November 24, 2012

Post Thanksgiving Hike and a Touching Methodist Civil War Story


There’s no better place for a post Thanksgiving hike than Bull Run Battlefield in Virginia 30 miles outside Washington, DC. Although I’ve walked it dozens of times, yesterday I explored a new area around Sudley United Methodist Church and discovered a touching Civil War story about the congregation. Union troops streamed by shocked church goers on Sunday, July 21, 1861. Service was cancelled as the brick sanctuary quickly became a field hospital for Union troops. After the Union retreat, Confederate doctors joined the northern doctors who stayed behind, helped by church members. One New Hampshire soldier lying under a nearby fence with a chest wound was left for dead by busy doctors. But a local family who belonged to the church tended to him for many days, even building a makeshift shelter over his spot. He finally recovered sufficiently for relocation to a Richmond prison.


Twenty six years later the old soldier returned to thank the family for preserving his life, including the husband who had later served in the Confederate army. They rejected his offer for help to themselves but noted their church, still in debt from repairing its wartime damage, needed $200. The Union veteran returned home and told the story to his local Massachusetts newspaper: “I do not know what creed is taught in that church, but it cannot be wrong in any essential of Christian faith when it bears such fruit as I have described…There must be still living many Massachusetts soldiers who can bear testimony with me to the timely aid rendered by those people when so many of our wounded were left uncared for on that disastrous field.”


Over $200 was raised, mostly from local Union veterans. The church debt was paid off. The southern couple who helped the Yankee are buried in Sudley Church graveyard. His stone says: “He was a good man and full of faith.” Hers says: “She was a child of God, lived a happy life and died in peace.”


Of course not all stories about wounded soldiers at Sudley Methodist ended happily. Rhode Island officer Sullivan Ballou, whose soaring final letter to his wife moved the nation when featured on Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary on PBS, had also lain for days outside the church. He died, was buried nearby, and his shallow grave was desecrated by Georgia troops, who stole his skull, to retaliate for some slight by Rhode Islanders. The outrage was later widely published in northern newspapers and enhanced fervor for the war.


Hundreds of suffering wounded and dying from two battles experienced Sudley Church, which was restored after the war and then completely rebuilt in the 1920s. When my then Arlington, Virginia pastor preached there over 20 years ago in a pulpit exchange, an elderly parishioner recalled to him the still bloodstained floors of the old church.


Today the area around Sudley Church is bucolic and tranquil, soaring above Bull Run, which once ran red with blood. Some photos of the church and local area taken in between battles in 1862 appear on local historical markers. They feature posing in several of them two little boys wearing soldier hats who lived across the street from the church. In one shot they sit on the church steps next to a soldier. In another they hold each other while peering into a shallow, marked ditch that might be a grave. They were already no doubt accustomed to mass death. I hope Sudley Methodist helped them and many others try to understand and survive the horrors they endured.


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4 Responses to Post Thanksgiving Hike and a Touching Methodist Civil War Story

  1. Reblogged this on Here I Sit and commented:
    This is a touching story of Christianity in action during and after the Civil War!

  2. dover1952 says:

    It is a touching story. I just wish all of the Christians had been in action when the first bozo raised his hand and said, “Hey. I got a great idea!!! Let’s get some African negroes, bring’em to the 13 colonies, and make them do free work for us.”

    It’s a powerful word: No!!!!

    Numerous written arguments have been made as to why negro slavery was or was not a sin in the 19th century United States. I have read some of the ones that date to the Civil War period. Some of them are twisted, convoluted, tortured arguments to make a point. However, I have never read any argument that contained the most basic reason that I would have cited.

    Slavery is theft—-stealing a man’s energy, stealing a man’s labor, stealing a man’s time (which would otherwise have been his money in free market trade), stealing his self-esteem, stealing his loved ones, stealing his freedom, stealing his life, stealing his hope. It was a violation of “Thou Shalt not steal” that existed on a massive and institutionalized scale. And the immorality of it was even acknowledged in the now famous southern description of slavery as “that peculiar institution.” They knew it was both peculiar and wrong. They just loved their money a whole lot more than they loved their fellow man or Jesus—and they loved it so much that they were more than willing to have some other person’s son die for it.

    Back in my college days, I had a conservative (suspect she still is) yankee girlfriend (Presbyterian) who majored in history at a Christian college and wrote her senior thesis on the Civil War. She viewed the Civil War as being the pet project of a relatively small but wealthy and highly privileged southern upper class of immoral slave owners that were interested in protecting their money primarily and were more than willing to start a massive conflagration that they knew would be fought in the trenches by the sons of their “poor white trash” neighbors that they held in about as much esteem as their own slaves. The poor white trash neighbors were basically everyone else that was not colored and not as wealthy as they were—which means that virtually everyone was poor white trash. From my perspective, given the slave owner behavior, they amply demonstrated that you do not have to be poor and white to merit being called “trash.”

  3. WH says:

    As a Methodist and the descendant of Sharpsburg Swain’s who endured the battle of Antietam crouched in their home, I thank you for sharing this touching story! What a time our forefathers lived through. We are truly blessed to live in a country whose time for civil war has come and gone. I pray for the nations of people who are still struggling against those who would demean human life and limit their ability to worship freely, to work honestly, and to live happily. Blessings ~w

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