How churches can connect us with history
Take a look at that photo above. See that man bending over on the far left side, appearing to inspect a map over the shoulder of another man? That’s Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, holding a council of war with his commanders on May 21, 1864, after the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
The council took place at Massaponax Baptist Church, and those pews they seem to have arranged haphazardly around the churchyard? Well, you can still see them inside the original church building, which was completed in 1859.
When we think of places that connect us with Civil War history, battlefields are often top of mind, but the Fredericksburg area is home to many churches that bore witness to the battles of more than 150 years ago. Many of them served as field hospitals, headquarters and places of refuge.
The scene above at Massaponax Church was captured by photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, and is one of the earliest examples of documentary-style photography of the war. The wet plates photographers used during this era took a long time to expose to capture an image, and the equipment was heavy and cumbersome—a far cry from today’s pocket-portable phone cameras. So even though this photograph looks candid and natural, O’Sullivan had to pose it, and these men had to sit for an extended period of time to create the image. Look closely and you can make out the blurs and shadows created by their small movements.
Massaponax Church is one of several Spotsylvania churches that bore witness to war. Zion Methodist Church, built in 1859, served as a field hospital, lookout and headquarters for Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Gen. Robert E. Lee met with Hill here, and Gen. Stonewall Jackson was carried past the church on his way to Guinea Station. Christ Episcopal Church, completed in 1841, served as a field hospital during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, and still bears scars from artillery fire during the battle.
These churches are all within a short drive of each other, in and around the Spotsylvania Court House Historic District.