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.

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.


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.


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.