War Comes to St. George’s (part two)

Steward presenting

(part two in a series)

In the summer of 2010, Park Service historian John Hennessy and I presented a History at Sunset program entitled “Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg.” One of our stops was at St. George Episcopal Church’s Faulkner Hall.

John Washington wrote in his classic slave narrative Memorys of the Past (also included in David Blight’s A Slave No More) that he had attended Sunday school in that building. St. George’s longest-tenured pastor, Reverend Edward C. McGuire, was interested in the spiritual welfare of the black population. He helped organize the Fredericksburg Chapter of the American Colonization Society, and during his 45-year tenure, two of the five Sunday schools supported by St. George’s were for black children. 

By 1860, St. George’s Episcopal Church had 290 members including two black members. The population of Fredericksburg was 5,026, which included 3,311 white people; 1,715 enslaved black people; and 430 free black people. The Vestry members of St. George’s were wealthy and politically powerful men. Twenty-two of them were worth an average of 10 times more in wealth than the average citizens. They served on many of the same city boards. Congregant Montgomery Slaughter was elected Fredericksburg’s mayor in 1860.

During the Civil War, St. George’s had two rectors. Rev. Alfred M. Randolph served from December 1858 until April 24, 1865, preaching his last sermon on November 17, 1862, the day that General Edwin Sumner’s Right Grand Division arrived at Chatham. Reverend Magruder Maury served from December 1864 until April 24, 1871. Rev. Maury’s first sermon was in the basement lecture room in the shell-torn church (Sydnor Hall today). Rev. Randolph became a chaplain in the Confederate army, first with Stonewall Jackson’s Corps from 1863 until 1864, and then as the post chaplain in Danville.

When the Union army appeared before Fredericksburg on Good Friday, April 18, 1862, 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 Montgomery Slaughter called an emergency session of City Council.

The following citizen were appointed to confer with McDowell: 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, as was, possibly, William Little.) They were instructed to inform the Union commander 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.

There were mixed emotions of Fredericksburg’s residents. The perceptions of whites and blacks were radically different.

Diarist Jane Howison Beal 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.”

Similarly, diarist Helen Bernard recalled:

Good Friday, 1862. I write while the smoke of the burning bridges, depot, & boats, is resting like a heavy cloud all around the horizons towards Fredcksbg. The enemy are in possession of Falmouth, our force on this side too weak to resist them…. We are not at all frightened but stunned & bewildered waiting for the end. Will they shell Fbg., will our homes on the river be all destroyed? …. It is heartsickening to think of having our beautiful valley that we have so loved and admired all overrun & desolated by our bitter enemies, whose sole object is to subjugate & plunder the South…..

Meanwhile, John Washington, an enslaved black man, recalled that same day quite differently:

April 18th 1862. Was “Good-Friday,” the Day was a mild pleasant one with the Sun Shining brightly, and every thing unusally quiet…until every body Was Startled by Several reports of [Yankee] cannon…. In less time than it takes me to write these lines, every White man was out the house. [But] every Man Servant was out on the house top looking over the River at the yankees, for their glistening bayonats could eaziely be Seen. I could not begin to express my new born hopes for I felt…like I Was certain of My freedom now.

The Union army occupied Fredericksburg, and soldiers attended St. George’s. According to a Union colonel who attended services there on Sunday, May 18, 1862, Rev. Randolph omitted the prayer for the president of the United States. This officer admitted that the clergyman had also failed to pray for the president of the Confederate States, but he attributed this omission to the United States officers in the congregation and the northern troops in the town.

Randolph conducted regular services in St. George’s up to and including, Sunday, November 17, 1862.

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In December 1862, all-out war came to Fredericksburg. Steward’s series will look more closely at St. George’s role in the battle.


War Comes to St. George’s (part one)

(part one of a series)

Last August, I had the honor of giving a lecture at my church, St. George’s Episcopal Church, about its history during the Civil War. Several living historians, members of Women of the Civil War, the Spotsylvania Civilians, and the 23rd USCT, were in the audience of more than 175 people. I was very pleased at the large turnout and with their reaction and applause after the lecture. I will present an expanded version of the lecture here at Emerging Civil War.

Originally, St. George’s Parish was founded in 1714 as a German Reformed congregation, after Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood had created a settlement for German immigrants on the banks of the Rappahannock River. This settlement was beyond the existing frontier. Over the next several years, Spotswood brought over more German families. The men were miners and could protect that portion of the colony frontier. 

In 1720, Spotsylvania County was created, and the original St. George’s became the Anglican Parish for the entire Spotsylvania County, which stretched to almost modern-day West Virginia. Fredericksburg was founded in 1727, and a Rappahannock Church of the Parish was built in the 1730’s. The Revolutionary War caused tremendous problems for the Episcopal Church, and the laws of England were repealed. The current (and third church building) St. George’s was built in 1849, and it remains a beautiful church today.

Now, I would like to present some background information about Fredericksburg in the Civil War before I specifically speak about the church. Directly in the middle of the area between Washington, D.C.—the capital of the United States of America—and Richmond, Virginia—the capital of the Confederate States of America—sat Fredericksburg. Both President Abraham Lincoln and President Jefferson Davis visited Fredericksburg during the Civil War.

From April 1862 through May 1864, Fredericksburg and the surrounding counties became a major focal point of the Civil War in the Eastern Theater. Not only did Americans looked at the fighting between the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to determine how the war was proceeding, England and France kept close eyes on the theater, as well.

On April 18, 1862, the Union army arrived on Stafford Heights, across the river from Fredericksburg. When they arrived, more than 10,000 slaves escaped to freedom. Most notable was John Washington, who wrote one of the best-known slave narratives in this country, Memorys of the Past. Most of the escaped slaves moved to the Washington area and many of the men joined the United States Colored Troops in 1863 and 1864.

After its arrival on April 18, the Union army occupied the city the next day. They remained until late August.

On November 17, 1862, the Army of the Potomac returned, with General Ambrose E. Burnside as the commander. General Robert E. Lee’s army began to arrive on November 19. The battle of Fredericksburg was then fought from December 11-13. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia won its easiest victory of the war in that battle.

After the battle, both armies stayed in the area until the battle of Chancellorsville was fought on May 1-6, 1863. The Army of the Potomac was now commanded by General Joseph Hooker. Lee won his greatest victory at Chancellorsville. Afterwards, both armies returned to their previous positions, although Lee now believed his army was invincible. He began to move his army north to Pennsylvania on June 3, 1863, and the Army of the Potomac followed.

The armies fought in Gettysburg from July 1-3, 1863. This time, the Army of the Potomac was under the command of General George Gordon Meade—the third general Lee faced in as many battles. Meade defeated Lee at Gettysburg, though, and the armies moved back to this area once again. General Meade remained the commander of the Army of the Potomac throughout the rest of the war.

However, in March 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant became General in Chief of all Union armies and made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac and the independent IX Corps of General Burnside. Burnside outranked Meade, so he could report to him, creating an odd command structure that Grant had to supervise.

In May 1864, the Overland Campaign began with the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. These two battles ended in stalemate but they were the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.

The 4th Division of the IX Corps was a division of US Colored Troops, which included the 23rd USCT. During the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the 23rd USCT became the first black troops to fight against the Army of Northern Virginia.

During the entire two years the armies fought, in this area, more than 100,000 soldiers were killed or wounded, making this the bloodiest landscape in North America.

St. George’s Episcopal Church could not escape this desolation.

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When Steward’s series continues, he’ll offer a closer look at the wartime congregation of St. George’s as the desolation begins to hit home.