Friday, June 17, 2016

Church site of famous Grant council of war ministers to 'changing and evolving' world

Ulysses Grant leans over George Meade's shoulder (Library of Congress)
Grant stood near shrubbery area in this modern view

I’ve long been fascinated by a rare series of Civil War photographs showing a council of war – outside a Virginia church on a late spring day in 1864. The images are simply remarkable.

On May 21, 1864, Timothy O’Sullivan, traveling with the Federal Army of the Potomac, set up his heavy camera at a window on the balcony of Massaponax Church and photographed Generals Ulysses Grant and George Meade and others as they relaxed on church pews, wrote orders and surveyed a map after the bloody fighting at Spotsylvania Court House.

In one candid view, Grant leans over Meade’s shoulder to study a map as they plot the next phase of the Overland Campaign -- a move toward the North Anna River. In another, Grant sits with a cigar clenched in his teeth. Also present is Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana and staff officers. Wagons of the Federal V Corps rumble by in the background.

Grant (seated between two trees) enjoys a cigar (Library of Congress)
Best modern angle I could do without being on the balcony

My parents and I paid a quick visit to Massaponax Baptist Church a few weeks ago after visiting part of the Spotsylvania battlefield earlier in the afternoon. The church is at the corner of a very busy U.S. 1 (then called Telegraph Road) and Massaponax Church Road. Unfortunately, the sanctuary was closed. Still, it was interesting to walk around where these giants of the Union plotted strategy.

Today, the church has one foot in history and the other very much in the 21st century, meeting the needs of those near and far.

On a video posted on Facebook this week, incoming pastor Dusty Carson encouraged the congregation to pray for the Orlando massacre victims and their families. “We are called to love. The greatest act of love we can do is pray for them.” He said that Jesus Christ will help heal the battered community.

Shirley Wilson, a deacon at the church, answered the phone when I called to ask about the Southern Baptist church’s ministries today.

The congregation’s diverse 100 members – many of whom commute to work in the Washington, D.C, metro area -- sponsor a food pantry that serves 150 to 200 families. They also provide school supplies for homeless and low-income children and take part in the Samaritan’s Purse ministry, an international relief effort.

“The world is changing and evolving,” Wilson told me.

Another Timothy O'Sullivan, before council of war (Library of Congress)
(Picket photo)

There are two Sunday services: 9:15 a.m. is traditional and the 10:30 a.m. service, which draws more worshippers, is considered contemporary.

Being in a heavy traffic zone can be a plus, Wilson said. “Lot of good things happen because of that.” People who drive by and see the food pantry operation sometimes send money.

I asked whether many people interested in the Civil War and the O’Sullivan photographs stop by. “All the time,” she said. “We think it is a fantastic thing.” Graffiti left by Federal troops is protected and visible on the balcony, although much of it has faded over time. “We tried to save most of it.”

The church was established in 1788. The current brick sanctuary was erected in 1859. Pastor Joseph Billingsley was famous for preaching long sermons of about two and a half hours.

“This did not sit well with the congregation,” the church website says. “On one occasion, it is said that they wedged the door to exclude him, but he preached his sermon in the church yard.”

Fuller views of Grant consulting and writing order (Library of Congress)

In 1863, during the middle of the conflict, Massaponax gave letters of dismissal to black members and they formed smaller churches. Confederate and Union forces alternately used the church as a stable, hospital and meeting place during various campaigns.

For a time, the graffiti was covered by whitewash that covered “unsightly marks and the sad stories were forgotten.”

Back to that day in 1864: Grant realized on May 21 that Confederates remained in strong positions at Spotsylvania and he decided to move to the southeast to try to get them out in the open.

John Cummings, in his Spotsylvania Civil War Blog, has written about the morning that Grant and his subordinates stopped by the church.

According to Cummings, Grant wrote one dispatch from Massaponax, to Gen. Ambrose Burnside. One of the O’Sullivan photographs shows Grant scribbling on a paper pad.
GENERAL: You may move as soon as practicable upon the receipt of this order, taking the direct ridge road to where it intersects the Telegraph road, thence by the latter road to Thornburg Cross-Roads. If the enemy occupy the crossing of the Po in such force as to prevent your using it, then you will hold the north side at Stanard's Mill until your column is passed, and move to Guiney's Bridge. General Wright will follow you and will cover the crossing of the Po for his own corps. At Guiney's Bridge you will receive further directions if you are forced to take that road. If successful in crossing at Stanard's your march will end at Thornburg.
U. S. Grant,

The Metropolitan Museum in New York, which has a copy of one of the photographs (which are stored at the Library of Congress), says of that day:

“The chaotic study is one of the most daring made by any Union photographer. … Evidence suggests that it had been a disastrous day for the Union troops, as the losses were heavy and no strategic advantage had been gained. In the background are rows of horse-drawn baggage wagons and ambulances transporting supplies for the next day’s engagement and the wounded to field hospitals.

A soldier in one of the photographs went on to receive the Medal of Honor for postwar gallantry. You can read about that here.

View of busy U.S. 1 (Jefferson Davis Highway)

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