capital Prison in Washington DC in August, 1862. They were arrested in retaliation for the Confederate imprisonment of seven federals for disloyalty and were confined in prison in Richmond.  6 of the 19 were members of St. George’s which had the most members of any Church from those arrested:  1. Thomas Knox   2.  John Coakley  3. Dr. James Cooke  4.  John F. Scott  5. Montgomery Slaughter  6. Thomas B. Barton. (We looked briefly at these men’s backgrounds in a prior part of this series).

Two others John Berrey and George H. C. Rowe kept diaries which are valuable.  They were sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington by boat.  This prison was neither an Andersonville nor a minimum security facility. Sanitary conditions were no worse than other prisons of the time but the prisoners were bothered by lice and bed-bugs and bad smelling food. Generally the relations were courteous and some of the rules bent such as being able for the 19 to meet together . The diaries note lots of wine drunk and many practical jokes played on each other that allowed them to keep their spirits high.  As Rowe notes, he saw John Coakley once “wore a handkerchief pinned around his waist, in short sleeves and slippers, the very picture of a quarrelsome old maid”       

They even met up with famed spy Belle Boyd.  

After being in prison for four weeks they procured a parole and permission to send two of their members to Richmond to get the release of the two federals which was done.  The Federals then changed their minds and asked for two other federals to be released which took two more weeks and required the two to be shown in Washington before they would release the “Fredericksburg 19.”

Due to the Confederate victory at 2nd Manassas in August and the advance of the Confederates into Maryland, Fredericksburg was evacuated on August 21, 1862 with two bridges blown up.  

The situation heated up again after General Ambrose Burnsides was appointed by Lincoln on November 7, 1862 to relieve McClellan and command 115,000 troops. Opposing Burnside was a Confederate army of 78,000 men led by Lee but divided between Longstreet in Culpeper and Stonewall Jackson across the Blue Ridge.

One possibility was Burnside would move against Longstreet However, Burnsides thought that even if he defeated him the Confederates would retreat to a new line around Richmond and get stronger and repeat the fiasco of the battles around Richmond earlier in 1862. He was also concerned about his supply line in the process.

With this in mind the new commander determined to shift his army to Fredericksburg, and advanced toward Richmond by way of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. The Fredericksburg route had much to recommend it. It would keep Burnside closer to the Union-controlled rivers, thereby making it easier and safer to supply his army; it kept him between Lee’s army and Washington, and it got him away from Jackson’s menacing presence.  The drawback was crossing the river – 400 feet in width at times. No bridges were available.   The solution was to employ pontoon bridges but these had been left back in Berlin, MD.

The Federals began reaching Fredericksburg by November 17. They issued an order demanding the surrender of the city, complaining that shots had been fired on the federals and that mills and factories as well as the railroads had been supplying the Confederates. Even without a surrender all non-combatants would be ordered to leave the city between 9PM Nov 21 and 5AM the following morning. St. Georgian and Mayor Montgomery Slaughter conferring with the Confederate forces with St. Georgian W. S. Scott and Samuel S. Howison, delivered the message the Confederate troops would not occupy the town, and neither would they permit the Federal troops to do so and the shots fired were the acts of the troops and not the town. He did not refer to Lee’s actions to consolidate troops on the west side of town.

Rev. Randolph left the city with wife and a day old baby. He later entered the confederate forces in 1863 as a chaplain and served with Jackson’s former corps.  He never returned to St. George’s.  Meanwhile the pontoon bridges had not arrived and the delay allowed Lee to bring his forces into Fredericksburg. The conflict would begin by December 11 and involve St. George’s, the subject of the next installment of this series.