by Mark Tooley
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.