Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Under Fire: Faith, Prejudice, and Compassion in a Virginia Parish, 1861-1865

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Under Fire: Faith, Prejudice, and Compassion in a Virginia Parish, 1861-1865

Article excerpt

By the time the Civil War began, Christ Church in Winchester, Virginia had been in existence for well over a century, and its handsome brick edifice, built thirty years before, stood on a prominent corner at the center of the little town. It was one of ten churches serving white congregations, and while it was by no means the largest, many of Winchester's most prominent leaders were its members.1

A widely held local legend that Winchester changed hands more than seventy times during the Civil War has been questioned by historians, and one notes that "many of these changes had been little more than momentary, as one cavalry unit moved into one end of town, and the other unit moved out at the other."2 It is however beyond doubt that the town, consisting of only eighteen blocks north to south and six streets east to west,3 saw more than its share of bloodshed and suffering.

As the northernmost town in the Confederacy, only ten miles from Union territory, and an attractive target for both sides, it was inevitable that it would be in the thick of war once hostilities began in earnest. As one historian observed,

Winchester and the Lower Valley was a land of great abundance. In an embattled and hard-pressed South, the valley was rich with grain, studded with mills, and well linked by roads and railroads with the main theater of war.4

No congregation could imagine in advance what it might be like to attempt to carry out ministry in the violent and volatile situation of civil war, or to prepare for such a situation. Yet it was Christ Church's destiny to do just that, and to do so amid the fluid events that brought Union and Confederate armies, often in close proximity to each other, into their immediate focus; under circumstances of frequent and sometimes hostile military occupation; and with a congregation itself divided over how to respond to the pressing issues of the war. This article is the story of that ministry, of the remarkable characters who were called to undertake it, and of the faith that motivated them.

The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is a richly fertile band which bisects the state and which has always provided a natural passage for the movement of people from north to south. While far less daunting than the mountains of the American West, the ranges that define the valley (the Blue Ridge to the east, the Appalachians to the west) nevertheless served as natural obstacles to contact with the eastern part of the state. During the colonial period the valley was settled by numbers of Pennsylvania Germans who moved south in search of fresh agricultural opportunities and who lived alongside those, mostly of English ancestry, who had made their way over the mountains from the east.

Winchester, founded in 1732 by an intrepid English settler who established his family on what was then the extreme edge of the frontier, nestled near the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Two decades later, the village served as the headquarters for a young George Washington, hired to survey the vast reaches of the land grant given by the crown to its proprietor, Thomas, Lord Fairfax. Christ Church, a congregation of the Church of England, was established in 1744, and was at the time the westernmost Anglican congregation in the American colonies.5

In many ways the culture of the northern valley had more in common with neighbors to the east and north than the plantation country of Tidewater Virginia. Although a number of estates and stately homes dotted the countryside, the terrain and the yeoman farmers who made up a large percentage of the population of the Valley lent themselves more easily to small family farms and orchards. (Traditional plantation crops such as cotton and tobacco could not be grown in the valley.) By the middle of the nineteenth century, the railroad had strengthened ties to Baltimore and Washington, while travel to the state capital at Richmond remained long and hard. …

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