Tomorrow, Easter Sunday, I will not go to church. But this past week, I went to a church.
The azure sky and warm breeze (known to the ancients as Zephyr) hinted at springtime, still shy in these parts, but with signs developing day by day. On impulse, I stopped at the Salem Church, near my home, scene of one of the many battles in this part of Spotsylvania County during Lincoln's War.
On May 3, 1863 -- a few months after the more famous Battle of Fredericksburg -- it was a center of carnage.
I was the sole visitor. The church can only be viewed from outside, the interior through a lower-story window. It is a simple building. The mid-19th century congregation consisted mostly of people from widely scattered farms, who no doubt couldn't afford a highly qualified architect or artistic decor.
As all the guidebooks note, small craters in the outside walls and broken brickwork are still visible. They are a little shocking, as they must have come strictly from rifle rounds; this was an ad hoc engagement by two armies moving fast, and there would have been no artillery.
If rifle fire could shatter brick walls like this, imagine what it could do to your skull, your throat, your intestines. Many a soldier on both sides didn't have to imagine it; they found out by experience.
Following the battle (which stopped the Union army advance) the church became a field hospital. According to an eyewitness:
Hundreds upon hundreds of wounded were gathered up and brought for surgical attention. . . . After the house was filled the spacious churchyard was literally covered with wounded and dying.The surroundings today are calm, except for the traffic downhill on Plank Road (Route 3), which follows the path via which Robert E. Lee brought a detachment of soldiers from Chancellorsville during the fight. There must be suffering spirits of dead combatants around, but I didn't feel anything creepy. The atmosphere just had that "seriousness" I mentioned earlier.
The sight inside the building, for horror, was perhaps, never equaled within so limited a space, every available foot of space was crowded with wounded and bleeding soldiers. The floors, the benches, even the chancel and pulpit were packed almost to suffocation with them.
The amputated limbs were piled up in every corner almost as high as a man could reach; blood flowed in streams along the aisles and the open doors.
After the war the worshipers repaired the building, apparently with no architectural changes. (Interestingly, there were -- still to be seen -- separate entrances for men and women, and a third for slaves.) Regardless of how anyone feels about Christianity, preaching, praying and all that, there is something touching about how the worshipers restored their house of God to much the same condition as it had been before the savagery of war engulfed it. (Eventually, as the Fredericksburg suburbs overtook the area, the congregation built a new and larger church nearby and donated the old one to the National Park Service.)
I listened to the moaning of cars and trucks on Plank Road. I listened to the Zephyr's whistle. The past was quiet.