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.

About stewardthenderson

Civil War historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and living historian with the 23rd Regiment USCT and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Co. B. I am also a member of the Trail to Freedom Committee in the Fredericksburg, VA area and a member of the John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania, VA.
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