Now its pastor, Bass Mitchell, worries that protecting the battlefield’s history will destroy his congregation’s future.
That’s because the church lies alongside a road, once a simple dirt path, that as Northern Virginia has grown has become a busy commuter route. Dump trucks thunder past the weathered split-rail fences that line the fields of the Manassas battlefield, and at rush hours, traffic inches along.
To protect the historic park, the National Park Service would like to shut down the stretch of Route 234 in the battlefield. “We have been working literally for decades to find solutions to get traffic down,” said Ed Clark, the superintendent of the park. “It’s hallowed ground, a place for contemplation, understanding history. Fighting traffic and trucks is not exactly the way to facilitate that.”
But that steady stream of passersby helps keep the church viable, Mitchell said. “If they close this road to through traffic,” he said, “we would become invisible.”
Besides, he added, if the ultimate goal is historic preservation, “we’ve been here longer than the battlefield has.”
“We’re proud of our history,” he said. “But we don’t want to become a museum.”
Northern Virginia’s growth
The road debate is one of many local skirmishes over the proposed Bi-County Parkway, which would cut a north-south path through Prince William and Loudoun counties and has whipped up intense debate over how best to manage the rapid growth in Northern Virginia.
Clark agreed to support the parkway plan if that meant that Route 234, long known as Sudley Road, would no longer be a commuter artery running through the park. The Bi-County Parkway provides an opportunity — one that he says is increasingly rare as development continues to crowd around the park — to shut down a major part of the problem.
But this fight is not so much about roads as it is about history and how to preserve it.
Both battles of Manassas were defining moments of the Civil War. With the country so politically polarized, Clark said, the lessons of history — both the fight and the reconciliation — are particularly resonant.
“His mission is to save the battlefield,” Mitchell said of Clark. “But my mission is to save the church. And if he gets what he wants, we’re going to be a casualty.”
The original church was built in the 19th century. The current gray wooden church, the third built on the site, has about 700 members, drawing 150 or so to services on a typical Sunday. “There’s a lot of legend, a lot of history wrapped up around this little church,” said Deb Angerman, the youth pastor.
One of the stories, documented in old letters and newspapers, goes something like this:
On a hot Sunday in July 1861, a young Union soldier from New Hampshire named John Rice was shot and carried by comrades toward the church, which doctors had turned into a field hospital, throwing pews outside and using the Communion table for crude surgeries. But the soldiers left Rice lying unconscious next to a fence when Confederate forces attacked, and they fled.
Rice was not dead, even though a musket ball had sliced through his lungs, even though, back home, his family held a funeral for him.
A Sudley farmer, Amos Benson, and his wife found him days after the battle on their way home from the church. Congregants had been helping care for wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate. A surgeon, called to the scene by the farmer, said it was too late to help Rice.
The Bensons wanted to make the Yankee soldier’s final hours more comfortable, so they cleaned the maggots off his wound, built a makeshift shelter over him, and brought him clean clothes, food and water.
Rice didn’t die.
Rice would return to fight again for the Union army. Benson would later fight for the Confederacy. Both survived.
Sudley Church was at the heart of the second, and even bloodier, battle of Manassas — another turning point in the war.
It was badly damaged in the fighting, including by a cannonball that smashed into the wall behind the pulpit.
After the war, parishioners built a simple wooden-frame building on the same site. The church would be rebuilt again after a lightning strike in 1918.
Twenty-five years after that first battle, Rice returned to Sudley to find the Bensons, if he could, and thank them.
When Rice kept pressing them, Benson told him that their poor farming congregation still shouldered a $200 debt and said a small contribution toward the rebuilding cost would be appreciated.
Rice wrote his story for his hometown newspaper, with a plea: “Let us raise the debt on a little southern church.”
Within four days, readers in Massachusetts, including Union veterans, contributed so much that he sent $235 to the Bensons for Sudley Church.
The dearest wish of the donors, Rice wrote to the Bensons, was that this gift “might dispel the last doubt . . . of a complete and final reconciliation between the North and South.”
Benson wrote back that he announced the gift, to tears, at a benefit oyster dinner at the church the night he received it — and that it had even converted his wife, “for while she always rendered service so far as she could to your suffering soldiers, she has never been reconstructed till now.”
History resonates today
The church still defines itself by its past.
“I’ve been in a lot of churches,” Mitchell said, but never in one so committed to helping others. The church gives 10 percent of its money to the poor. Last year, a local nonprofit group gave it an award for its commitment, which was “incredible” given the size of the congregation, said Tonya McCreary, a spokeswoman for Northern Virginia Family Service. “They’re tiny but mighty.”
On a recent morning, a man stopped in to ask for some food and left full, carrying more away with him.
But, tucked away as it is in a historic site in transient, fast-growing Northern Virginia, Mitchell said it relies on passersby to maintain its congregation.
Clark disagreed that a church needs road frontage to attract new members and keep the old, and he pointed out that congregants would still have access from the other side of the park. The park could establish a system whereby parishioners are able to come through the gates for services and events.
A sign by the road advertised the church’s annual oyster and turkey supper. Most of the money raised from the 1,500 meals goes to missions. The church gives free meals to many who serve the community, such as firefighters and police, Mitchell said.
“To the park people, too,” he added, looking across the cemetery to the National Park Service markers.
“We may stop that this year,” he joked.
Inside, there was a lead bullet, lace bonnets, a worn family Bible from hundreds of years ago. The stained-glass windows — eased into the church after a bumpy, slow and careful ride by horse and carriage along then-dirt Sudley Road — kept the sanctuary dim.
Next to the church, thin, mossy gravestones from past centuries leaned alongside the stout polished granite markers from recent funerals. A covey of grouse stepped through grasses turning red in the autumn chill. Trucks lumbered past.
The church and the battlefield have a long, intertwined history, Clark said. “I hate that we’re at odds over this.” But after many years of trying to balance modern needs with preservation of the past — fighting off a mall, a theme park and other proposals — he says this may be one of the park’s best shots at protecting the sanctity of the land.
The history is both a blessing and a burden, Mitchell said. Parishioners have long tried to live up to the compassion of the church’s congregants in the worst of the war. “But now our history is coming against us.”