The Old Stone Church
Famously pictured in a view of Centreville in 1862 the Centreville Methodist church was constructed in 1854. It was used as a hospital for Union soldiers during the Civil War. The first major battle of war fought just west of here on July 21, 1861, and it overwhelmed the loosely organized medical corps. Though the casualties were light compared to the battles that would come in later years, men were laid here in the church so tightly packed together that doctors found it difficult to move among them. Federal forces used the church as a hospital again during the Second Battle of Manassas and during the subsequent occupation of the town as part of Washington DC's outer ring of defensive forts. In 1864 all of the wood in the church, from pews to the floors and pulpit, were removed for use in nearby Union camps, leaving just the stone walls. After the war parishioners used the original stones to rebuild a new church. The connected parish hall was added in 1944.
Backstory and Context
“Our surgeons began to prepare for the coming battle, by appropriating several buildings and fitting them up for the wounded -- among others the stone church at Centerville ‑‑ a church which many a soldier will remember, as long as memory lasts.” — Sarah Emma Emmonds, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army
In October 1854 the Methodist Episcopal Church South built a small stone church. The ladies of the church organized a fair to raise funds to complete the construction and pay for church furnishings. The deed for the church specified that when not being used for Methodist service that any other Christian denomination was welcome to use it for public worship.
In July 1861, war came to Centreville. In the early hours of July 21 a column of Union soldiers march past the stone church, turning here to march west to the flank the opposing Confederate Army arrayed along the Bull Run. As the battle unfolded that day wounded men were brought back to the church here. The first major battle of the war overwhelmed the capacity to transport and treat men. At the Methodist Church in Centreville, Dr. Frank Hamilton described the scene:
In the old stone church the men were lying upon every seat, between all the seats, and on every foot of the floor; ... we were constantly in danger of treading upon the wounded; … . Only two amputations were made by myself; … .Both of them, I confess, were done very badly, … . My back seemed broken, and my hands were stiff with blood. …
Another witness to the scene at the church was Sarah Emma Edmonds who recalled in her memoir how:
Mrs. B. and I made our way to the stone church around which we saw stacks of dead bodies piled up, and arms and legs were thrown together in heaps. But how shall I describe the scene within the church at that hour. Oh, there was suffering there which no pen can ever describe.
What her 1864 memoir does not mention is that the wounded at the church believed she was a fellow solider. Edmonds had volunteered for 2nd Michigan Infantry as Franklin Thompson.
Though the battle initially favored the Union Army, the arrival of Confederate reinforcements turned the tide and resulted in a Union retreat to Centreville. Federal General McDowell assessed the state of his demoralized army and decided to return to Washington and Alexandria. Lacking adequate ambulances, it was decided that the wounded men in the church would be left behind. Dr. Hamilton explains what followed:
As we went into the street again, we found it was silent as the grave—the pickets even were gone, … I went back to the old stone church, … then said aloud to the poor fellows within: ” Thank God, my boys, none of you are very seriously injured, you will probably all get well.” … I could not tell them I was about to leave them, and I trust in leaving them so I did them no wrong. I could be of no more service to them until morning, and then I presumed they would be in the hands of a civilized and humane enemy … . As I passed along out of the village I requested one gentleman who lived there to look after them, and also a family composed of a man and wife with two daughters. They all promised to do what they could.
The church was again used as hospital during the Second Battle of Manassas in the summer of 1862 and probably continued to serve in that capacity later that fall when Union troops were garrisoned at Centreville. A photograph of a young man, a modern copy of a 19th century image, discovered during a spring cleaning of files at the Church of the Ascension, depicts one of the young men who was treated here. It shows a young man dressed in a Union Army jacket, the brass buttons still bright, a kepi cap held on his knee. Private David Miller served with Co. K, of the 9th Regiment of the New York Calvary. He was injured in a skirmish at Haymarket, Va and died of his wounds on Nov 3, 1862. A correspondent with the New York Times reported Private Miller's death: "He was only 17 years old, but on more occasions than one has proved himself a man."
Union soldiers remained encamped in and around Centreville through 1864. As tents became preferred as more sanitary shelters for hospitals, the stone church found a new purpose. In 1907 John Mohler, whose home stood just south of the church on Braddock Road, and other witnesses testified in court that in the spring of 1864 men under the command of General Gamble pulled wagons up to the stone church and removed all of the woodwork and hauled it back to their camps to build shanties. Nothing was left except the stone walls.
After the war the ruined church was demolished and rebuilt using the material from the old building. Reconstruction commenced around 1866, and was completed about six years later. The church suffered damage again from a fire in 1904 but, in 1915, improvements, a new roof, windows and floors, were made using funds from by a settlement with the US Government for the destruction of the church during the Civil War. In 1944 an addition was built to house a Sunday School and parish hall. A breezeway was enclosed in the 1950s. In 1973 the United Methodist Church of Centreville moved to a larger building and the Church of the Ascension, a parish of the Anglican Catholic Church, began worshipping at the stone church. Mindful of its history, the Church of the Ascension have sought to preserve the integrity of the building including its spare interior decor.
New York Times Correspondent at Centreville. November 2, 1862. “From the Army of Virginia,” New York Times, November 7, 1862, p. 1.
Sarah Emma Edmonds, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. W. S. Williams & Co: Hartford, Conn, 1865. Accessed via the Guttenberg Project website: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38497/38497-h/38497-h.htm
Frank H. Hamilton, Surgeon, 31st Regiment, NY. Battle of Bull Run: One Day’s Experience on the Battle-Field, The American Medical Times, Volume III, 1861, pp. 77-79.
Debbie Robison. Stone Church, Rebuilt c. 1870, Northern Virginia History Notes website, http://www.novahistory.org/Centreville_Stone_Church.html, accessed 6/16/2020.
Eugenia Smith. Centreville, Virginia: It's History and Architecture. Fairfax County History Commission, Fairfax County, VA. June 1973.
Cheryl Repetti. A Remembrance of Private Miller in The Millrace. Historic Centreville Society, Centreville, VA, 2014.
Church of the Ascension
Library of Congress