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.

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DID YOU KNOW ABOUT THE MITCHELS OF DUNGIVEN

John Mitchel was born to a radical Presbyterian minister, in Dungiven, Ireland, in 1815. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin and became a lawyer and journalist.  An outspoken nationalist, his love for Ireland led him to establish the United Irishman newspaper in 1848, but his impassioned articles soon led to his arrest on a charge of treason.  Found guilty, he was sentenced to 14 years’ transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania).  In 1853 he escaped and made his way to the United States.  He settled in the south where he published a newspaper, and gave three sons to the Confederate cause in the American Civil War.

His eldest son, Captain John C. Mitchel, First South Carolina Artillery, opened the barrage on Charleston’s Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 that started the American Civil War.  Later, in command of that same Fort, he was killed during a Union barrage.  His sword is in a glass case in a Charleston museum with a confederate flag, both gifted by his mother in 1896. A display plate reads: The sword worn by Capt John C. Mitchel, First Regiment, South Carolina Artillery and the flag that waved over Fort Sumter on July 20, 1864, the day he was killed.  His dying words were ‘I willingly give my life for South Carolina.  Oh, that I could have died for Ireland! Those words are also inscribed on his headstone in nearby Magnolia Cemetery, in a plot shaped in the outline of Fort Sumter.

His youngest son, Willie, joined the First Virginia Regiment and was killed in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 carrying his regiment’s colors.  After the battle, members of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, learned from Confederate Irish captives that John Mitchel’s son had fallen on the field.  They left a detachment behind to locate the body.  It was discovered in a shallow grave wrapped in a blanket secured with three pins and a note attached that read, Willie Mitchel, son of an Irish patriot.

Captain James Mitchel was the only son to survive the war, but he lost an arm in combat.  After the war he relocated north and settled in the Bronx, NY.  He became involved in politics and became a City Fire Marshal.  He went after and jailed a number of arsonist gangs who made a living hiring out to businessmen who wanted to collect on insurance claims.  He thereby incurred the wrath of several big businessmen and he lost his job in a political feud.  He married the sister of County Clerk Henry Purroy and they had one son.  They named him John Purroy Mitchel after James father and his mother’s maiden name.

Meanwhile, old John himself returned to Ireland in 1874 and the following year was elected to the House of Commons from Tipperary.  Denied his seat because he was considered a felon, he returned to his constituency and was overwhelmingly re-elected.  However, he died before he could take his seat.

 

The last surviving male in the Mitchel line was young John Purroy Mitchel.  Somehow, the family had become Roman Catholic and young John Purroy Mitchel was educated at Fordham University.  Raised with the same strong sense of patriotism and civic duty that marked his father and grandfather, after graduating Law School, he became an incorruptible reformer fighting the graft of Tammany Hall.  His successes led him to become the youngest man ever elected Mayor of New York City (1914-1917) at age 34.  While in office Mitchel cut waste, improved accounting practices, and professionalized the city’s civil service by standardizing salaries and work guidelines for municipal employees.  Widely known as the “Boy Mayor,” he also fought police corruption, instituted the nation’s first zoning guidelines, and appointed the first woman to lead a major municipal agency in any U.S. city.

After his term as Mayor, World War I was raging and young John joined the new Army Aviation Service.  Sadly, Major Mitchel was killed in an accident during a training flight in Louisiana; he was only 38 years old.  New York and the nation responded with a flurry of eulogies and memorials, including a Mitchel Square memorial park at 167th Street and Broadway and a memorial bust at the entrance to Central Park on 5th Avenue at 90th Street.  The next time you end the NY St. Patrick’s Parade on Fifth Avenue, walk up a few blocks and check it out.  Also named in honor of this beloved public servant and American patriot was Mitchel Field, a former Army Air Service airfield on Long Island from where Charles Lindbergh took off on the first trans Atlantic flight to Paris.  As he flew over Ireland, I wonder if Lucky Lindy realized he was flying over the resting place of the grandfather of the man for whom his point of departure was named.  Among the many eulogies given at Mitchel’s passing, President Theodore Roosevelt was moved to say, No stauncher American, no abler public servant, and no finer natural soldier than [John] Purroy Mitchel was to be found in all our country.

John Purroy Mitchel’s patriotism for America was a reflection of his grandfather’s patriotism for Ireland and his sense of justice was the same as his father’s.  It seems that the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree.