The desperate commotion of thousands of men and horses fighting for their lives is not easy to conjure, 156 years later in a peaceful green grove scattered with periwinkle blossoms in Culpeper County.
Even so, on Sunday some 35 members of Brandy Station’s Christ Episcopal Church gathered to do just that, and to remember and honor those who died on June 9, 1863, in the Civil War struggle now known as the Battle of Brandy Station.
“That soul that to Jesus hath fled for repose, I will not, I will not desert to its foes,” the congregation sang Sunday morning, in a clearing bright with rays of sunshine beaming through the surrounding trees, and the familiar tune of “How Firm a Foundation” guided by a single guitar.
“That soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no, never forsake,” the hymn concluded.
All hell did endeavor on and around this piece of ground where St. James Episcopal Church stood in a glade of trees during the largest cavalry battle to occur on North American soil.
Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s legions, surprised by an early morning attack when Union troops crossed the Rappahannock River at Beverly’s Ford two miles to the north, contended mightily with their enemy around the house of worship. By day’s end, nearly 1,500 gray and blue soldiers perished in the battle.
Today, the ground still holds the remains of many who were slain that day, buried where they fell.
Christ Episcopal Church, the successor of St. James, meets annually on the spot to mark the battle’s anniversary.
“We remember before God today those soldiers who perished in the fields and woods of our region,” the Rev. Tom Hayes prayed during the service. “We pray that time will not erase the memory of the devastation of this day, and that we will not forget the lessons it may teach us.”
With accompaniment by John Toler playing guitar and Gary Winemiller on the bagpipes, the service began with a solemn processional led by Hayes, followed by acolyte Aiden Frazier and flag bearer Caleb Frazier, as well as the honor guard of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Matthew Fontaine Maury Camp 1722.
Church members rested beneath the leafy canopy on camp chairs and wooden benches, swatting bugs and occasionally enduring pauses in the ceremony while small aircraft noisily passed overhead en route to or from the nearby Culpeper Regional Airport.
“Something the St. James folks didn’t have to deal with,” Hayes, the pastor at Christ Episcopal, wryly commented after one such pause.
Built in 1840, St. James Church was constructed of red brick fired on site by enslaved people. The two-story edifice stood 40 by 40 feet, and was described by a parishioner as “carpeted and nicely furnished, with cushioned pews.”
Records show that by 1860 the congregation boasted 28 communicants, with 40 to 50 attending weekly services, many occupying gallery seats built specifically for the church’s black members.
A relic from that era, an elegant silver chalice, was used by Hayes during Communion on Sunday. Also on hand was an enormous Bible that Union troops took from St. James but graciously returned after the war was over.
During the June 9 battle, Lt. Louis Henry Carpenter and his comrades in the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry tried to roust Confederate troops around St. James Church, but failed in that effort. In December 1863, Carpenter saw the church again when his regiment camped in the area. He made a sketch of it—the only known surviving image of the edifice.
About a week after drawing the church and its graveyard, Carpenter recorded in his journal—with expressions of shame—the destruction of this house of worship. Union soldiers yanked it down, robbing its bricks to build winter-hut chimneys and walkways for their camps to make their stay in Culpeper County more comfortable.
“Today, you’ll find those bricks strewn all across the battlefield,” Civil War historian Clark B. Hall said in an interview Wednesday. “Some were found at Meade’s headquarters, about a quarter mile away.”
Union Maj. Gen. George Meade was not vigilant about protecting the property of civilians, Hall said.
After the war, St. James Church members petitioned the federal government for redress. “They were the victims of a crime, and rightly deserved compensation,” Hall said, drawing from records in his possession of depositions collected for this claim.
After proving their point, Christ Episcopal Church was awarded $1,575, expended “as an equitable claim … that the United States received the benefit of the use of the material claimed for,” one such document states.
Congregants built a new church several miles from the original site, possibly because the new Brandy Station location was more convenient for the membership of the day, and possibly because the original site of St. James was too sacred to them, and carried too much pain, to disturb, Hall said.
In May 2018, Christ Church sold the 2-acre plot to the American Battlefield Trust, a national land-preservation nonprofit group based in Washington, for $75,000.
“The church, of course, has taken great care of it over the years with the help of the Brandy Station Foundation,” Tom Gilmore, the Trust’s chief real estate officer, said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s right in the center of one of the top battlefields we’re trying to preserve, and we wanted to make sure the St. James site was preserved in perpetuity.”
Trust members, an alliance of supporters, the Culpeper Board of Supervisors, Culpeper Town Council and other elected officials hope that Virginia will create a state park from the battlefield lands at Brandy Station and nearby Cedar Mountain that are preserved by the trust.
“But we have reserved the right to always hold services there,” said Boo Ingram, a lifelong Christ Church member and real-estate agent in the area. An ancestor of Ingram, Martha E. Threlkeld, is buried in the St. James cemetery, with Martha’s headstone the only one from the 1800s that remains standing.
“The St. James land has filled in the space of Brandy Station battlefield that they wanted,” Ingram said of the trust. “And it helped us put on a new roof and do some other work on our church. It was a win-win situation.”
On Sunday, Christ Church parishioners expressed their gratitude for their rich heritage, praising God through song and scripture in the sunny glade where the old church had stood. A number of children in attendance represented the continuation of that heritage going forward.
“As we remember the sacrifice made by these so long ago,” Hayes prayed, “may we resolve to work for justice, freedom, and unity in our own day, and to pray for that day when the war shall end forever.”