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Many of the churches involved in the Battle of Fredericksburg submitted itemized claims to the court of the United States government as a petition to recover the cost of damages. Under the Tucker Act southern citizens could petition for financial reimbursement for harm inflicted on their properties due to the actions of the Federal Army. The Tucker Act permitted such actions as it waived the government’s sovereign immunity with respect to certain lawsuits. All of these cases took years to come to fruition and involved a tedious and detailed investigation whereby members of the congregation, as well as unbiased witnesses, testified in order to justify each claim.
Fredericksburg’s church buildings had suffered extensive damage as a result of an overwhelming Federal artillery bombardment and were later used as army field hospitals. The devastation forced most townspeople to flee the town. In an article published in the London Times on January 23, 1863, a reporter penned a portrait of the destruction. He wrote: Nevertheless a more pitiable devastation and destruction of property would be difficult to conceive. Whole blocks of buildings have in many places been given to the flames. There is hardly a house through which at least one round-shot has not bored its way, and many are riddled through and through. The Baptist church is rent by a dozen great holes…
What follows are excerpts from two interviews conducted years after the war. This process was repeated for other churches in Fredericksburg that filed claims but for the purpose of this article Fredericksburg Baptist (a white church) and Shiloh Baptist–Old Site (an African-American church) are used to illustrate the process.
FREDERICKSBURG BAPTIST CHURCH
The testimony of a gentleman from Fredericksburg Baptist Church named S.J. Quinn outlined an eye witness account of the experiences of the church during the battle and its aftermath. The Court Of Claims, regarding the case of the Baptist Church of Fredericksburg Virginia versus the United States (Case No. 11768 Cong.), presented a deposition taken on the 13th day of April 1905, before E.F. Chesley, a notary public. The Statement of Case read:
(Interview excerpts follow)
This is a claim for occupation of and damage to the church building of the Baptist Church of Fredericksburg, Virginia, alleged to have been used and damaged by the military forces of the United States during the late civil war, stated at $4000.00. The claim was referred to the court February 28, 1905, by resolution of the United States Senate under act of Congress approved March 3, 1887, known as the Tucker Act.
S.J. Quinn testifies:
Q.[uestion] Where did you reside during the late civil war?
A.[nswer] I was a Mississippi soldier and came to this city in November 1862.
Q. How long did you remain here?
A. I did picket duty in town from that time until the first of January following and was then quartered in the town until June 2nd 1863.
Q. Do you know by whom this damage was done to the building?
A. While I did not see the damage done, it was done by the Federal Army while in the occupation of the town; the destruction was very great all over the town.
Q. Do you know whether or not the confederate forces ever occupied or in any way used the church building before the federals entered Fredericksburg?
A. I think not. I do not know positive I was not here the first part of the war. I was here before the battle and there was no occupancy of the town until after the battle commenced…
Damages to the building and its contents included countless bullet and projectile holes, shattered windows, damaged or stolen pews and missing furniture. Books and other items were also destroyed or missing. In lieu of aid from Washington D.C., most of the area’s churches were able to petition funds from northern churches on their behalf, as well as local pledges from wealthier citizens whose accounts had not been as devastated as their less fortunate brethren. Eventually in May of 1865, they were able to resume worship, regain membership, and reestablish their influence in the community.
Decades after the end of the Civil War, members of the Fredericksburg Baptist Church finally received financial restitution from the Federal Government. Able to recover, their congregation continues to flourish to this very day.
SHILOH BAPTIST CHURCH (OLD SITE)
(Interview excerpts follow)
Returning to the months immediately following the war, one of the first goals of the newly re-established Shiloh Baptist congregation was to join their white peers in submitting a claim. As outlined in the previous recollection this involved a long and meticulous process, which involved detailed witness testimonies and cross-examinations.
The testimony of two gentlemen, George Triplett and Thomas Dennis from Shiloh Baptist Church, outlined eyewitness accounts of the experiences of the church during the battle and its aftermath. The Court of Claims of Trustees of Shiloh (old site) Baptist Church of Fredericksburg Va., vs. The United States (Case No. 11781 Cong.), presented the deposition taken on July 29, 1904. The claim was for a sum of $3000, including reimbursement for $900 worth of repair costs that had already been incurred by the church. The Statement of Case read:
This is a claim for use of and damage to the church building of Shiloh (old site) Baptist Church, of Fredericksburg, Virginia, by the military forces of the United States during the late civil war, stated at $3000.00. The claim was referred to the court February 28, 1905, by resolution of the United States Senate under act of Congress approved March 3, 1887, known as the Tucker Act.
The first witness to take the stand was a longtime church member named George Triplett who presented his first-hand knowledge of the Union soldiers’ conduct and resultant damage. The following evidence was taken under the rules of the court on July 29, 1904:
George Triplett testifies:
The Union Army [under Burnsides] occupied the church December, 1862. At that time they used the basement to put their horses in and the upper part was used for the soldiers to stay in. They then occupied it for sometime while Grant was operating in the Wilderness, using it for a hospital…
During this occupation they took out all the windows and all the pews, and knocked out the pillars, and by taking out the pillars the corner of the building afterward fell out. They also took the seats out of the gallery and the steps leading up to the same. They also knocked the side off the gallery; the ceiling was all knocked down and we had to have it plastered.
Thomas Dennis testifies:
The Union troops used the building for a hospital and put their horses in the basement. They used the building when Hooker was here and then they used it for some four or five months when Grant was here. They tore up the floors, knocked out the windows, took the pews and almost destroyed the inside of the church. They also took out some of the pillars under the basement…
Like Fredericksburg Baptist, each of Fredericksburg’s principal Civil-War era churches had similar investigations conducted into their wartime experiences. Although not all of Fredericksburg’s residents supported the southern cause, many followers of the white congregations inevitably supported the Confederacy as members of its clergy and loved ones were serving in the field. We can tell by the diaries of some members, predominantly women, that the Federal occupiers were not welcome in their houses of worship. Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) may have been the only church who deserved the distinction of remaining “loyal” to the Union.
We can assume that Shiloh Baptist, no matter how peacefully co-existing it was, would not have been as enthusiastic in supporting a cause that intended to preserve the institution of bondage over its membership. Additionally, as a colored congregation, many of the members fled north following the initial occupation of the town. Any support of the wartime effort would have most likely been as Federal wagon teamsters, stretcher-bearers and even soldiers in the Negro regiments.
Despite winning their freedom to worship independently many black churches in the south struggled to revitalize. This proved to be just one more example of the many civil rights hardships that confronted African-American Southerners for another 100 years. For decades to come African-Americans were called upon to meet additional challenges, as Jim Crow laws and segregation stifled their independence and equality in the post-Civil War south. Unfortunately, the United States government, who had tolerated the institution of slavery for many years but shed the blood of thousands to abolish it, came up short when it came to the promise of true equality for black Americans.
Like their white Baptist counterparts Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) rose above their circumstances, overcame adversity, and reformed a thriving congregation that carries on the proud tradition of their ancestors today.
Michael Aubrecht is an author, as well as a Civil War Historian. He has written several books including The Civil War in Spotsylvania and Historic Churches of Fredericksburg. Michael lives in historic Fredericksburg. Visit his blog online at https://maubrecht.wordpress.com/
- Court of Claims Congressional Case No. 11,781. Trustees, Shiloh (old site) Baptist Church, Fredericksburg, Va., vs. The United States. Entire report including petitions, letters, and examination transcripts. U.S. Treasury Department, (Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania NMPS, Bound Volume 345).
- Court of Claims Congressional Case No. 11,768. Baptist Church of Fredericksburg, Virginia vs. The United States. Entire report including petitions, letters, and examination transcripts. U.S. Treasury Department, (Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania NMPS, Bound Volume 344).
- Fredericksburg Baptist Church, “The Church on a Hill: Commemorative Brochure.” Contributions by Mildred Powell, church historian.
- John Hennessy, Notes on St. George’s Episcopal Church & The Baptist Church During the Civil War: A Documentary Record. Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park.
- Michael Aubrecht, Historic Churches of Fredericksburg: Houses of the Holy (The History Press, 2008).
- London Times. “Eyewitness account of damage to the city of Fredericksburg,” January 23, 1863.
- The Free Lance Star, “Omnibus Claim Bill,” August 8, 1912.