Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome guest author Mike Wright.
The Christmas season of 1864 at Petersburg would never be forgotten by the soldiers who manned the trenches or the citizens of the town, including the members at Second Presbyterian Church. If only these walls could talk.
Second Presbyterian Church, which was formed in 1851, had been worshipping in a structure owned by the High Street Congregation, but in 1860, they decided to build their own church. There were 150 members at the time, and the cost would be around $30,000. The minister since 1854, Rev. Theodorick Pryor, actually designed most of the architecture himself. Building a building of this size in the early years of the war was quite a daunting task. With the city of Petersburg and the state of Virginia gearing up for war, finding the materials and manpower must have been a challenge.
All the inside ironwork for the new building was done by a charter member of Second church by the name of William Tappey. Tappey also had contracts from the Confederate government to make gun carriages, caissons, and wagons. Tappey would later serve in the 9th Virginia Infantry.
Petersburg, at the start of the war, was the second largest city in Virginia and the seventh largest city in the South. The five large railroads that converged in Petersburg served as a lifeline to the rest of the South, bringing supplies and soldiers from the other states in the Confederacy. As a result, the city would have been inundated with people, soldiers, and traffic. Many of the wounded from battles fought in Northern Virginia were transported to the many Petersburg hospitals. Commerce along the river and at the Southside train station were bustling.
Rev. Pryor was also a friend to many of the Confederate soldiers in and around Petersburg, especially those sick or wounded and dying, and he could be found at the bedside of many of these young men, placing large demands on his time. He also ministered to the religious needs of many of the soldiers stationed at Petersburg, as the church records show that many soldiers were received as members here during Pryor’s ministry.
However, in March of 1863, a request was made to Rev. Pryor to leave Second Presbyterian Church and become the Chaplain for Longstreet’s Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, and he accepted.
There were a few months interim, but eventually a new preacher was found: Reverend John Miller. Rev. Miller was a chaplain in Stonewall Jackson’s Corps and had served in an artillery unit prior to that.
Petersburg managed to stay clear of the destruction of war for the first three years, but in 1864, war finally came to Petersburg as Grant laid siege to the city in an attempt to sever the railroads that brought Lee’s army supplies from the Deep South. Artillery shells fired by the Yankees into Petersburg became a part of everyday life for the citizens of Petersburg, as did the sight of wounded men. The city had already been under martial law for some time. With the close presence of Lee’s army, supplies such as food, medicine, and even firewood became scarce. Citizens tried to amuse themselves by holding starvation balls where no food was served.
Worshippers at Second Presbyterian Church were plentiful, though, as the citizens prayed for deliverance from the invaders. Soldiers on leave from the front also found their way to Second Church and worshipped in large numbers. Second Church and Grace Episcopal were the only churches that stayed open during the whole siege.
One soldier who visited Second Church, Capt. Henry Chambers of the 49th North Carolina, wrote the following: “In the morning at eleven we went to the Washington St Presbyterian Church and heard its talented pastor, Rev. John Miller. It was the day of communion and the sermon was of an appropriate character, able, learned, beautiful in its structure and practical in its bearings.”
Capt. Chambers was so impressed with Second Church, he visited it on Christmas Day of 1864 and wrote the following: “The church presented a magnificent spectacle. The gorgeous evergreen decorations, the Gothic architecture, the brilliant gaslight, the finely dressed ladies and Conf. officers, the splendid robes of the officiating clergyman, the exquisite singing of the choir, the solemn responses of the congregation all combined to make one of the most impressive scenes I ever witnessed. After the sermon was over I returned to the trenches.”
Another worshipper at Second Church for that Christmas service in 1864 was none other than General Robert E Lee himself, as recorded by his Adjutant, Col. Walter Taylor.
The Yankees were able to see the steeples of the churches in Petersburg from their position on the high ground near Blandford Church, and they made inviting targets. The targeting of civilians on their way to worship God is perhaps a topic for another day. The incidents also provoked many churches, led by Second Presbyterian, to form a committee that drafted a letter to Gen. Meade requesting that he stop firing long enough on Sunday for the citizens to attend church. The request did little good, though.
Almost every house or building in Petersburg was struck by a shell during the siege of Petersburg, including Second Church. The experience was recorded in the Progress Index newspaper as follows:
It was about 4:00 on a Sunday afternoon, and the congregation was assembling for worship at the Second Presbyterian Church, while the bell overhead was ringing out the call. Shells were passing to the westward on Washington St with unusual frequency, yet the people seemed almost indifferent to the situation and its danger, so, while the ladies were holding converse in the spacious front yard, a large Federal shell embedded itself in the eastern wall of the church, giving all within a heavy jar. The pastor, Rev. John Miller, at once proceeded to dig out the intended engine of death and destruction. He had been a Capt. of Confederate Artillery. . . . Providence was good to the people. the shell did not explode. If so, the dead and wounded would have numbered more than 20. Having extricated the shell, Re. Miller placed it on his shoulder and walked down and laid it on the communion table. Then he ascended the pulpit, telling his people, ‘It is evident that the enemy has exact range on our church, and I am not willing to keep you here exposed to danger to listen to anything I have to say. We will have the benediction and be dismissed.’ With no outward sign of alarm, the congregation arose, received the benediction and the incident was closed, the congregation leaving in their usual orderly manner.
Another event forever be connected to Second Church was discovery of a dead Confederate soldier on the steps of this church, left there by comrades who did not have enough time to bury him as Lee hastily evacuated Petersburg after nine months of siege. Pinned to the soldier’s coat was a note that read, “Frank E Coyle, 3rd Co. Washington Artillery. Killed at the front on Sunday. Some kind friend please bury this man.” Several local citizens, noticing the soldier lying there, commenced to bury him in the churchyard when a regiment of Federal Infantry marching in to take control of Petersburg noticed what was happening. The colonel halted the regiment and brought them to “present arms”—a moving tribute to a one-time enemy. All this happened right on Washington St. in front of this church.
With the South’s economy in shambles, the Christmas season made things seem that much worse. But one thing the population never did was to quit praying and attending the many Petersburg churches. It was said that that on Christmas day of that year, worship services were filled to “standing room only.” The army, for the most part, knew this was the last winter of the war and that they would not be able to hold out much longer unless they could somehow break free from Grant’s army.
Sadly, Lee’s army would not break free, and the war would end a little more than three months later in Appomattox. The congregation here would suffer through Reconstruction with the rest of the South but would continue and flourish as a pillar in the community, spreading the Good News to this very day.
Mike Wright started walking battlefields and relic hunting with his father as a small kid and later studied history at NC State. He has an award-winning collection of Civil War artifacts. “And I am very involved in my SCV Camp, which I have been Commander of twice,” he says. “I am very proud of my heritage, and my great-great-grandfather was wounded charging the Crater with Mahone.” Mike is a member of the 2nd Presbyterian congregation and originally presented this piece at the church for the Sesquicentennial.