On a leafy side street in present-day Brooklyn, a faintecho of the Civil War can still be heard.
By John A. Barnes
The Episcopal Church of St. John, in Brooklyn, New York, is considerably less quiet today than it must have been in the days when Captain Robert E. Lee and 1st Lieutenant Thomas J. Jackson (who would not be called “Stonewall” for another 12 years) worshiped there. Now the church is overshadowed by the thundering concrete and steel approach ramps of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which tower hundreds of feet overhead, just above the little church’s front steps.
The burning of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812 emphasized the vulnerability of major American ports to assaults from the sea, and Fort Hamilton was established in 1814 to guard the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island. The fort, which was named for the late Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, was the keystone of a new defense system that included tiny Fort Lafayette (which now serves as the foundation beneath the tower of the Verrazano Bridge on the Brooklyn side) and Batteries Morton and Hudson on the Staten Island side of the Narrows.
At the time the fort was established, there were only two Episcopal churches in the county, both located in what is now downtown Brooklyn, near where the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges today stand. Episcopalian members of the garrison, which grew steadily in size during the 1820s and 1830s, thus faced a long trek by horse or boat to attend Sunday services.
To remedy this situation, the Denyse family, who were local landowners in the area, agreed to donate a plot of land for the building of a new Episcopal church that would serve Fort Hamilton and the surrounding area. A month later, on September 29, 1834, the parish of St. John’s was officially founded. While the church was being constructed, services were held in a barn on the fort’s property. The new church building, situated just outside the fort’s main gate, was consecrated by the Episcopal bishop of New York on July 16, 1835. The entire garrison of Fort Hamilton was in attendance. To this day, the rector of the Church of St. John serves as a chaplain for the fort.
Although Robert E. Lee spent five years at Fort Hamilton, between 1841 and 1846, the time was not professionally or personally satisfying for him. His mission as an engineering officer was to improve and refine the harbor’s defenses, a task he performed with his customary diligence and efficiency. Indeed, by the time he left, Fort Hamilton had become a substantial emplacement. A quadrangular structure of gray granite, it boasted 14 casemates and 26 barbettes, the latter mounting heavy 32-pounders and a few guns of even larger caliber.
Lee’s unhappiness at Fort Hamilton was caused to a great extent by the fact that his marriage was under some strain at this point. His family grew to seven while he was at the fort, and his wife’s health became increasingly fragile and unpredictable.
Normally homebound, Lee perhaps rebelled against the strains in his marriage by becoming more socially outgoing while stationed at Fort Hamilton. The bright lights of the nearby city were too much to resist, and the future Confederate general frequently attended the theater and the opera. Among his companions and fellow parishioners were future Union Army generals Henry J. Hunt, whose artillery would smash Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, and John Sedgwick, who commanded the Army of the Potomac’s VI Corps until he was fatally wounded at Spotsylvania Court House. Although the church lists future Union Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum as having worshiped there, it is not clear whether this was before the war or during Slocum’s residence in Brooklyn after it.
Lee was strongly religious, and the Lees were all Sunday regulars at St. John’s. One day the rector complained to Lee that his children were paying more attention to the family dog than to the sermon. The next Sunday, Lee resolved to leave the dog, named Spec, at home. But the animal jumped out the window and raced to the church just as the family was going inside. Spec was allowed to stay, provided the Lee children did not give him undue attention.
A somewhat more serious problem arose during Lee’s term as a church vestryman, which ran between 1842 and 1844. The dispute centered on High Church Anglo-Catholicism, which had made its way to America and was winning adherents–including, some in the congregation muttered, the rector of St. John’s. Although inclined toward Low Church Episcopalianism himself, Lee–then as later–was wary of embroiling himself in public controversy and sought to avoid offending either faction.
Two years after Lee left Fort Hamilton in 1846, 24-year-old brevet Captain Thomas J. Jackson arrived. Just two years out of West Point, young Jackson owed his quick rise in the military to the Mexican War, where he had earned the praise of General Winfield Scott himself. Jackson was also a deeply spiritual man, almost mystically so, this despite the fact that he had never been baptized and officially belonged to no church. In Mexico he had come under the influence of Captain Francis Taylor, a Virginian and army veteran of 20 years service at the time of the Mexican War and a devout Episcopalian. Taylor urged young Jackson to think more about his spiritual welfare and advised him to study the Bible. Inclined in this direction anyway, Jackson took the advice to heart and began exploring the direction his religious impulse should take him.
While in Mexico, Jackson sought out the archbishop of Mexico City to learn about Roman Catholicism. The two men apparently had several long conversations, but the archbishop failed to win over the future Confederate general for the Roman church. Jackson concluded that Catholicism was anti-scriptural, though unlike many Americans of that period, he never harbored prejudice against anyone who professed the Catholic faith.
Perhaps the quiet of garrison life–Jackson spent much of his time at Fort Hamilton serving as an officer on Army court-martials in New York and Pennsylvania–
gave him the time for further reflection. At any rate, Jackson eventually resolved to be baptized. The record of that event, still preserved in the safe at St. John’s, reads as follows: “On Sunday, 29th day of April, 1849, I baptized Thomas Jefferson [sic] Jackson, major in the U.S. Army. Sponsors, Colonel Dimick and Taylor. M. Schofield, Rector.”
The formalities of religious belief, beyond that of baptism, seem to have had little attraction for Jackson; he does not appear to have become a parishioner at St. John’s after the event. Officially, he was now a Christian and a Protestant and that, apparently, was that. (The baptismal font that was used to baptize Jackson remains in use today and can be seen in the church.)
The military connections between St. John’s and Fort Hamilton did not end with the Civil War. Many officers who achieved battlefield fame in later wars were parishioners at St. John’s early in their military careers. These include General Matthew B. Ridgway, the World War II paratroop commander who went on to lead U.S. forces during the Korean War; General Walter Bedell Smith, chief of
staff to General Dwight D. Eisenhower in Europe during World War II, and later director of the Central Intelligence Agency; and Air Force General Hubert Harmon, the first superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy. St. John’s is thus well-deserving of its nickname, “the Church of the Generals.” St. John’s is located at 9818 Fort Hamilton Parkway in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. For additional information, call (718) 745-2377.