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.

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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2 Responses to War Comes to St. George’s (part four)

  1. Rob Wilson says:

    Your posts provided a portrait of the ways a congregation and a city were affected by the ravages of war. It was interesting to read about the important and varied roles the church played during the conflict. I really appreciated the first-person accounts from the diaries and memoirs you quoted. Despite that Union artilleryman’s best shot, the church’s steeple clock survived the 1863 battle; is it still ticking today?

  2. David Corbett says:

    Interesting article.

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