Archaeologists Locate Casualties of Civil War: A Confederate Soldier and an Episcopal Church Building

Episcopal News Service. October 26, 1989 [89212]

A meticulous sifting of dirt recently uncovered artifacts that are helping a Virginia congregation understand its relationship with its Civil War past.

A team of 27 research archaeologists from the Smithsonian Institution has conducted archaeological testing of a historic church site near Brandy Station, Virginia, locating the ruins of St. James Episcopal Church, which was destroyed during the Civil War, and determining the location of military burials related to battles in the area between August 1862 and June 1863.

"The evidence uncovered at St. James Church tract adds a page to the history of the Civil War that had not been written," said Douglas Owsley, forensic anthropologist and project director of the Smithsonian team. "The battle at St. James Church marked the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign and the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War. Yet, there is no marker or monument commemorating or even acknowledging the location of the church or the military burials," he continued.

The researchers excavated the site last summer at the request of the vestry of the Christ Episcopal Church of Brandy Station, which is the descendant church of the original St. James Episcopal Church. Work was done with the approval of the Christ Church rector, the Rev. Nancy James, and the bishop of Virginia, the Rt. Rev. Peter Lee.

"This exceptional discovery is consistent with folklore about the site and a historical account of a Confederate officer," said Owsley. "We confirmed the location of the dead from this unit killed in an artillery battle nearby the church at the Rappahannock River on August 23, 1862."

A Confederate soldier was buried in his boots with a double-breasted coat placed over his body. Metal and glass buttons and a clay pipe were recovered. His crude coffin, apparently made from the pews of St. James Church, was essentially a frame, as it lacked a top and a bottom. "The Washington Artillery unit apparently lacked the time and/or the carpentry tools to fashion a complete coffin," Owsley speculated. The sides were not cut to size, but instead were eight feet long. "It should be possible through forensic analysis and comparison with the Washington casualty list to identify this man," Owsley said.

The Smithsonian team will conduct a thorough examination of the remains of the Confederate soldier at the Natural History Museum laboratory to determine the age of the soldier at the time he was killed, diseases he suffered in life, and, possibly, his identity. The remains will then be returned to Christ Church for reinterment.

St. James Episcopal Church, built in 1842 on the old Fredericksburg-Winchester Pike, about two miles outside of the town of Brandy Station, was one of the key Confederate artillery positions at the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9, 1863. Union cavalry repeatedly attacked these positions, and during hand-to-hand combat, both sides suffered hundreds of casualties in the daylong clash, considered by many historians to be the greatest cavalry battle of the Civil War.

The small country church survived the Battle of Brandy Station, but the following winter it was razed by Union troops who used its bricks. After the war, the St. James congregation built a new church near the railroad in Brandy Station and renamed it Christ Episcopal Church.

Today, the unmarked, two-acre property where the small country church once stood is in a wooded area in the Culpeper County countryside. Until the Smithsonian study, the exact location of the original church was not known. The team located and excavated the church foundations, determined the building's size, orientation, and type of construction, and recovered a number of artifacts associated with the church, including the lock to the back door.

"The care and preservation of the site on which St. James formerly stood has been an ongoing project of the Christ Church for many years," said Page Mitchell, clerk of the present congregation. "We hope that with the findings of the Smithsonian, the church can properly landmark and memorialize this hallowed ground."

"The primary objective of our work was to assess eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places," Owsley said. "It will be my recommendation that the site be listed on the register on the basis of archaeological criteria and historic information."

[thumbnail: Archaeological team exami...]