Earlier this month I participated in a special history program at Massaponax Baptist Church in Spotsylvania County. In observance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Spotsylvania County’s office of Economic Development and Tourism in connection with the National Park Service planned a program which featured a tour of several historical churches; and certainly Massaponax was of historical importance and interest. It is included on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Civil War Trails.
The church – when it was a one-room meeting house – was used by the armies of both sides in the Civil War. In that one small building soldiers in gray were bivouacked and, on other occasions, soldiers in blue were there. The men of both forces left behind enough graffiti on the walls to testify to their presence and to their state of mind.
The Confederates were at Massaponax during the siege of Fredericksburg in 1862-63. According to a pre-eminent Civil War historian, Douglas Southall Freeman, himself a Baptist, the church’s site was something of a “no-man’s land on the right flank of the Confederate position at Fredericksburg.” Federals were there in ’64 during the time Grant was headed down the telegraph road towards Richmond. Some of the oldtimers used to say that the church also was used as a stable.
It should be remembered that the ancient place situated alongside busy Highway 1 was not so ancient at the time of the war. The building was still considered new construction, having been dedicated in October 1859. Little did the hopeful congregation of nearly 500 persons realize at the time that their new church building would be situated in the path of brutal and destructive warfare.
There was a famous war era photograph taken from a balcony window looking down upon the front of the church grounds; and in the photograph Gen. U.S. Grant can be seen. The Federal officers are sitting on some of the church pews, the same pews upon which members sit today. In the recent past, a recreation of the scene took place and another photograph was taken which, in placement, costuming and feeling, matches the original. The two hang side by side in the vestibule.
The great historical attraction to visitors is in the horseshoe balcony. Only the brave and daring climb up the narrow steps, grabbing onto a modern handhold for security. There, under the protection of a Plexiglass cover, are the scrawlings placed on the walls by the men who for awhile sought shelter beneath the Baptist church’s roof.
Many just wrote their names and the name of their military company. Others publicized their feelings: “The Union Forever, Firm, Noble and True. And the Flag of our Union, The Red, White and Blue.” “I hope this Sacred place may never again be polluted by Yankee feet Heaven forbid Rebel.” “The rebellion will be crushed by 64.” “My house was a house of prayer but you have made it a Hell of a Hole.” “Yankees draw your sabor and apply it to the Southerners with all labor.” “George Joslin Co. M 4th Pennsylvania Calvary Born at Carbondale City Lywerne County Penn. Will be eighteen years old on 8th day of July 1864.” These are the handwritten messages left behind by boys and men who were facing the jaws of death.
There were some crude drawings and evidently some obscenities. A history of the church published in 1938 reckoned: “The fact that these were hard men fighting hard battles far from home left so few irreverent remarks upon the walls of the house of God is a testimony to their upbringing at their mother’s knee.”
Betty Clarke was a teenage girl when her church was occupied by soldiers and she once supplied some of the inscriptions from memory so that they would be remembered in the future. Her recollections were included in the old history book. It was her great-granddaughter, Bessie Hart Morefield, who extended the invitation for this historian of Virginia Baptists to participate in Massaponax’s part of the history tour. She and other long-time members have kept the history from being forgotten.
Massaponax was one of numerous Virginia Baptist churches which were used by the armies and many of these were damaged or destroyed in the war. Garnett Ryland, who wrote the definitive modern history of Virginia Baptists, capsuled the war’s toll: “From 1861 to 1865 Virginia suffered repeated invasions by Federal armies, which devastated the country, disrupted the churches that lay in their paths, scattered their members, damaged or destroyed many of their meeting houses, imprisoned eight of their ministers and executed a young preacher.”
Ryland listed the destroyed churches. He also told some of the stories: C.C. Bitting, pastor of First Baptist Church, Alexandria was put on the front of a locomotive to assure safe passage through Confederate lines; Charles Dobbs, pastor of Court St. Baptist Church, Portsmouth was imprisoned; Richard Herndon, pastor at Luray, was taken to a prison in Culpeper and the experience likely hastened his death; and William F. Broaddus, one of the champions of the Baptist General Association and pastor of the Fredericksburg Baptist Church, was imprisoned in Washington to be used as part of a prisoner exchange.
And then there was the story of Albert Willis, a young minister, who was hanged in retaliation for the killing of a Federal spy by Mosby’s men. Richmond College, the pride of Virginia Baptists, lost so much in the war – buildings damaged, library stolen, money gone, students scattered – that for all practical purposes it had died. So much tragedy. So much destruction. So long a war.
For this writer the event was a return to Massaponax. I had been there in November 1988 for the church’s Bicentennial. On that occasion – as with the recent visit – I portrayed a 19th century minister who told about the history. One of the older members produced snapshots which she had kept of my character portrayal in 1988. I admitted that the man in make-up, wig and costume did not look any different but the man without the theatrical cover certainly had changed!
I noticed that the church itself had changed in some ways. There were evidences of incorporating contemporary music into the worship services. There were signs of new paint and carpet in the areas used by children and youth. There was a bright jungle gym in the far backyard. But much remained the same in the intervening 27 years. The historical meeting house with its evidences of the war remained a true treasure with few accommodations to the present.
The mission of a Gospel church now located in the suburban sprawl of Fredericksburg continued to be of utmost consideration. The devotion of the seasoned members to the church which they have long loved was still evident. The hope which must have lifted the members of 150 years ago to restore their church community still resonates.