THE LITTLE IRISH CHURCH OF ST. MARY OF THE SORROWS
Maj. Gen. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, aimed at capturing the rebel capitol at Richmond, was beaten back after the Seven Days Battles 150 years ago in June, 1862. Union forces, including the partial Irish Brigade, made it back to relative safety, but suffered almost 16,000 casualties during a strategic retreat. Lee’s army had taken the offensive, but lost close to 20,000. Convinced that McClellan no longer posed a threat to Richmond, Lee moved his army into northern Virginia and headed for Washington via Maryland.
Many Irish immigrants had signed on to build America’s railroads, so it was no surprise to find names like Cunningham, Hammil, Maher, and Doyle among those who had built the Orange and Alexandria Railroad in northern Virginia which now stood right in the path of Lee’s advancing army. These and other Irish workers had built a small town around one of the railroad’s stations and the community became known as Fairfax Station. One of the first projects of the Fairfax Station Irish was the erection of a Catholic church. They labored in their off-hours to put up a small frame building in Sept, 1858 and pooled their money to buy a bell. The new St. Mary of the Sorrows Church at Fairfax Station had barely opened its doors when the Civil War began. Many of the Fairfax Station Irish joined the totally Irish Regiments that had been formed in the Confederate Army such as the First Virginia Regiment which became The Emmet Guard and the 27th Virginia Infantry which was called The Virginia Hibernians.
The little town of Fairfax Station was strategically located between the important railroad station and a main road to Washington, DC. The Union Army had taken the railroad depot at Alexandria in order to protect the Capitol and southern forces occupied the station at Manassas Junction on the other side of Fairfax Station making the area the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. In July, 1862, General Lee sent his best commanders, Generals Stonewall Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart and James Longstreet up through Virginia to intercept the Union Army of General Pope who was en route to join forces with the army of General McClellan that was then moving back toward Washington after the Seven Days Battles. Lee and his forces met the Union Army on August 30 and fought what came to be known as the Second Battle of Manassas or, as the Union referred to it – Second Bull Run. Three days of fierce fighting left 1,744 Union dead and another 8,452 wounded. Unlike the calamitous retreat at the First Bull Run a year earlier, the Union withdrawal was orderly and the Confederates, weary from battle and low on ammunition, broke off and did not pursue them. Although Lee had won the battle, he had not achieved his objective of destroying the Union army and the Union forces had successfully stopped an invasion of the north.
During the battle, two gallant Union officers were lost, Major Generals Kearney and Stephens. Major General Philip Kearney had been a hero of the Mexican War where he fought at the side of General Robert E. Lee. When Lee heard that his former comrade had fallen, he ordered both bodies returned to the Union camp. Under a flag of truce, amid the roar of artillery and the thunder of an approaching storm, the bodies of Kearney and Stephens were carried by Confederate Honor Guard to a tent at a makeshift field hospital which had been set up beside the little Irish church of St. Mary of the Sorrows.
Hundreds of wounded were treated on the high ground around St. Mary’s. A terrible storm made the scene one of confusion as wounded men lay dying in the mud waiting for a doctor to reach them. It was to this scene that a woman from Washington, DC came to offer her help. She had spent the first year of the war tending wounded in Washington, and hearing of the heavy fighting, made her way to Fairfax Station. With two assistants, she set up an operating room inside the little Church and assisted the surgeons in their tedious tasks. She moved tirelessly among the wounded, cleansing wounds, writing letters, and praying with them until a doctor was available. While serving the many wounded in these deplorable conditions, she conceived a plan for a civilian organization that could act quickly with proper medical supplies and trained staff in any emergency – in peacetime or in war.
A final Confederate raid forced the evacuation of the wounded amid terribly unsanitary conditions, and the brave little lady from Washington was among the last to leave. The advancing Confederate troops found the station and most of the town destroyed by fire, but as if by a miracle, the little Church was barely touched. Only a few of its pews had been used by the Union Army for firewood. Years later, when President Grant heard of this, he ordered $765. in war damages to have them replaced, for the Church of St. Mary’s had earned a special significance in American history. It was there that the heroic little lady from Washington, DC had conceived the idea for a noble organization. The lady was the angel of the battlefield, Clara Barton, and the organization was the American Red Cross. . . and the little Irish Church of St. Mary’s where it all started is still in use to this day, but as a national shrine.