Friday, August 12, 2011

The Falls Church During the Civil War

Earlier this week I discussed the 17th Virginia's movement into Falls Church, Virginia in August 1861. Falls Church figures prominently in the Civil War history of Northern Virginia. The village of Falls Church grew up around The Falls Church, an Episcopal congregation founded by the colonial General Assembly in 1732. A few Saturdays ago I loaded my twin boys into the SUV and headed to Falls Church to check out the historic church while my wife went shopping. 

By the time of the Civil War, The Falls Church was already a site rich in history.  The first Falls Church was erected in 1733.  The name derived from the proximity of the church to the falls on the Potomac River.  A road in front of the church led to the ferry just below Little Falls, close to today's Chain Bridge.  At the start of the 1760s, the vestry, or governing body of the church, voted to have a brick church erected to replace the decaying wooden structure.  In 1763, George Washington was elected one of the two church wardens charged with overseeing construction of the new church.  The brick structure, which exists today, was finished in the fall of 1769.  During the American Revolution, The Falls Church was used as a recruiting station for the Fairfax militia.

The south side of The Falls Church at the time of the Civil War. This photograph was likely taken during the winter of 1861-62 (courtesy of Library of Congress).

The same view of the south side of The Falls Church today.
The Civil War descended on the village and quickly disrupted the life of the largely secessionist congregation. Even before the war, services at The Falls Church were poorly attended, with most locals choosing other churches in the area, and the war dispersed many worshippers. The rector of The Falls Church, the Rev. Richard Templeton Brown, was an ardent secessionist who spent the early days of the war away from his congregation in another part of Fairfax. Falls Church changed hands a few times during the summer of 1861, but at the end of September 1861, the village fell into Federal hands and would remain under Northern control until the end of the war. 
The west side of The Falls Church during the winter of 1861-62. Photographer Matthew Brady is sitting in the foreground (courtesy of Library of Congress).

View of the west side today.
The Union Army occasionally used The Falls Church for worship services and funerals, and in February 1862, the 18th Massachusetts even held an event at The Falls Church to commemorate George Washington's birthday.  However, by and large, the war was not kind to The Falls Church.  At various times, the Union Army requisitioned the building for use as a stable and a hospital.  The young men who died from disease were often buried in the churchyard.  The Federal troops tore up the floors and removed the pews, pew boxes, and railings.  They also scrawled graffiti over the interior walls and carried away religious artifacts. In January 1863, A. Ball, a native serving as a Union surgeon and medical director in Fairfax Station, wrote an impassioned plea to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to prevent The Falls Church from being dismantled for bricks.  Ball's forceful intervention was successful, and the building still stood at war's end.

An interior view of The Falls Church during the Civil War.  Graffiti is plainly visible on the walls.  The three religious tablets containing the Creed, Ten Commandments, and Lord's Prayer (l-r) were clearly damaged by the time this photograph was taken (courtesy of Library of Congress).

A 2004 marker commemorating Union soldiers, both known and unknown, buried in the yard of The Falls Church.  A volunteer research team has identified 25 Union soldiers buried at The Falls Church.  These soldiers came from New York regiments, including the 14th N.Y., 21st N.Y., 23rd N.Y., 80th N.Y. and 144th N.Y.
A similar marker dedicated to Confederates who were buried in the churchyard, including men from the 3rd Tennessee and 2nd South Carolina.
Marker dedicated to a sole unknown Confederate soldier whose remains were supposedly removed and re-interred in another location.  All three burial markers are located at the front of the churchyard along U.S. 29/South Washington Street.
In December 1865, a group of local citizens petitioned the U.S. Government to obtain compensation for the destruction to The Falls Church caused by the Union Army.  Even without proof of damages, the government acknowledged its responsibility and awarded around $1,300 dollars to repair The Falls Church.  The church was reopened in 1866 following its restoration, and services were held there periodically until the congregation reorganized in 1873.  Today, the simple beauty of The Falls Church survives, but a few markers serve as a reminder of a time when war disrupted the everyday life of a Northern Virginian congregation.

For additional information:

The Falls Church website contains a history of the church.

A Virginia Village Goes to War: Falls Church During the Civil War, by Bradley E. Gernand contains many fascinating accounts of The Falls Church during the war years.

The Falls Church is located at 115 East Fairfax Street in Falls Church, VA, near the intersection of VA-7 and U.S. 29.  Two historical markers on The Falls Church (see here and here) are situated near the intersection of E. Fairfax Street and U.S. 29.


Walk Forrest Walk said...

I passed through Falls Church many years ago on my way to Spartanburg, SC. thinking at the time what a strange name to be given to a town. I wish I knew then what I know now about Falls Church, I would have stopped and visited the town. Thanks to your post Ron I've learned a lot of Virginia history. "Jim"

Ron Baumgarten said...

Jim--As always, thanks for your comment. You know, even for locals Falls Church doesn't seem to mean much other than strip malls, I-66, and two Metro stations (East Falls Church and West Falls Church). However, once you dig beneath the surface, as I have over the last couple of years, a very interesting and historic place reveals itself. I do hope you get to stop by one of these days! I love going down there now, and only live about 15 minutes away.

Anonymous said...

Thanks as always, Ron. Your post brings me many good thoughts. This church part of the backdrop for my dad's childhood. And where I was baptized along with my sister. Noel

Ron Baumgarten said...

You are welcome, Noel. Glad I can connect you to a place so closely associated with your family memories of the area.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ron, like your previous readers, I also enjoyed this post. What foresight Dr. Ball had to protect the church of one of the oldest parishes in the United States and what a tragedy it would have been if it had been dismantled. I've also enjoyed the preceding posts about the local Virginia men in the Virginia 17th.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks. Indeed, we are fortunate that Ball intervened, and that the Union commanders in the area prevented the complete destruction of The Falls Church. Glad you like the stories about the 17th VA...there will be more to come!

Barb @What's Up Today (WUT?) said...

I actually stumbled upon your site by way of my research concerning the History of Falls Church. I grew up there as well as I was born in Arlington. I went on to move around, i.e., Fairfax, Stafford, Fredericksburg, Ladysmith. The point is two-fold; I find at 60 wanting to know from whence I came, a rich heritage, steeped in such History that one can take a lifetime to learn and comprehend. And here I sit, wishing I had appreciated it all then, as I do know. Of course, now I live in damn Yankee territory, Jamestown, N.Y. and I suppose I'm pining for home.
Falls Church was a wonderful place to grow up. We played in the woods, the creeks and rode our bikes all over in a time long gone when a child and their imagination could fill a day. Excellent article! Thanks!!

Ron Baumgarten said...

Glad you stumbled upon this old post. I am glad you had a chance to read this old post, and good luck with your research. Your Falls Church sounds much different than today! NoVA is so heavily developed you wouldn't probably recognize it!