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Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1862Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1864

In 1805 Dr. Samuel B. Wilson arrived in Fredericksburg, Virginia to find only two Presbyterians among the town’s roughly 2,500 residents. Within a year Wilson was ordained and also licensed by the city authorities to perform weddings. In 1806, he preached to Fredericksburg’s first assembled congregation of Presbyterians in the old courthouse. He also started a school for older boys charging an annual tuition of $35; a year later the school expanded to include younger boys as well.

Two years after their first service, in 1808, the Presbyterians in Fredericksburg officially organized the Presbyterian Church and were successfully annexed into the Winchester Presbytery in the Synod of Virginia. For reasons that have long since been forgotten, many congregants from St. George’s Episcopal Church became dissatisfied there and moved their membership to the Presbyterian Church. Because this coincided with the Psychological Movement in Education, some attributed the move to a common desire for a more thorough religious training. If that was in fact the case, Wilson’s “forcible intellect” would have enticed and accommodated the new members.

By 1810, the Presbyterian Church erected its first house of worship on the corner of Amelia and Charles streets. The congregation continued to grow and in 1816 Wilson started the first Sunday School in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Mrs. Anne James was named the superintendent. That same year, Wilson’s school was named Union Academy and began admitting girls among its students.

For the first 18 years of its existence, Wilson’s ministry to the congregation was financially supported by his teaching at Union Academy. In 1826 the church had grown enough to support a full-time pastor, and Wilson resigned his teaching post to minister full-time.

The spring of 1832 found the congregation had outgrown its first building. The church decided to acquire new land and build a larger house of worship that would be better suited to its size. Land at the corner of Princess Anne St. and George St. was donated by Mrs. Robert Patton, daughter of Revolutionary War hero General Hugh Mercer. The name of the architect has been lost to history. It is believed that the architect was one of Thomas Jefferson’s architects, because the new Sanctuary was based on Jefferson’s plan for Christ Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. The new building is an exceptional example of Jeffersonian Reformed Revival Architecture, and was the first public building in Fredericksburg erected in temple form.

The new Sanctuary was dedicated on July 26, 1833 in a ceremony that was “appropriate and deeply impressive,” according to the Virginia Herald. The congregation later acquired additional lots including the adjoining row house which now serve as classrooms as well as the Manse. This sanctuary has been in continual use since its dedication, and has the distinction of being the oldest house of worship in Fredericksburg.

Three days later the pews were sold to members of the congregation, raising $10,456. This relieved all debt from construction and allowed them to finish the basement. Selling the pews had been a common practice in colonial times. The use of box-pews made it easier to sell them. In earlier colonial churches, there are records of church pew ownership being inherited through personal wills, although there seems to be no such public record of transfer in our congregation. However families continued to exercise ownership of their pews until 1895, when the congregation had grown enough that the need for seating flexibility lead to the pew owners relinquishing their claims and sharing their pews. The box-pew also served a practical purpose. During winter months congregants would bring pails of hot coal with them to church to keep warm. The box-pew reflected the heat inward and keep the occupants warm.

SmithsonianHaving moved to its new home, the congregation decided to use the old property as an orphanage for girls. Later named Smithsonia, a spacious facility was built on the site of the former church house in 1834. On February 5, 1835, the orphanage received its first girl. For 25 years, the orphanage would be home to 82 girls

Wilson, the minister who started the Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg, retired from ministry in 1841 and accepted an invitation to teach at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

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Fredericksburg, Virginia During the Civil WarFredericksburg, Virginia During the Civil War

The Civil War ensured that the Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg would never be forgotten. At the onset of the war the pastor, Rev. A. A. Hodge, requested that his association with the congregation be dissolved due to his ties with the Union. His request was granted early in 1862. Later that year he was replaced by Rev. Beverly Tucker Lacy.

Because of Fredericksburg’s strategic position between the two war-time capitals the Union Army was determined to capture it. This fact drew the congregation of the Presbyterian Church into the war and forced its grounds into service. In the spring of 1862 the church donated its bell to the Confederacy to be melted into cannon. The bell wouldn’t be replaced until 1870. The new bell bore an inscription stating that the original bell was “freely given . . . our land, our laws, our alters to defend.”

Before and after the Battle of Fredericksburg it was not uncommon for soldiers from both armies to attend services at the Presbyterian Church. By the summer of 1862, most of the congregation’s men had left to serve with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. One Union soldier recalls that only 9 older men and about 200 women remained in the congregation. Although Lacy tried to avoid the topic of succession and minister to the spiritual needs facing all who attended, one member wrote in her journal that Lacy “sometimes offends our taste by rather more attention to the Yankees than we like to see paid, but preaches very good sermons to make up for it.”

In early December, Gen. Robert E. Lee met with Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on the grounds of the Presbyterian Church to plan the Confederate Army’s strategy for the upcoming battle. The city’s natural landscape gave Robert E. Lee the best defensive position any general would hold during the entire war.

The days of December 11-15 were difficult ones for the town and the congregation. The Army of Northern Virginia was entrenched and ready when the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Ambrose E. Burnside, crossed the Rappahannock River and began the Battle of Fredericksburg. Confederate soldiers took advantage of Sunken Road’s natural trench-like protection. It was the first use of “modern trench-warfare.” The tactics they used would not change until World War II. The Confederate position at Sunken Road was devastatingly effective against the Union advances. The fighting raged for three days. 1,892 souls perished and staggering 16,138 were wounded or missing.

Upon learning of the devastating loss of life at Fredericksburg, Lincoln himself remarked, “If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it.” The Battle of Fredericksburg struck such a blow to the Union Army that 7 months later at Gettysburg, Union soldiers rallied around the battle-cry, “Remember Fredericksburg!”

During the fighting, the Sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church sustained heavy damage to its roof. Even today, two cannon balls still remain lodged in a pilaster at the front of the sanctuary. Immediately following the battle, every practical facility was converted into a field hospital to care for the wounded and dying. The Sanctuary and Orphanage of the Presbyterian Church were no exception.

Two notable individuals came to Fredericksburg to nurse the wounded and dying. The first was the future founder of the Red Cross, Clara Barton. She traveled with the Union Army of the Potomac and served throughout the war as a nurse. In the aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg the primary field hospital she worked from was the sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church. Barton’s biographer noted that “the memories of Fredericksburg remained with her, distinct and terrible, to the day of her death.”

Walt Whitman also came to find his brother, who was wounded in the battle. After finding his brother, Whitman stayed to help nurse the wounded for some time. Although he primarily worked from the field hospital set up in Chatham Heights, he did come to the Presbyterian Church on several occasions to help there as well. Later he wrote “The Wound-Dresser”, a poem about his experience in Fredericksburg’s Civil War field hospitals.

The church grounds would remain in field hospital service until late 1864. When Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant‘s Overland Campaign moved south, the hospitals were relocated to Port Royal, Virginia. The battles of Chancellorsville and Wilderness were in close proximity to Fredericksburg. Wounded from these battles and other skirmishes were sent to the hospital depots here in Fredericksburg. By the end of the war 26,191 casualties (nearly 1/5 of all Civil war casualties) would move through Fredericksburg field hospitals.

After the Battle of Fredericksburg Lee moved the majority of his army to meet the Union forces at Chancellorsville, leaving a small contingent to defend Fredericksburg. Despite the overwhelming Confederate victory, Fredericksburg would ultimately fall to the Union Army only five months later.

Having witnessed for himself the horrors of war, Lacy, the congregation’s pastor, felt compelled to minister to those who would inevitably fall in the remaining battles of the war. He left Fredericksburg in 1863 as a Chaplin for Jackson’s army. His departure left the Presbyterian congregation scattered and without a pastor.

In March of 1863 a young lieutenant and former seminary student named James Power Smith risked his life to protected Stonewall Jackson after he was mortally wounded. Long after the war, Smith would become the 6th pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg. He would also be remembered for having had a “large measure” in the success of the Fredericksburg library.

Fredericksburg and its Presbyterian Church would have one more significant contribution during the Civil War. In April of 1863 a spiritual revival started on our grounds. It was said that “one of the most remarkable and successful religious revivals took place here that was known to that generation.” The meetings started at the Presbyterian Church and were moved around the various downtown churches. More than 500 were converted and joined churches of various denominations. The revival spread to many of the camps of both the Confederate and Union armies.

Learn More About The Battle Of Fredericksburg

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Only one month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the ladies of Fredericksburg met in the basement of the Presbyterian Church. On the 10th of May in 1865 they formed the Ladies Memorial Association of Fredericksburg. Its purpose was to tend to the graves of fallen Southern soldiers and erect monuments in their memory, lest their bravery and the tragedy of the Civil War be forgotten. The Federal Government funded the Fredericksburg National Cemetery at Marye’s Heights for Union Troops who perished there, but they left the burial expenses of Confederate soldiers to private communities.

Since the Federal Government refused to bury the Confederate dead, the first order of business for the Ladies Memorial Association was to create the Confederate Cemetery. All Confederate soldiers who perished were “gathered together and given a burial fitting their bravery.” Although a plethora of memorial associations sprang up across the south, the ladies of Fredericksburg organized the first one in the basement of the Presbyterian Church.

With the Civil War over, the city of Fredericksburg began to rebuild. The congregation of the Presbyterian Church, still without a pastor, began meeting in the basement of the sanctuary to plan their own repairs. In 1866, the Rev. Thomas Gilmer Walker accepted the churches call to pastor the congregation.

The rebuilding was substantial. Not only had the roof been heavily damaged, but the pews were gone and the building had lingering reminders of its use as a field hospital. Under Walker, the repairs to the structure were made and deliberate attention was given to restoring the sanctuary to its antebellum appearance. Friends in the North donated funds to help with the rebuilding. The orphanage was also restored to use, and was re-purposed as a private school and opened in 1865.

In 1870 the Ladies Memorial Association of Fredericksburg raised funds to replace the Presbyterian Church’s bell. They made sure that the bell bore this inscription: “Purchased by the Ladies of Fredericksburg in 1870 to Replace the Bell Freely Given to the Confederate States and Melted into Cannon, Our Land, Our Laws, Our Alters to Defend.”

Mr. Seth B. French, a Fredericksburg man living in New York at the time, erected a beautiful chapel behind the Sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church as a memorial to his daughter, Margaretta French, who died “just as she was entering womanhood.” The chapel was built of granite quarried two miles from Fredericksburg. The beautiful chapel was named the French Memorial Chapel and was completed in 1880. When French’s wife died, he added three Tiffany stained glass windows to the chapel in her honor.

Over the decades after the war the congregation grew. In 1893 the Presbyterian Church opened the Assembly’s Home and School under the direction of Rev. A. P. Saunders, D.D. Located in the Smithsonia building on Amelia St., the Assembly’s Home was an orphanage for the children of deceased Presbyterian ministers and missionaries. The Assembly’s School was a college to educate the children in the orphanage.

Although the Assembly’s Home continued until 1915, the General Assembly separated the college from the Home and ordered it sold in 1897. The citizens of Fredericksburg wanted to keep what they felt would become a important educational institution and the school was purchased by several private citizens. In 1900 the new pastor of the Presbyterian Church would privately purchase the school and made the college “worthy of the confidence and support of the public.” He would later sell the school which would become Fredericksburg College.

Nearly half a century after the Civil War, the Presbyterian Church celebrated its centennial on October 27-28 in 1908. All downtown churches canceled their Wednesday evening services to attended a special reception and hear sermons from guest ministers. Over its first hundred years of existence the congregation grew from two individuals to become a powerful influence for good in the community of Fredericksburg.

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The Presbyterian Church- Fredericksburg looses 403 sons and daughters in the World wars
- 1945: The church starts broadcasting services on the radio.
- Jan. 14, 1954: French Memorial Chapel burns, destroying the building that included three Tiffany stained-glass windows.
- Prosperity did not return until World War I when the U.S. Marine Corps came to Quantico. At that time, the county was primarily agricultural, with the exception of fishing industries situated along the Potomac River. In World War II, the wide expansion of the Marine Corps base created new employment opportunities. A C.C.C. camp was located in Southern Stafford during this time.
- There is a noted influx of Marines from “the camp at Quantico” attending worship at the Presbyterian Church during the World Wars era.

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- By 1963 Fredericksburg was one of the most integrated in Virginia. The town had a bi-racial city commission. The Presbyterian Church strongly supported social justice and equality.
- Oct. 18, 1964: The congregation elects its first female elder, Margaret Hargrove, who is also dean of students and a classics professor at Mary Washington College.
- Sept. 10, 1967: The new French Memorial Educational Building is dedicated.
- May 1977: Edward Alvey Jr., a church member and dean emeritus at Mary Washington College, publishes “History of the Presbyterian Church of Fredericksburg, Virginia.”
- February 1979: Services start at the newly formed Stafford chapel in the northern part of the county. The congregation organizes in 1983 and is named Summit Presbyterian Church.
- 1983: Church members help organize a congregation in Spotsylvania County, which becomes Spotsylvania Presbyterian Church.
- 1983: The Fredericksburg church building is named to the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.

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- With the completion of I-95 in the 1960’s and the recent addition of commuter rail, Stafford became one of Virginia’s fastest growing localities. While encouraging industry, the county maintains its wonderful rural atmosphere.
- October 2000: The congregation welcomes its first clergywoman, the Rev. Erin Sharp, as associate pastor.
- 2003: The church helps form Micah Ecumenical Ministries, a coalition of churches that serves the community.
-2008:The Church celebrates its bicentennial with a summertime all church picnic and fall banquet. A choral piece is commissioned in recognition entitled “…..”
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