“Because You Was Always True To Me”: A Union Soldier & His Sweetheart

Dear Friend… I should like to sean [have seen] you before I enlisted, but I thought that you had something against me. But if I have said anything against you, I hope you will forgive me, for I thought that we used to be as good friends as could be found. I hope that you will not have any hardness [of] feelings against me, and I hope we may both live to see one another once more…[i]

That’s how Peleg Bradford, Jr. wrote his first preserved letter to his sweetheart in October 1862, several months after he left home and enlisted. He had joined the 18th Maine Infantry Regiment which mustered into service on August 21, 1862, and was assigned to build and defend Washington’s fortifications. In January 1863, the regiment transformed into the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery and continued on fort duty around Washington until the Overland Campaign in 1864.

Bradford’s letters give a glimpse of a realistic “Civil War romance,” challenged by distance and threatened by physical wounds. Due to a full blog schedule yesterday [Valentine’s Day], these primary sources and observations will continue the discussion of romantic relationships during the 1860’s conflict for another day.

Age twenty when he enlisted, Peleg Bradford, Jr. had spent his youthful years working for his father on the farm, trying to make enough money to care for his mother and eight siblings. Bradford’s father struggled with alcoholism, making life difficult for the family. Throughout his Civil War letters, he tried to make sure his mother had enough money and advised her on some financial decisions. Troubles in childhood had educated young Bradford and taught him what he valued and wanted for his own future. The separation from family and friends during his enlistment, also helped him focus on his future plans.

One of his plans was to get married, but – unsure of his sweetheart’s feelings – he took his time before declaring his intention. Throughout 1862 and 1863, Bradford wrote to occasionally to his “dear friend” who was Cynthia McPherson, usually just informing her of his good health, the weather, and news about mutual friends from their hometown – Carmel, Maine.

Drawing, Army Encampment, 1862, by Winslow Homer. Camp scenes like these would have been familiar to Bradford as he wrote his letters to Miss McPherson.

In May 1863, Bradford commented on a friend’s wedding and made the observation to Miss McPherson that “I think that if the war lasts three years, theair [there] will not be any chance for me to get a woman.” In the same letter, he sends “respects” to her parents and tells her to let Mr. McPherson know how much he likes soldiering. In the saga of preserved letters, this is the first open hint at marriage and courting topics, starting by trying to impress the girl’s parents. Later, Bradford sends newspapers from Washington for Mr. McPherson. He never asked his other correspondents – Mother, Father, brothers, and sisters – about Miss McPherson, and some phrases imply they might have approved the match at first.

The letters went back and forth, and then the heartsick moment of all long-distance relationships happened in December 1863:

An 1864 painting by Winslow Homer.

Dear Friend,

As I have not written you for along [a long] time, I will improve a few moments in writing to you. I am well and hope theas [these] few lines will find you the same. I should written to you before, but I got a letter from Carmel, and they told me that you was agoing to get married, and so I thought that if it was so, I would stop writing to you, but I thought that I would write you this letter to know about it.

I always thought well of you, and had maid [made] up my mind that when I got home that we would get married, if we could make things agreeable all around. I must now close, so good by.[ii]

Bradford wrote his slightly desperate, slightly hopeful letter on December 13, and by the 27th. he had received a reply from Miss Cynthia and wrote back to her. She had clearly refuted the rumor and wanted to know who had started it; her soldier responded:

…I will tell you who wrote that you was going to get married if you will promise me that you will not tell, for it is all past now. I will not tell you in this letter, but I will tell you the next time that I wrote. I suppose why they wrote that you was going to get married was to make trouble betwixt us, but since I read your letter, I know that it is all a dam [damn] lie, and I should not believe it now if my mother should write it, because you told me that you was not and whatever you tell me, I can believe, because you was always true to me Cynth.

I alwaysed loved you, and if you will be true to me, I will be true to you, and when I get home, we will get married, and then let them say what they will. The time will soon pass away when I shall be at home. We will write often, and the time will soon pass away. It is about a year and half longer that I have got to stop out here. I wish that I was home with you this winter instead of being out here…[iii]

With their engagement informally settled, Peleg Bradford and Cynthia McPherson corresponded more regularly and clearly enjoyed their communications; his letters often included repeated promises to “be true” and that he had always loved her. He started taking her advice about not re-enlisting (though that was his preference, too) and asking her opinions. In April 1864, it seems that Bradford got leave to return to Maine after his father died, and during that visit to Carmel, they were formally engaged, if their implied new relationship stage in the letters is correct.

With just months left in his enlistment, Bradford had yet to see battle. That changed during the 1864 Overland Campaign when the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery suffered some of the heaviest casualties of any unit in the Army of the Potomac. Bradford made it through his first skirmish with only a bullet’s “scratch,” but on June 7th, he was seriously wounded in the right knee, forcing a hospital amputation of that leg. And the future he had anticipated changed.

Drawing, Soldier Giving Water to a Wounded Companion, 1864, by Winslow Homer

The first preserved letter he wrote to Cynthia after the injury implies that she had already heard about the wounded and amputation (probably from Bradford’s mother) and had written to him at the hospital:

Dear Friend,

I now improve a few moments time in writing to you. I am sitting up, but I don’t know how long I can sit up. You wanted to know how my leg got along. It is getting along first rate…

…Oh Cynthia – God knows how much I have suffered since I lost my leg, but it is getting along first rate now. I would like to write you a good long letter, but I can’t. I can only write short letters, so goodbye for this time.

From your ever true friend[iv]

Bradford wrote at least one other short note to Cynthia before penning a longer letter on August 20, 1864, addressing a serious subject:

Love’s Melancholy by Constant Mayer, 1866

…Perhaps you think that I have forgotten you by not writing to you oftener, but I have not. I think of you every day, but I hope you will not think hard of me as where I am at the present time [the hospital], but I hope the time will soon pass away and I can be at home with you, for I shall always hold the promise that I made when I was at home last spring, but as I am not, it would be better for you to brake [break] that promise, for when I made that promise I was a hol [whole] man, but I am far from it now.

I am not speaking of this any thing more than I think it is my duty, as I will do as I say, and that you know I will not say any thing more about it this time until I get home, and then we will talk the matter over and make it all right.

Someway I am asking to leave it all to with you, whatever you say I will do. That is a fair deal, is it not[?] Don’t get angry at what I say, will you[?]…[v]

Knowing that the loss of a leg changed his future abilities to provide for and care for a wife, Bradford honestly let Cynthia know that she could break their engagement and he would not hold it against her. His suspicion that she might be angry about the subject suggests he knew she would still want to marry, but he felt honor-bound to give her a way out, if she had changed her mind.

Happily, Miss Cynthia McPherson refused to break the engagement and welcomed her soldier home when he was released to go home to fully recuperate. Recovered, he returned to Washington to finish out his service commitment, taking Cynthia’s advice to not leave the military early since it might alter future benefits.

On October 7, 1866, Peleg Bradford and Cynthia McPherson married. It seems to be the beginning of a happy life together; they had eight children. Bradford built a sawmill and was active in local government.

The account of Peleg and Cynthia’s wartime romance is simple, almost understated. But they were sincere, and through rumors, long distance, and physical injury, their relationship survived and grew stronger. Their concerns about constancy and injury reflected situations facing many couples during the Civil War, but happily their love triumphed. In a progressing, written intimacy traced through details and the names “dear friend” to “Cynth,” the preserved letters chronicle the straightforward wooing and proposal of this Union soldier. Prior to the war, in the months in camp, journey to the battlefield, and transfer into the hospital wards, Peleg Bradford was lucky (and he knew it) because his love “was always true to me.”


[i] Bradford, Peleg. Melissa MacCrae and Maureen Bradford, editors. No Place for Little Boys: Civil War Letters of a Union Soldier, Goddess Publications, Brewer, ME: 1997. Pages 9-10 – October 8, 1862

[ii] Ibid., Page 64 – December 13, 1862

[iii] Ibid., Page 66 – December 27, 1863

[iv] Ibid., Page 91 – July 13, 1864

[v]Ibid., Page 98 – August 20, 1864

The Yankee Soldier and the Belles of “Secession Proclivities”

An image from Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1863 (no known restrictions)

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Rob Wilson

With mid-February approaching, I went hunting for a North-South romance story to share on Valentine’s Day. In his well-researched study of Northern troops, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, Bell Irwin Wiley writes that wartime encounters between Federal soldiers and Southern women occurred, some ripening into romances, and even post-war marriages. There were stories out there. But where to look?

The first stop in my search was close to home. While researching a file of my Yankee great grandfather’s war letters for a different story, I’d noted that he’d written about a series of his visits with a group of unmarried women living in Sharpsburg, Maryland. All three, George A, Marden reported, were of “Secession proclivities,” one a Virginian with two brothers fighting in the service of Jeff Davis. My ancestor was single and a 23-year-old lieutenant at the time, late in October, 1862. His regiment, the Army of the Potomac’s 1st United States Sharpshooters (U.S.S.S.) Regiment, was camped near the town. I sat down for a close read of his October correspondence, hoping for a story worthy of St. Valentine.

Although Marden’s interest in female companionship was palpable in his writing, I found no evidence of a Sharpsburg romance. Yet the letters do not disappoint. They offer up an engaging story of a lonely Union soldier, far away from his native New Hampshire, attempting a normal social life while camped in a region set on the Virginia border that, he wrote, was “well tinctured with Secession.” The correspondence also provides a sometimes over-the-top demonstration of the condescending opinions and sarcastic attitudes about Dixie that Wiley found in many of Billy Yank’s journals and letters, especially in the writings of soldiers from New England. Reading Marden’s letters, it’s interesting to watch his interactions with the fair belles let some air out of his inflated prejudices and biases towards most things Southern.

An image from Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1863 (no known restrictions)

As his story unfolds, Marden’s unit is facing delays in their plans to march into Virginia and, ultimately, to the Army of the Potomac’s winter camp, in Falmouth. His October 25th letter describes how he and his brigade’s Assistant Adjutant General (A.A.G.) ventured into Sharpsburg the evening before, “to spend the evening in Maryland Society.”  The Adjutant, Marden explained, “had made the acquaintance of several young ladies and they invited him to bring me over and dine, take tea, and spend the evening.”

The letters do not identify the women or party hosts by name, nor do they offer any explanation of how Federal soldiers might have been welcomed in a town where so many citizens learned towards the Confederate cause. Perhaps the head of the household owned a business in town and wanted to co-exist and traffic with the Federal side.

Although he was grateful for his invitation to attend the event, initially Marden was most ungracious in his appraisal of the town.

Oct. 25, 1862, Camp near Sharpsburg

… The village is not one where the Dutch quality of cleanliness is cultivated to any extent. It must have a seedy appearance in the most peaceful of times. I think that is the normal state of all villages in this latitude, and the thrift of New England is very much missed… The inside view [of the host’s house] was somewhat better.  I was ushered into a comfortably furnished room wherein the musical tastes of the inmates were indicated by two pianos. There were three unmarried, and one married ladies, all of Secesh proclivities but sufficiently well bred to keep quiet and not introduce politics.  One is a clergyman’s daughter… She has two brothers in the rebel army, and was, besides being very pretty, what is rare in this vicinity, very intelligent and well educated. 

A photograph of Sharpsburg taken after the September, 1862, Battle of Antietam. The town, already reeling from the economic impact of the war, was damaged by misplaced artillery fire during the fighting. (From The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume Two, Two Years of Grim War.)

Given the fact misplaced artillery fire had battered parts of Sharpsburg during the Battle of Antietam, Marden’s opening comments seem especially callous. Although he wrote that the evening had been spent “musically and pleasantly and I think I shall repeat the visit as occasion offers,” the Sharpshooter couldn’t resist firing off just one more snarky North-South comparison. “There are far better players and much better singers in Mont Vernon [his New Hampshire hometown],” he concluded.

The order to march further delayed, three days later the lieutenant and his friend headed to town once more, he wrote, hoping “to see my fair Secesh friends.” His description of this encounter opened with the same smug criticism evident in his earlier letter.

Oct. 28, 1862 3:00 p.m.

The Adjutant and I went over yesterday afternoon to bid [the women] what we supposed a final adieu. They were just going to the Secesh hospital, with some things for the wounded rebels. We were invited to go with them and went.  The hospital is in the old church… The ceiling has fallen down and the pulpit and other accoutrements of an Episcopal Church are all destroyed.  They don’t know any such sect as the Congregationalist [the Marden family’s Protestant denomination] here. It is all The Church [Episcopal] and Methodism. The churches are not a high style of architecture, and the more modern of them are guiltless of steeples (I suppose they do not own far in that direction.)…

Marden was a sharpshooter and his letters reveal interesting aspects about the lives of young Civil War soldiers.

Marden abruptly curbed his sarcasm, however, when describing his interactions with the wounded Southerners in the makeshift hospital.

The Secesh wounded are treated by a Union surgeon… There were about thirty wounded Rebs.  They seemed very comfortable… I stood surveying one prostrate North Carolinian, whose face was about as broad as the edge of a hatchet and whose eyes seemed to survey me with considerable interest.  I had on a new cavalry coat… and having just shaved and rode two miles in a brisk wind I presume I looked very rosy and doubtless a comfortable picture of health.  After looking me all over he exclaimed ‘By God, you look as if you could do a heap of totin’ yet.”  I couldn’t help laughing at this exclamation…  I afterward entered into conversation with him.  He enlisted some time last July and has only been in one battle in which he lost a leg.  He left a wife and three little children at home from whom he had heard nothing since he left.  He told the story in a trembling voice with a curse on the man who had brought him there, and a tear rolling down either cheek.  It was one of the saddest commentaries on this devilish war I have seen. Several red-legged Zouaves* were around shaking hands with their butternut opponents, and hoping they might never meet at Bull Run again, or anywhere else except on friendly terms. Yet a single blast of the bugle would have placed these would-be brethren against each other.

The Lutheran Church east of Sharpsburg, damaged during the Battle of Antietam. The Episcopal church which sheltered the wounded Confederate prisoners that Marden visited had been severely damaged. (1862 photo, Library of Congress)

Billy Yank surveys the opinions Federal soldiers held towards their foes. Many, Wiley found, thought the Southerners ill-educated, backwards and, partly because of slavery, barbaric. His research, however, also indicated Northerners generally admired the fighting skill and bravery of their foes. After the Battle of Malvern Hill, Marden certainly did. After the Battle of Malvern Hill, Marden certainly did, although he often directed the same critical condescension towards his military opponents that he aimed at Southern institutions and civilians. But his description of the meeting with the prisoners and his conversation with the wounded soldier struck a new tone— one of empathy and respect— that would be repeated in future writing about his war experiences and encounters while in Dixie.

The Yankees escorted the women back to Sharpsburg, expecting this would their last encounter. But the delay continued, and the two soldiers visited again the very next day. The topic of the war, apparently avoided at their earlier meetings, entered the conversation, followed by politics. Rather than debate and proclaim the sanctity of the Union cause— as Marden had done, with gusto, in previous encounters with Southerners, and would do in the future— the Sharpshooters struck a conciliatory note.

An image from Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1863 (no known restrictions)

We conversed some about the war and I found as I expected that they all were of secession proclivities. They imbibed the usual idea that the south are fighting for their houses, and as we couldn’t agree we agreed to call it a horrible war and drop the matter with the most amiable wishes for each other’s success. They expressed much regret that we were not to winter near Sharpsburg which we cordially echoed, and you may hear a repetition of a rumor current not long since in regard to your most obedient servant.**

Marden hoped his journey south might be further put off, enabling other excursions to town. But the reality of war intervened. The command to march was issued the next day, prompting a final visit as the Sharpshooters began their march.

“I galloped in to say goodbye to the amiable females we had become acquainted with,” he wrote on November 1st. “They seemed sorry to see us go and I doubt not they were sincere.”

The soldiers marched off, reaching what would become their winter camp in Falmouth, Virginia, in late November. From there, they would participate in the December Battle of Fredericksburg. As far as I have been able to determine, November 1 was the last time Marden saw his “Rebel friends,” who, he observed “were bitter Secesh at heart.”  I’ll probably never discover if he had yearned for anything more than friendship, or if any of the belles had a romantic interest in the Yankees. I suspect the women, as Marden noted in the final entry about his Sharpsburg adventures, were mostly “sick of the war and were glad of anything to relieve the monotony of their life.”


*  Zouaves were Union soldiers whose regiments wore exotic red-legged uniforms of North African design.

** The meaning of the last sentence in this passage, with a reference to “a rumor current,” is a mystery to me. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I wonder if it might be an indirect Victorian era reference to the soldier’s romantic interest? What do you think? Please venture your interpretation in the “Comments” section, below.


George A, Marden, from his unpublished Civil War Letters, October 24, 28, 30, November 1, 1862 (Archived at Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover NH)

Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Civil War (Baton Rouge; Louisiana State Univ. Press, 2008; originally published in 1952) pp. 96-108; 346-361

January 10, 1861 in Florida

On this date in Tallahassee, Florida, the delegates to the state’s secession convention voted 62-7, in favor of secession. With that vote, after seven days of deliberation, Florida became the third state to formally declare itself out of the United States, following South Carolina and Mississippi. The outgoing governor, Madison Starke Perry and the governor-elect John Milton were both avid secessionists and were on hand to witness the outcome. The Ordinance of Secession would eventually be signed by 65-men, including two future Confederate generals; J. Patton Anderson and Joseph Finegan.

Richard Keith Call

Yet, a former governor, was certainly not in favor of that vote. Richard Keith Call, who had served two times as governor of the territory of Florida in the 1830s and 1840s, was a staunch Unionist. Although he was not a staunch Republican Call decried secession as “high treason against our constitutional government.”

Call found out about the vote when he was approached on the street by a jubilant pro-secessionist individual, who informed him;“Well governor…we have done it [meaning the vote in favor of seceding].” 

The 68-year old former governor responded;

“And what have you done?… You have opened the gates of Hell, from which shall flow
the curses of the damned which shall sink you to perdition!”

Unfortunately for the pro-secessionists and the future Confederacy, Call was right.

Unfortunately for Call, he would not live to see his prophesy come to fruition. He died on September 14, 1862, approximately a month shy of his 70th birthday.

A Message from the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust

This week in our Preservation News we share with you a message from Tom Van Winkle, President of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust. The CVBT works tirelessly to preserve and interpret battlefields in Central Virginia. If you have not already given your support to the CVBT you can become a member by clicking here. While you are there, explore their website and learn about the great work CVBT has done over the years and continues to do today, as well as how you can get involved.

“Message from the President”

It seems as only yesterday I penned the end of year message for CVBT. It was our twentieth anniversary then, and now we are poised to enter our twenty second year of preserving our nation’s Civil War battlefields in 2018.

To date the CVBT has effectively saved over 1,200 acres of battlefields that would most certainly become strip malls and fast food franchises. The Civil War battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse left over 100,000 casualties in their wake, and those soldiers, as well as civilians, cry out to have their stories told and to not be forgotten.

CVBT has worked aggressively with developers this past year and effected changes in those projects that have mitigated the destruction of key battlefield areas. These parcels were not able to be purchased for any reasonable amount by us or our partners. In January CVBT closed on another important section of the Chancellorsville battlefield now known as the “Kinney Tract”. We then reclaimed the battlefield by demolishing a structurally unsound house and capped the well. In 2013 CVBT did much the same when
we purchased and demolished another long-standing battlefield eyesore just a few yards away, thesouvenir complex known as “the Castle”. Both of these properties a crucial part of “Stonewall” Jackson’s flank attack.

2017 saw a visit to our CVBT office by U.S. Congressman Rob Whittman to thank us for our hard work and to pledge his support. CVBT’s Government Relations Director, Jack Blalock, has begun working with state and local politicians and county supervisors cultivating relationships as well as conveying the importance and positive results of saving our battlefields.

Being able to preserve battlefields not only pays homage to the fallen Americans who fought on them, but it also creates green spaces and draws tourists to bolster the area’s economy. We are rapidly losing those open areas where we, as humans, may slow down and take in the natural surroundings. Our local economies benefit greatly from preserving our Civil War battlefields as well. Visitors stay longer and spend more in these historical areas. The Fredericksburg area has a unique opportunity to attract these tourists yet many of our county supervisors do not seem to see this and still follow the, “If you build it
they will come”, attitude. This is where CVBT works to change this perception locally.

In this addition of SkirmishLine you will read about Elizabeth Heffernan, CVBT’s newly hired Executive Director. Elizabeth comes to CVBT with a wealth of marketing, membership and organizational management experience. Elizabeth also is a powerhouse of energy and ideas. We look forward to a bright future with Elizabeth at the helm.
Elizabeth’s assistant, Travis Wakeman, continues to move CVBT ahead in the social media world with Facebook, custom CVBT videos and more.

One of our newest board members, Paul Scott, former president of the Civil War Round Table of Fredericksburg, is creating a new membership platform inclusive of levels that will better recognize all our members and our long time and high performing supporters as well.

With new CVBT social media outreach, government relations, membership program and Executive Director, as well as more preserved battlefield land, 2017 has proved to be a year of progress.

With several major battlefield preservation land projects in the works currently, CVBT looks forward to be able to announce some great “saves” in 2018.

All of us, and that includes all of you, our preservation partners, should be proud of what we have and still accomplish.

Also, don’t forget the dates of our annual meeting, dinner, and tours for 2018, this year’s theme “Beyond Spotsylvania”. April 20th through the 22nd will be packed with great tours, and dinner with Bob Zeller presenting a 3D Civil War photo program you can’t miss!

Tom Van Winkle
Central Virginia Battlefields Trust

War Comes to St. George’s (part four)

(part four in a series)

After the battle of Fredericksburg and before the battle of Chancellorsville, the Confederate army used St. George’s for services and revivals. J. William Jones reported in his memoir Christ in the Camp that revivals were started in the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church, but soon their facilities could not accommodate the numbers that came day after day. St. George’s, as the largest facility, played a key role. 

From March 26, 1863:

Last evening there were fully one hundred penitents at the altar. So great is the work, and so interested are the soldiers, that the M. E. Church South, has been found inadequate for the accommodation of the congre­gations, and the Episcopal church having been kindly tendered by its pastor. Rev. Mr. Randolph, who is now here, the services have been removed to that edifice, where devotions are held as often as three times a day. This work is widening and deepening, and, ere it closes, it may permeate the whole army of Northern Virginia, and bring forth fruits in the building up and strengthen­ing, in a pure faith and a true Christianity, the best army the world ever saw.

A description by one of the ministers follows:

“Long before the appointed hour the spacious Episcopal church, kindly tendered for the purpose by its rector, is filled—nay, packed—to its utmost capacity—lower floor, galleries, aisles, chancel, pulpit-steps and vestibule—while hundreds turn disappointed away, unable to find even standing room. The great revival has begun, and this [Barksdale’s] brigade and all of the surrounding brigades are stirred with a desire to hear the Gospel, rarely equalled. Enter, if you can make your way through the crowd, and mingle with that vast congregation of worshippers. They do not spend their time while waiting for the coming of the preacher in idle gossip, or a listless staring a every new comer, but a clear voice strikes some familiar hymn…the whole congregation join in…and there arises a volume of sacred song that seems almost ready to take the roof off…. The song ceases, and one of the men leads in prayer….does not tell the Lord the news of the day, or recount to him the history of the country. He does not make “a stump-speech to the Lord” on the war—its causes, its progress, or its prospects. But, from the depths of a heart that feels its needs, he tells of present wants, asks for present blessings, and begs for the Holy Spirit….”

Perhaps as many as 1500 Confederate soldiers attended one of the services at St. George’s.

The church was used also as a hospital in 1862 and 1864. In 1862, the city’s largest hospital was at St. George’s, used as the brigade hospital for the famed Irish Brigade. Major General St. Clair Augustin Mulholland, in his memoir of the 116th Pennsylvania Regiment, described the scene in today’s Sydnor Hall:

“In the lecture room of the Episcopal church eight operating tables were in full blast, the floor was densely packed with men whose limbs were crushed, fractured and torn. Lying there in deep pools of blood, they waited very patiently, almost cheerfully, their turn to be treated; there was no grumbling, no screaming, hardly a moan; many of the badly hurt were smiling and chatting, and one—who had both legs shot off—was cracking jokes with an officer who could not laugh at the humorous sallies, for his lower jaw was shot away. The cases here were nearly all capital, and amputation was almost always resorted to. Hands and feet, arms and legs were thrown under each table, and the sickening piles grew larger as the night progressed. The delicate limbs of the drummer boy fell along with the rough hand of the veteran in years, but all, every one, was brave and cheerful. Towards morning the conversation flagged, many dropped off to sleep before they could be attended to, and many of them never woke again.”

Beginning on May 8, 1864, conditions were more desperate as the need increased. Ten thousand to 15,000 soldiers were evacuated from the battle of the Wilderness into Fredericksburg for eventual relocation. Fredericksburg soon became a “City of Hospitals.” Throughout town, church pews were the first thing to go to make more space to accommodate the wounded. St. George’s was the only church whose pews survived, though, since they were fixed in place—nailed down and not easily removed. However, pews left in Sydnor Hall, which functioned as a chapel , were removed, a federal quartermaster reported:

The pews of the lecture room of this church were entirely torn out and used for coffins and bedsteads; the carpeting on the church and the cushions were used as bedding for the wounded and were otherwise destroyed. The blinds were taken to admit a free circulation of air through the church and were considerably broken thereby, some of them were burnt.

The war ended in 1865, leaving Fredericksburg in disarray, affecting all life within. John Hennessy, Chief Historian of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, writes:

By war’s end, the community had been transformed, physically (more than 80 buildings destroyed—just under 10% of the city), economically (personal wealth dropped by more than 70%), and socially (thousands of slaves seized freedom). The experience left behind bitterness for white residents that took decades to heal.

The war had significant economic consequences on the church’s parishioners, uprooting the homes of several of its parishioners, including those of Mayor Montgomery Slaughter and longtime Senior Warden Reuben Thom. In addition, Slaughter had been one of six St. Georgians imprisoned with 13 others as political prisoners in Capital Prison in Washington in 1862.

Except for the memories, the nightmare was over, and the postwar period began for the church. While the properties could be repaired or replaced and lives restored, the Church permanently lost part of its institutional memory with the destruction of its 1817-1865 Vestry minutes book in Richmond. This may have been the most damaging and frustrating part of St. George’s Civil War for that time and beyond.

The church had played three roles in the war: a brief time as a fortress on December 11, 1862 and a target during the fighting; as a center of revival in 1863; and then as a hospital twice, in 1862 and 1864. Few other churches can cite this breadth of activity.


John Hennessy’s research notes for “Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg” and for St. George’s Episcopal Church

“Mysteries and Conundrums” blog – Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

St. Georgian Civil War Series

David Blight, A Slave No More

Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White, Simply Murder: the Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862

Frank O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter on the Rappahannock

Carroll H. Quenzel, The History and Background of St. George’s Episcopal church Fredericksburg, Virginia (1951)

George Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! 

John Washington, Memorys of the Past

Pictures courtesy of St. George’s Episcopal Church, August 2016, with the exception of the 23rd Virginia state marker, courtesy of Irvin Sugg, and St. George’s steeple, courtesy of Chris Mackowski.

War Comes to St. George’s (part three)

(part three in a series)

With the Union army occupying Fredericksburg, change was in the air, with runaway slaves and soldiers coming in and out of town, mixing freely with the citizens. 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.

The Federal occupying force withdrew in late summer, but the Army of the Potomac’s Right Grand Division came back to the Fredericksburg area on November 17th, while the remainder of the army arrived on November 19th. General James Longstreet’s Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia began to arrive on the evening of November 19th. Since the summer, the armies had fought each other at the battles of Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run/Manassas, South Mountain, and Antietam.

In preparation for the battle of Fredericksburg, all noncombatants were commanded to leave the city on November 21st, by the Confederate army.

St. Georgian and mayor, Montgomery Slaughter—conferring with the Confederate forces alongside St. Georgian W. S. Scott and Samuel S. Howison—delivered the message to the Union army that the Confederate troops would not occupy the town, and neither would they permit the Federal troops to do so. Any shots fired thus far had been the acts of the troops and not the town.

December 11, 1862, would directly bring St. George’s into the hostilities of the Civil War. It was that day that the Church became a fortress against an advancing Union line coming from Stafford.

Located prominently on a hill overlooking key streets to the north, the Church provided a wonderful location for soldiers to view approaching advances and as a base to deploy forces against the Union. St. George’s was the tallest building in the city and was in an advantageous location for General William Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade. Barksdale used the city—and the church—to delay Federal bridge building and then fought the Union soldiers in the streets of the city. St. George’s played a role as Confederate stronghold late in the day. The delay created by the Confederates provided General Robert E. Lee time to consolidate his forces on Marye’s Heights for a battle to take place two days later.

In several books about this battle, many of the soldiers talk about St. George’s clock and bell. On December 11th, Captain Wesley Brainerd said that ten minutes after Saint George’s clock tolled 5 am, all hell broke loose.

A Union artillerist describe a companion soldier’s attempt to destroy St. George’s clock:

“An officer of…[another] battery…remarked that the first shot he put into the city should pass through the clock; in fact, he proposed to breach the wail in such a way that the clock would fall’-into the body of the church. He explained that he felt impelled to this act though a sense of predestined responsibility….

As many guns as could be brought to bear opened upon the city with a murderous, deafening roar. Remembering the threat against the tower and clock…I watched through a glass for their destruction, but the hands still moved on….

Asking my friend…why he had failed in his threatened demolition…he replied that he watched the first shot he fired at it flying, as he thought, straight for the mark, but that before reaching the dial the shell visibly swerved to the right and only clipped a corner of the tower. The second shot was never aimed at the clock at all. He said he experienced such a change of feeling that nothing could have induced him to harm it,”

No doubt, Divine intervention.

Given the bombardment during the battle and the obvious target of the church, it is amazing that the Church did not sustain more damage. The church still had its steeple and its pews intact. Captain William C. Barnett wrote a poignant memoir which appeared of this fact in the Free Lance-Star of November 8, 1889:

On the night preceding the bombardment, the tall spire of the church loomed like a spectre to the soldiers of The Army of the Potomac camped across the river. Regularly from 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 the 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 14th 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.

Local historian Paula Felder quoted a letter in the Baltimore Sun after the battle that described St. George’s, saying “Fredericksburg presents a most desolate appearance—nearly every prominent building is more or less pocked-marked with shot, shell and mini-balls. The tall costly spire of the Episcopal Church is perforated with 17 shot shells.”

Still, the Church was faced with a sizeable repair effort negatively affected by declines in the local economy. While the damage was not as severe as its neighbors, it took five years to bring the church back to its prewar state.

After the occupation of Federal troops, St. George’s did make a $2,487 claim for “pews, cushions, and carpeting…alleged to have been appropriated by the United States for the benefit of its wounded soldiers.” In 1887, Congress passed the Tucker Act, which included this claim. By 1905, after not receiving payment, the trustees of the Church filed a petition with the US Court of Claims. The case was heard and the court awarded the Church only $900, although it received only $810—in 1916, fifty years after the original claim.


After the battle of Fredericksburg, St. George’s still had a role to play in the war—one, says Seward in part four of his series, that was much more in line with its original purpose.