For the first nearly three decades of the church’s existence, life in Hancock was relatively uneventful. With the outbreak of hostilities during the American Civil War, however, the building became a focal point for military activity during the conflict. Occupying the narrowest portion of the state of Maryland, the town of Hancock became a natural thoroughfare for Confederate forces endeavoring to cross the Potomac River in order to threaten Washington, D.C. from the north. Saint Thomas’ location on a hill overlooking the town also made it an ideal position for Federal troops hoping to stymie such efforts, a fact that led to the church’s occupation by Union troops under General Frederick Lander during Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s two-day bombardment of the town in early January 1862, which came to be known as the Battle of Hancock.
Located on Church Street in Hancock, Maryland on a hill overlooking the nearby C&O Canal and Potomac River, Saint Thomas’ Episcopal Church is one of the oldest parishes within the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. The church structure is known for its role in Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s Romney Expedition during the American Civil War and its service as a hospital for Federal troops during that conflict. The church’s cemetery is also home to the burial site of Dr. James Breathed, a well-known Confederate artillery officer who served under General J.E.B. Stuart. Saint Thomas’ history reveals much about the experiences of American citizens living in small towns throughout the United States during the Southern rebellion, as well as about the nature of those citizens’ divided loyalties in the era. After the war, the church became the burial site for Dr. James Breathed, a former major in Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s famous Horse Artillery and a prominent member of Saint Thomas’ congregation prior to his death in 1870 due to complications from old war wounds.
The fact that Breathed’s final resting place resides at a location that played such a prominent role in resisting the rebellion in which he took part is indicative of the complex nature of local loyalties during a conflict that tore families and communities apart in every corner of the United States. Saint Thomas’ is a window not only into the experiences of the American citizens that struggled to negotiate those loyalties but into a theater of the war that is often neglected by historians and popular mythologies that are more concerned with events further to the east. The weight of the war was felt on a daily basis by the residents of towns like Hancock, in real terms during periods of military activity and in more emotional ones while neighbors and family members flocked to serve under the banners of both the Confederate and Union armies.
Saint Thomas’ remains an active congregation today, and its building serving as a reminder of the history of the community during an era that saw a nation divided as well as the resilience of the community it serves.