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in the 1730’s. The Revolutionary War caused tremendous problems for the Episcopal Church, and the laws of England were repealed.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.