“If these signatures could talk…”: Aquia Church Graffiti, Part 2


From Eric Mink:

For previous posts documenting soldier graffiti in the Fredericksburg area, including Aquia Church in Stafford County, click here.

The Union Army of the Potomac arrived in Stafford County in November 1862 and stayed through the following June. In excess of 120,000 Union soldiers occupied Stafford and their presence devastated farms, woodlots and forced many families to flee their homes. The camps of this massive army spread across the woods and fields of the eastern portion of the county, taking advantage of the transportation lines of the Potomac River and the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad.

To protect itself, the army set up exterior lines of defense that guarded approaches from the north, south and west. The duty to patrol and picket this outer perimeter fell, most often, to the cavalry. Aquia Church’s location, north of Stafford Court House, placed it close to those picket lines and made it a logical campsite for Union horsemen. In early February 1863, Colonel Thomas C. Devin’s Second Brigade, First Division of the Cavalry Corps took advantage of Aquia Church, as one Pennsylvania trooper called it “a beautiful place, located on high ground in a fine oak grove.”

Aquia Church – Stafford, Va.

Reverend Henry Wheeler, Chaplain of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, seized the opportunity to use the church for its intended purposes.

“I found a guard placed there by General [Thomas L.] Kane, to protect the church. I went to General Kane and obtained an interview with him. I asked him to give me permission to use the church for religious purposes. He said, ‘I sent a guard there without being asked to do so by the vestry, and of course I can take it away at my pleasure. I am glad, Mr. Wheeler, that I have an opportunity of showing, at least once, that I consider the two churches, Protestant Episcopal and Methodist Episcopal as one.’

I expressed my thanks to the general for his kindness and retired. The guard was sent back to their regiment, and men of the Seventeenth were detailed to clean the church and put it in condition for religious service.” – Reverend Henry Wheeler, “The Chaplain and His Work,” in Henry P. Moyer, History of the Seventeenth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry (Lebanon, Penn.: Sowers Printing Company, 1911) pp. 263-268

In addition to church services conducted by Reverend Wheeler, funeral services for soldiers who died in camp also took place within the church’s walls. After the war, the remains of six indentified, and six unknown, Union soldiers were removed from the grounds of the Aquia Church and reburied in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

The interior of Aquia Church appears to have been regarded with some respect. The outer walls, however, continued to be fair game for a growing list of visitors. At least three of Colonel Devin’s trooper left their names carved in the soft sandstone, right next to the names of their enemies who occupied Stafford County the previous winter.

“CW Van Epps 9th N.Y.Cav”

Charles Wilson Van Epps was born July 7, 1838 in Middlebury, Wyoming County, New York. He married Adaline Chase on January 10, 1860. Charles enlisted in the Union Army on September 20, 1861 in Warsaw, New York and mustered in as a private in Company A, 9th New York Cavalry. Charles had an uneventful military career until being wounded on June 9, 1863 at Beverly’s Ford during the Battle of Brandy Station, Virginia. From that point until he mustered out in October 1864, Charles spent time in various hospitals, recuperating from his wound or battling illness. After leaving the service, he returned to his wife in New York and settled into the life of a farmer. The 1890 Veterans Census lists Charles as suffering from kidney disease. Adaline died on October 13, 1899 and Charles went to live with his daughter’s family in New Britain, Connecticut. He died there on October 7, 1912 and is buried in the Middlebury Cemetery in Wyoming County, New York.

“B Dull Co. G 17th Pa Cav”

Benjamin Dull had a very brief period of service in the Union cavalry, lasting only nine months. A 23- year old carpenter from Bedford County, Pennsylvania, Benjamin left a wife and two small children behind when he enlisted at Waynesboro, Pennsylvania on September 13, 1862. He mustered in as a private two weeks later, assigned to Company G, 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Army life did not suit Private Dull. On June 29, 1863, the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry crossed from Maryland into Franklin County, Pennsylvania in pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s army during the Gettysburg Campaing. That night, the regiment bivouaced at the foot of South Mountain, just a few miles from Waynesboro, where most of Company G, including Dull, had enlisted. Captain Luther B. Kurtz requested permission to let Company G spend the night in Waynesboro. An unusual request, no doubt, n the midst of anactive campaign. As the regimental historian remembered decades later:

“The request was granted and Company G went home for the night, leaving assurances of honor that all would be back at the hour the column would march, and, true to their word and country, they came, and when they reported the next morning, without a man missing or a straggler, they received a warm-greeting from their generoud, though less fortunate, companions.” – Henry P. Moyer, History of the Seventeenth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry (Lebanon, Penn.: Sowers Printing Company, 1911) pp. 58-59

In the postwar recounting of this incident, Dull appears to have been forgotten. He apparently did not return, as his was listed as having deserted on June 29, 1863.  He never returned to the regiment. After the war, Benjamin and his growing family moved to Ashland, Ohio where he made a living as a millwright. In 1889, he tried, unsuccessfully, to have the charge of desertion removed from his military record and to receive an honorable discharge. No doubt, this request was made in an effort to obtain a military pension. Benjamin Dull died on August 28, 1925 and is buried in Ashland Cemetery in Ashland, Ohio.

“P * PASS * 17 PACV”

Peter Pass served in the same regiment and company as Benjamin Dull. Peter was a 28-year old laborer living with his mother near Fairfield, Pennsylvania when the war began. He enlisted on September 13, 1862 in Franklin County. He mustered in as a private in Company G, 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Peter’s military record indicates a rather healthy service, having only been admitted to a hospital once and no wounds received in battle. Since his service record does not indicate otherwise, Peter more than likely participated in the July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, just a few miles from his home. Peter received a promotion to the rank of corporal in March 1865 and mustered out of service two months later. He returned home and lived with his mother until her death in 1879. Peter lived the remainder of his life in the small village of Orrtanna in Adams County, Pennsylvania, never marrying and making a living as a charcoal burner, as well as a day laborer. In 1893, he received a military pension for rheumatism, which was increased three years later due to “disease of digestive organs.” Peter Pass died January 12, 1901 and is buried just a few feet from his mother in Chamberlain Hill Cemetery, outside Orrtanna, Pennsylvania.

Grave of Peter Pass – Orrtanna, Penn.

One final forthcoming post will wrap up the documentation of soldier graffiti at Aquia Church. We’ll identify two Union infantrymen who contributed their names to the walls of this historic church.

Eric J. Mink

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