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The Union Church Preservation Project

Detailed History of Union Church

The Falmouth Anglican Church

The earliest site was utilized solely by the Church of England. The town of Falmouth was created by act of the Virginia General Assembly in the year 1727. The said act called for parcels to be set aside for a “church and church yard.” At that time Falmouth was originally part of King George County and within Hanover (Hannover) Parish.

A 1732 act of the Virginia Assembly split Hanover Parish with the upper part becoming a new parish named Brunswick. Accordingly, this same act called for “placing of the church of the said new parish of Brunswick…to be erected in the town of Falmouth, on the lot set apart for that purpose.”

This first structure on the site was the Falmouth Anglican Church built in 1733 or shortly thereafter as a cruciform timber frame structure. It was located in an area that is part of the cemetery today. A ground feature exists, commonly referred to traditionally as where the old church was located, and appears centrally within the original boundaries of the “church and church yard.” A further indication of its location may be gathered from a newspaper article dated 1819 which states that the old Church is in “the Old Yard”, referring to the cemetery. The Historiographer of the Diocese of Virginia noted in 1916 “an old overgrown graveyard...covers the site of the first church.” Having no surviving above ground evidence, the site is an important archaeological site.

The rectangular brick second Falmouth Anglican Church, which was 40 feet wide by 70 feet long, was constructed between 1755 and 1760 approximately 200 feet southwest of the site of the first Falmouth Church. This brick church with Lambs Creek Church in King George County, constructed around 1769, served the Anglicans of Brunswick Parish. The second church burned “about the year 1818” and was rebuilt in 1819 utilizing portions of the same brick foundation.

The Falmouth Union Church

A union church pertains to a structure utilized by different denominations on a rotation basis. The Union Church at Falmouth, built 40 feet wide by 54 feet long, was designed in the Federal style and evidence indicates this building was standing by 1824. The community built a union church because there were not enough members of one single congregation in the Falmouth community to sustain a church building; therefore, it was utilized by the local Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist congregations. As there were very few Episcopalians in Falmouth, the latter three denominations mainly used the church. Although the understanding was to rotate Sundays, it was not uncommon to have three services following on the same Sunday. Many of the townspeople attended all three services as the church also served as a community gathering place.

After the occupation of the church by Union troops beginning in 1862, the structure remained in disuse as a place of worship until 1868 when the trustees of the Town of Falmouth appointed specific trustees for the Union Church, charging them with repairs.

A violent rain storm in 1950 severely damaged the roof of the church leading to a collapse of the chancel and nave, leaving only the narthex intact. The rear of the narthex, as it presently stands, was bricked up in 1954 by the community in an attempt to save what was left of the town’s old landmark. 

Exterior Description

A full exterior architectural description of the complete Union Church is possible based on the existing narthex and many historical photographs. The original footprint was 40 feet wide by 54 feet long. The structure was brick laid in Flemish bond tooled with projecting ridge joints. The surviving narthex has a symmetrical façade featuring two entrances, each displaying a raised-panel reveal, double doors with raised panels, and eight-light arched transoms adorned with gauged brick semi-circular arches. The thresholds of the two façade entrances are stone, the right hand sill bearing carved initials oddly appearing upside down. A similar eight-light lunette is located at the attic level of the gable, and gauged brick jack arches over two nine-over-six, double-sash windows are situated at the balcony level. All windows (excluding the lunette) are fitted with louvered shutters. The gabled front is accented with a wooden rake. The belfry features a brick façade but has wooden sides and rear. A louvered opening is featured in the façade and on both sides of the belfry. The steep pyramidal roof of the belfry is flared at its base and crowned at its top with a wooden finial having an inverted urn base and sharply pointed extension. Under the belfry roof appears a simple cornice matching that below the main roof.

The steep gable roof was originally covered with hand-split wooden shingles. A simple wooden box cornice with bed moldings ran under the eaves. The sides contained three correspondingly spaced windows and the chancel contained two symmetrically spaced windows correspondingly placed with the two façade entrance doors and interior aisles. These windows were matching nine-over-nine, double-sash windows with gauged brick jack arches above. The sills of these windows were stone with shaped bull nose molding. The chancel also contained two interior small brick chimneys symmetrically placed and extended above the gable rake line.

The architectural plan typified a southern edifice intended for traditionally separated dual worship by race. No water source or privy facilities existed inside or out.

Twentieth-century repairs to the narthex include the addition of asphalt shingles, replacement of window sashes except one original lunette, replacement of the original finial, some re-pointing of mortar joints, and repaired brickwork at the base of the walls. A noted change in bond, color, and texture at the base of the brickwork are reportedly remnants of the second Falmouth Anglican Church footing utilized when building the Union Church. A number of bricks, especially at the southwest corner, carry a hodgepodge of initials and dates. Presently each entrance is ascended by a two-step cement block intended to appear as stone. The overall mass of the narthex retains good
integrity and conveys a sophisticated Federal-style facade.

Interior Description

Although only the narthex remains today, a description of the church interior can be reconstructed using present evidence and oral history. The narthex provided entrance into the sanctuary by way of two entrances. It also contains a stair well ascending to a balcony. This balcony served as seating for slaves brought to church by their masters and for free blacks. The balcony has a two-tiered platform and was originally enclosed by a wooden front railing. Two closet spaces, both of post-Civil War construction, are located in the narthex--one contained under the stairwell which has considerable graffiti, and the other situated across the narthex and opposite the stairwell.

The following description of the sanctuary is based on oral history. The ceiling was an “open ceiling with rounded corners and covered with long narrow boards having tongue and groove.” This description would indicate a vaulted ceiling containing an elliptical arch with the interior unbroken by columns. The interior walls of brick were covered with plaster. The flooring would probably have been random-width, tongue-and-groove, heart pine boards based on the present flooring in the narthex. The chancel of the church structure had two brick chimneys evidenced by existing photographic documentation, and oral interviews confirm that two wood stoves were located in the middle of the sanctuary, each having a stovepipe suspended with wire from the ceiling and connected to their respective chimney.

The suspended stovepipes provided an additional source of heat. The sanctuary was set with box pews and contained two aisles. An estimated 500 or more persons could be seated in the sanctuary with additional seating in the balcony. After the Civil War, the boxed pews having been cut up and burned, crude benches built by the community in 1868 replaced the pews.

Early History

The town of Falmouth was created by act of the General Assembly in 1727. This act instructed the town trustees to provide for a church and church yard and the site chosen, located in the northeastern section of the town, became known as “Church Hill” and the street running by the church was renamed “Church Street.” The placement of an elaborate church and cemetery on a hill overlooking the town is indicative of ecclesiastical practices in the early eighteenth century, as such placement “mystified the physical embodiments of religious ideology by setting it dramatically apart from ordinary people’s experiences.” The earliest church structure and cemetery are associated with the Carter family whose boxed pew was emblazoned with the Carter family coat of arms. This was no doubt for Charles Carter, son of Robert “King” Carter, father and son being original trustees of Falmouth town. Since the Carter family was the driving force behind the conception of the town of Falmouth, the first church built in cruciform plan may have been patterned after Christ Church in Lancaster County. As occurred in the first Christ Church, built by John Carter, the wooden form in Falmouth may have been intended for replacement by a brick cruciform church. As his father exerted a heavy handed influence over Christ Church, Charles Carter probably did the same over the first Falmouth Church.

During the early to mid-eighteenth century, Falmouth reached a turning point with regard to a decline in its fortunes and population, while its neighbor across the river, Fredericksburg, grew and prospered. Robert “King” Carter died in 1732 and Charles Carter had moved away by 1752, leaving the General Assembly to act on behalf of the townspeople in stating that it was “necessary and expedient that the said town of Falmouth be supported and maintained, and the bounds and streets thereof properly ascertained.” Since all of the original town’s trustees had died except for Charles Carter, the General Assembly appointed new trustees, including Carter. The original wooden church structure may have suffered due to Falmouth’s economic decline during the mid-eighteenth century. Not long after the General Assembly acted on behalf of the townspeople and appointed new trustees, a second brick church was built between 1755 and 1760. This second brick church was built approximately 200 feet southwest of the wooden church.

The American Revolution

Prior to the American Revolution the Anglican Church of England was the established church by law, supported by taxes and requiring all office holders in government to be Anglican. The Anglican Church spread along the length of the Atlantic seaboard with the largest concentration of congregants in the coastal South. The Church of England had
an hierarchical form of governmental rule through ascending bodies of clergy, headed by bishops and archbishops. Virginia did not have a bishop, resulting in the gentry class dominating the church vestry. This arrangement allowed them to influence church affairs and enhance their power in the community. The Anglicans “have always favored elegantly constructed churches with ornately decorated interiors. The purpose of all this outward show is to instill those attending worship with a sense of awe and piety.”

During the mid-eighteenth century the Great Awakening spread throughout British North America and popular support for Anglicanism suffered, while more evangelical Protestant congregations increased. The struggle for religious freedom paralleled the struggle for political freedom. In early December 1776 the Virginia Assembly passed an act stating:

That all and every Act of Parliament, by whatever title known and distinguished, which rendered criminal the maintaining any opinions in matters of religion, forbearing to repair to church or the exercising any mode of worship whatever, or which prescribes punishments for the same, shall henceforth be of no validity within this commonwealth. Whereas there are within this commonwealth great numbers of dissenters from the church established by law, who have heretofore been taxed for its support…Be it enacted,…That all dissenters from the said church shall from and after the passing of this Act, be totally free and exempt from all levies and impositions whatever towards supporting and maintaining the said church as it is now, or hereafter may be, established, and its ministers.

Beginning in 1778-1779 the Virginia General Assembly started receiving petitions for complete disestablishment of the Anglican Church. Thomas Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom, adopted January 16, 1786, ended all establishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia. During the American Revolution the second Falmouth Anglican Church witnessed a historic scene below the heights and at the river. An historian’s account follows:

General Count de Rochambeau and French troops transited Stafford in mid-September 1781. In fact, French Army troops of Rochambeau twice used Falmouth ford. Gen. George Washington, in New York, planned use of the 5,000 man French expeditionary force. When he became aware the French fleet was headed for the Chesapeake from the West Indies, he directed his forces to the Virginia Peninsula. Washington wrote to Rochambeau and his Continental troops on the march south: ‘From (Georgetown) a rout must be pursued to Fredericksburg, that will avoid an inconvenient ferry over Occoquan, and Rappahannock river at the Town of Fredericksburg. The latter may, I believe, be forded at Falmouth…’ After the Yorktown victory in October 1781, Washington and his French allies moved north through Falmouth. A French engineer sketched the ford at Falmouth. It is estimated that 4,000 French troops and 2,500 Continentals crossed at the ford.

A French officer associated with Rochambeau’s troops passing through Falmouth in 1781-1782 noted visits to “a rather fine Protestant Church...”

Nationhood and the Antebellum Period

Falmouth was described in 1795 as “three quarters of a mile above Fredericksburg. It is irregularly built, and contains about 150 dwellings, and an Episcopalian Church.” The last rector of Brunswick Parish was Rev. Alexander MacFarland (or McFarlane) who was rector from 1792-1796. The Anglican Church transformed itself into the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States in 1789 and may have utilized the second Falmouth Anglican Church before it burned about 1818 according to a historiographer of the Diocese of Virginia. The probable dual use of the church by Episcopalians and other Protestants would have led to the structure being rebuilt by the community as a union church, one that was used by several different Protestant congregations.

The Union Church, built after the second Falmouth Anglican Church burned about 1818, is mentioned in the Virginia Herald in 1819 as “the erection of the new one …to be used by Christian Preachers of different denominations in all respects as heretofore.” The Union Church is depicted on a beaded purse attributed to a Falmouth resident and the belfry is shown displaying a French flag on the occasion of Lafayette’s visit to Falmouth and Fredericksburg in 1824. In Joseph Martin’s Gazeteer of 1835, the town is described as having “1 house of public worship free for all denominations...” From an account of childhood memories written by a visiting relative of a Falmouth family in the 1840s, the author states, “There was a church in Falmouth, of no particular denomination, open to the services of all, having been built by the common consent and contributions of the citizens… It had taken the place of an older structure and there was an old grave yard near by...”

In 1851 the Union Church was the scene of one of the earliest sermons of the abolitionist Moncure Conway. He later was compelled to leave Falmouth under threat of bodily harm in 1854. Conway would later become the most outspoken and radical abolitionist produced by the South, causing him to be dismissed by a church in Washington, D.C. in 1856 and compelled to leave another in Cincinnati, Ohio. In his autobiography, Conway wrote:

The only church in Falmouth was (and is) a “union” house. Catholics and Unitarians were unknown in our region, and I remember no Episcopalian service in Falmouth; but between Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians the village had two and sometimes three sermons every Sunday. Now and then some peripatetic propagandist appeared. I remember the impression made on me by a female preacher, the only one I ever heard in Virginia. A good-looking man sat beside her in the pulpit, but uttered no word; the lady—middle-aged, refined, comely---arose without hymn or prayer, laid aside her gray poke-bonnet, and gave her sermon, of which I remember the sweet voice and engaging simplicity. I also remember that a hypercritical uncle, Dr. J. H. Daniel, praised the sermon.

The walls in the vestibule of Falmouth church were thickly covered with caricatures of various preachers and leading citizens penciled by irreverent youth while waiting to escort the ladies home. Probably the contrarious dogmas set forth from a “union” pulpit may have had a tendency to keep clever youths from taking any of them seriously.

Among our elders there was a keen interest in the controversies which I think must have usually characterized the sermons…. The congregations in Falmouth included the elite, but it was different in the Methodist conventicle in Fredericksburg.” He continued “….but the culminating event was my sermon in our own town, Falmouth. How often had I sat in that building listening to sermons---Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian---occasionally falling under the spell of some orator who made me think its pulpit the summit of the world! How large that church in my childhood, and how grand its assemblage of all the beauty and wealth of the neighborhood!

Moncure Conway also provided an illustration of African Americans worshiping in Falmouth during this period:

The immersion of the colored people was always a picturesque and affecting scene. Dressed in white cotton…they moved under the Sunday morning sunshine across the sands opposite our house to the river, and there sang gently and sweetly. There was no noise or shouting. The rite was performed by a white minister. After immersion each was embraced by his or her relatives. There was more singing, and the procession moved slowly away.

The Union Church Cemetery contains areas of African-American burials identified through oral tradition. Although unmarked and located along what was considered at the time the less prominent rear or sides of the cemetery, many of these graves probably date to the antebellum period.

The Union Church is a classic example of a southern church built with two distinct architectural components associated with African-American attendance. A balcony story is accessed by a narrow winding stairway inside the narthex against its left side interior wall. It was traditional in southern churches to have a balcony used as seating for slaves and free blacks and two separate front entrances--one used by slaves and free blacks and the other one used by white congregants. Since the access to the balcony was located to the left inside wall, slaves and free blacks would enter by the left entrance. Additionally, by incorporating the stairway in the narthex, separated from the sanctuary, the church’s floor plan minimized contact between the races. Other southern churches with a single front entrance incorporated a side door for this purpose.

During the antebellum period slaves and free blacks could not own church property; however, if a building was provided or given to them for purposes of worship, it had to have white trustees. In addition, an African-American congregation had to have a white minister. As there was no African-American church in Falmouth before the Civil
War, most African-American residents probably attended Union Church.

The Civil War, 1861-1865

The Union Church and cemetery are strongly associated with the Civil War. The church itself was much used by Union troops during the conflict. The first occupation of Falmouth by Union forces occurred on the morning of April 18, 1862. Prior to this occupation a skirmish took place just above the village in which a Union officer was killed and the next day six other soldiers were killed and sixteen wounded. On April 23, 1862, a newspaper correspondent witnessed the following scene: “In the village of Falmouth there is one church which after the skirmish was used as a hospital.

Stains of blood now cover it; some of the pews still remain; the floor near the pulpit is strewn with torn leaves from hymnbooks the remnants of the Falmouth S.S. Library. In the belfry the bell remains; the citizens not having responded to Beauregard a cry for bell metal.” The church bell would later disappear, apparently seized by Federal authorities and melted down for ordnance. In a post-war account, Walker P. Conway, a leading citizen whose property adjoined the Union Church, wrote to a niece that the church was used as a hospital during the war. There are no known accounts of citizens worshiping in the structure from this point until 1868. No accounts are found of soldiers attending services in the Union Church, as they did in other churches across the river in Fredericksburg.

The events of April 17-18, 1862 would also affect the town in another manner--Union soldiers would be interred within the town’s cemetery behind Union Church. On April 18 a slave named John Washington from Fredericksburg emancipated himself by crossing the Rappahannock River just above the Union Church, entering Union lines. In a post-war narrative, he remembers that on the early morning of April 19, 1862:

The soldiers had a sad duty to perform…The funeral was one of the most solemn and impressive I had ever witnessed in my life before. Their company (cavalry) was dismounted and drawn up in lines, around the seven new graves which had been dug side-by-side. The old Family Burying Ground wherein these new made graves had been dug contained the bones [of] some of the oldest and most wealthy of the Early Settlers of Falmouth. On some of the tombstones could be dimly traced the birthplaces of some in England, Scotland, and Wales as well as Ireland. And amidst grand old tombs and vaults, surrounded by noble cedars through which the April wind seemed to moan low dirges, there they was now about to deposit the remains of (what the rebels was pleased to term) the low born ‘Yankee’.

Side-by-side they rested those seven coffins on the edge of these seven new made graves. While the chaplain’s fervent prayer was wafted to the skies and after a hymn (Windham) had been sung those seven coffins was lowered to their final resting place. And amidst the sound of the earth falling into those new made graves, the ‘Band’ of Harris Light Cavalry broke forth in dear old ‘Pleyal Hymn’ and when those graves were finished there was scarcely a dry eye present. And with heavy hearts their company left that little burying ground some swearing to avenge their deaths.

In another account, Lt. Charles Morton of the 2nd New York Cavalry writes home, “…the men that were killed were buried on Saturday with all the honors of war, escorted by the two regiments of cavalry and 14th Brooklyn.” Of the seven bodies interred, two were identified as being moved to the National Cemetery in Fredericksburg after the war. As un-identified remains were also moved, it can be assumed the other five remains were re-interred in Fredericksburg. All seven soldiers fallen on April 17-18, 1862 are known by name, and a carte de visite image exists of the officer killed, Lt. James Nelson Decker.

Another soldier would die as a result of his wound and was described by Wyman S. White, a member of the 2nd United States Sharpshooters, “with his bowels protruding from a saber wound, still alive and conscious.” His companions erected a memorial “to the graves of those who fell in the advance on this place” with materials obtained from neighboring graves. Union officers ordered that the grave markers be restored along with “suitable head pieces placed over the heads of our men..."

It may be noted that today the Union Church Cemetery contains a number of tall stately cedar trees perhaps similar to those “noble cedars” described by John Washington.  Additional interments in the cemetery would occur until Union forces vacated the area at the end of August, 1862. They returned again on November 17, 1862, preceding the Battle of Fredericksburg, and camped in Stafford County for the winter of 1862-63. Falmouth was occupied until June 15, 1863, during which time the Union Church Cemetery continued to serve as a burying ground for soldiers who died from wounds and illnesses.

During this second occupation, the Union Church was also utilized as a troop barracks. Oral tradition relates that during the winter: “The interior of the church was entirely destroyed by the Federals. The pews were all chopped to pieces and taken down and practically all the woodwork was cut up.” In addition oral accounts suggest the church was used again as a hospital during this time; however, no evidence of a primary source was found. Two primary sources support the use of Union Church as a barracks, but given the vast number of wounded and convalescing soldiers it can be assumed these were also quartered in the church, giving some credence to the belief that the church continued to be used as a hospital.

The United States Christian Commission was operating in Falmouth during that same time and an excerpt from one of its reports follows:

An old tobacco warehouse on the very banks of the river, within hail of the rebel pickets, was cleared of rubbish, the broken ceiling and windows were covered with old canvas, and a small table, borrowed from a neighboring cottage, served as a pulpit. Here, on Sabbath afternoons and on each evening of the week, meetings were held which were largely attended…The village itself was a ruin: its church used as a barracks for troops; its stores and factories closed. A large number of the inhabitants were still there, living as best they could…old men, women, and children. The [delegation’s] station agent …organized a Sabbath school for children, which came to be held every day in the week. Thirty or forty little rebels were gathered in...

Because the Union Church was the only church in Falmouth, this is the building referred to as “its church used as a barracks” and the account further indicates the lack of an available sanctuary resulting in the use of a tobacco warehouse for religious meetings. The 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry performed provost guard duty in Falmouth and noted in its regimental history “an old grist mill was used...sometimes for prayer meetings…” with no mention of a church building.

The diary of a member of the 7th Michigan Volunteer Infantry relates that after the Battle of Fredericksburg, “Our regiment is in a deserted village called Falmouth” and three companies of the regiment “are quartered in an old church building. Here we do picket.” The 7th Michigan was one of three regiments that crossed the Rappahannock River on pontoon boats on December 11th, 1862, and engaged Confederate troops holding the city of Fredericksburg. This diarist also wrote that, following the Battle of Fredericksburg, a great religious revival broke out among the troops; however, no mention of a church building being used for services may suggest that Union Church was used only as a barracks at that time.

Prior to the Battle of Chancellorsville the Union army moved up river to outflank Confederate forces as part of the strategy for the ensuing engagement. Quartered in the church, Company B of the 7th Michigan Infantry was left behind to continue its picket duty along the river. Pickets discovered a secret telegraph wire submerged in the Rappahannock River and operated from the nearby Conway House, reporting movements of Union troops. After the Battle of Chancellorsville the Union Church continued as a barracks until mid-June when the army moved north, following General Lee into Pennsylvania and participated in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Another member of the 7th Michigan Infantry left his name carved into the plaster on the interior wall of the balcony section of the church. The interior of the belfry reportedly contains carvings in its wooden framing that were left behind by soldiers. It is probable that Companies B, C, and I of the 7th Michigan Infantry were responsible for destroying the interior woodwork of the Union Church for firewood.

It is possible the Union Church came under artillery fire; however, it cannot be determined by whom or at what instance. On a few occasions either side may have temporarily fired upon the village of Falmouth. A fragment of a three-inch diameter ten-pound Parrott-type artillery shell was found twenty-nine yards from the southwest façade corner of Union Church. Since the church is situated on a prominence the shell may have targeted troops congregated there and exploded nearby. Union artillery batteries were positioned on heights overlooking the Union Church during the Fredericksburg Campaign. The site could possibly contain Civil War artifacts including those associated with a hospital. Oral history relates numerous such artifacts were found in 1958-1959 by local relic hunters.

Just below the Union Church Cemetery hill was the camp of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry in which one member kept a diary mentioning a visit to the cemetery. An entry for January 9, 1863, records the inscriptions of several grave markers which he found of interest. These same markers are present today. Local lore suggest some markers were used for target practice by Union troops with the bullets later dug out with pocket knives for souvenirs.

During General Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864, the Fredericksburg area was filled with wounded soldiers. As a prominent building not in use, Union Church was likely occupied again in some capacity during that time, given the massive number of casualties sustained at the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House.

Reconstruction to the End of the Nineteenth Century

The Falmouth community apparently thought much of their church and was willing to rebuild the interior and make the necessary repairs after the devastation of war. Reclaiming the structure was done in the difficult time of Reconstruction. The current church bell bears a date of 1867 and probably replaced the original bell as a casualty of the war. In 1868 Falmouth town trustees legally recorded in the Stafford courts a deed passing ownership of the church with specified adjoining land to church trustees. There is some indication that an unidentified group undesirable to the community may have intended to use the structure which prompted the community to reclaim the church. The church trustees were also charged with the use of the church as “not construed to include any colored or black congregation”, an unfortunate example of southern social history in which the court recorded a legal document denying black citizens their civil rights.

During the late nineteenth century, the church continued to hold services. A childhood resident in Falmouth at that time would later write, “I think the little old brick church still stands at the top of the hill…It was a union church, no particular denomination, and we went to Sunday School there for many years. Often we had ministers of different denominations come out of Fredericksburg and the surrounding territory to speak to us. I recall an old minister, Mr. Burkhead (Episcopal).” This account is consistent with the church’s continual use as a union church. The Union Church also continued to be a favorite gathering place for important community events. For example, Falmouth School was located near the church, and in 1898 or 1899 a photo known as “Scholars in the Making” was taken of the entire school’s students posed in front of the Union Church.

The Twentieth Century

The Union Church and Cemetery continued in use as a community focal point illustrated by an amusing event associated with Halley’s Comet in 1910 and recorded by a resident:

Rumors were rampant that it was going to hit the earth this time—that it would fill the air with poison gas...Newspapers reported that the gasses were highly flammable and could set fires when the comet came near the earth. Like the Adventist of the 19th century, the local citizens agreed to gather in the Falmouth Cemetery on the night of May 20th, 1910. As darkness neared, however, most of the families started gathering behind the old Union Church at the top of Carter Street hill. Talking in whispers, they tried to keep their noisy children under control and close to them. The first scare came when a brown and white cow…wandered into the crowd from somewhere among the cedars on the hill. Mistaken for some other worldly apparition, the cow, unnerved by the screams of children and parents, gave out loud bellows, adding to the chaos. Finally the animal was duly identified and, with a slap on its rump, was sent off toward its home.

Among the group of about five young men were Henry Snellings and Tommy Humphries, who had gotten to the cemetery early and climbed the tall cedars to play a joke on the townspeople…The boys had spent several days making crude torches, which they lit and began throwing to earth from the trees just as the comet filled the night sky with its light. Most of the citizens ran screaming in panic out of the cemetery and back to their homes to wet down their roofs.

My father and a few others became suspicious of the narrow range of these comet-induced fires and arrived under the cedar trees in time to see Henry Snellings, with his pants on fire, come tumbling out of the top of a tree. Tommy’s aim had been off when he flung one of the torches. Henry had a broken arm as a result of the prank, and the big tree caught on fire and was so badly burned that it later had to be cut down.

In 1915 area churches received compensation under a war claims act by the U.S. Congress. The Union Church received $750.00 for damages sustained during the Civil War. The amount awarded bears witness to the severity of the destruction encumbered by the church. In November, 1918 the Union Church bell was rung with those of Fredericksburg churches to celebrate the ending of World War I. A 1930 photo taken in front of the Union Church again illustrates the importance of this community focal point. The image depicts the Union Crusaders Band which played at many local parades and concerts and held its practices at the Union Church in the 1930s. The memories of a little girl in 1932 bears witness to the continued importance of the church within the Falmouth community:

The old Union Church is so fixed in my childhood memories...My mind’s eye saw the welcoming ‘afternoon’ church with all its tall sparkling windows and the alter banked with greenery most of the year, magnolia in summer and cedar in winter. I thought of it as the “afternoon” church because the interdenominational membership had decided to hold services in the afternoon so they would not be in competition with the other church in the village, the Falmouth Baptist Church. Then too, all my cousins who were very active in the Union Church went to morning services at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg.

My most poignant Union Church memory…was one of those rare Virginia Christmas days with snow on the ground, and I can still see the snow-dusted Christmas wreaths hanging on the two front doors of the church. There wasn’t much snow, but it was fun walking up church hill….For me though, the familiar nativity scene was only the prologue to the main event, the arrival of Santa Claus….looking at the running cedar wreaths with their bright red bows on the windows…I watched as the afternoon shadows against the glass reflected the flames of the tall red candles. I was no longer watching the Christmas story, but looking for the entrance of Santa, wondering whether he’d arrive on the roof or on the snow-covered lane visible through the church windows.

I knew the high-flying sleigh had landed on the roof when I heard sleigh bells sounding from the Union Church balcony… Every child stood up. Some like me climbed on the seats of the benches to get a first glimpse of the red suit trimmed in white fur. We were not disappointed. There he was, leaning over the rail of the balcony, waving and ‘ho-ho-hoing.’…From there I could see Santa secure a rope to the balcony rail and come sliding down to the floor of the church. He carried a bag fully stuffed with candy canes and oranges and smiled fondly as he pranced up and down the two aisles, passing the treats to eagerly reaching hands. I can still close my eyes and smell the candle wax and Christmas greens and recapture for just an instant that wonderful moment.”

After 1935 the Union Church doors were shut.

In 2008 there are only two churches in Falmouth in addition to the Union Church located within the original town boundaries. These are Golgotha Church, located on the east side of present U.S. Route 1 north of the intersection of U. S. Routes 1 and 17 and Butler Road; and the Falmouth Baptist Church, located on the corner of Colonial Avenue and Butler Road. Built in 1892, Golgotha Church was previously the first Falmouth Baptist Church. With the present Falmouth Baptist Church, built in 1956 and 1964, both churches owe their origins to the Falmouth Union Church.

Union Church Summary

The Union Church remains today a prominent feature in Falmouth’s landscape, a focal point for the community, and a poignant reminder of Falmouth’s past. Throughout much of the nineteenth century until 1892 when the Falmouth Baptist Church was built, Union Church served as the Falmouth community’s only house of worship. The Union Church appears in a number of period Civil War sketches and continued to be the favorite subject of photographers and artists alike including nationally known local artist Gari Melchers. Historians have been able to orientate period sketches and photographs of the town of Falmouth by the intended or fortunately unintended inclusion of the Union Church as a discerning object and focal point.

Placed at the Union Church façade is a marker designating Falmouth as an historic district listed in the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1969. This site was chosen to display the marker because Union Church is the most significant feature in Falmouth’s historic landscape to represent the community. The Union Church has acquired an endearment and somewhat of a romantic past perhaps in part due to the community allowing the church to succumb to the unfortunate circumstance of partial demolition. Almost as soon as the structure suffered this fate, there were individuals who unsuccessfully endeavored to have it rebuilt. The remaining structure proudly stands today invoking memories and exciting stories from Falmouth’s bygone days.


Union Church and Cemetery - National Register of Historic Places - Registration Form (2008). Author: Norman Schools



©2012 The Union Church Preservation Project
Falmouth, Virginia