Friday, July 17, 2020

'Memories as sacred as heaven': Vets' visit to Nashville church

Main entrance to the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
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In mid-September 1895, nearly 150,000 Union veterans attended a Grand Army of the Republic encampment in Louisville -- the first such reunion held in the South. Afterward, hundreds of the old soldiers took a train south to Nashville, where they toured their wartime haunts.

At Fort Negley on St. Cloud Hill, many examined what remained of earthworks at the massive Federal fortification. Scores visited the fields and woodlots surrounding city, where the Battle of Nashville was fought Dec. 15-16, 1864, and the elegant, five-story Maxwell House Hotel, perhaps the grandest in the South. During the war, the unfinished, vermin-infested building was used by the U.S. Army as a barracks, a depot and a prison for Confederate soldiers. "Zollicoffer's Barracks," the Yankees called it, after Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer, the Nashville citizen who was killed at the Battle of Mill Springs in January 1862.

Downtown Presbyterian Church at the corner 
of Fifth Avenue and Church Street.
"Everywhere the old soldiers were received by the utmost cordiality," the Tennessean reported, "and any assistance or information to be given them was cheerfully given."

Before they returned home, a large group of veterans attended Sunday service at the First Presbyterian Church, 25 yards or so from the Maxwell House Hotel. The Egyptian Revival-style building and Masonic Hall directly across the street were designated Hospital No. 8 during the war. The church, once the tallest building in the city, still stands at the corner of 5th Avenue and Church Street, overshadowed by three skyscrapers.

Near the end of his sermon, Pastor James Vance noticed a large number of Union veterans among the worshippers. They included men who were patients in Hospital No. 8, the officer who was in charge of the hospital during the war and Robert C. Coyner, a 38th Indiana veteran who played the church organ three decades earlier to soothe the suffering of its soldier-patients.

In what must have been an emotional scene, Vance talked about the veterans and national reconciliation 30 years after the end of the Civil War:

"The auditorium that is this morning occupied by us as a place of worship was then filled with cots, and here the gentle ministries of devoted nurses cared for the sick and dying. From this room the martial spirits of brave soldiers went up to meet their God, and as the angels hovered just above, bringing with them the music of the heavenly world and waiting to receive the departing spirits of heroes, the old organ which still leads our service of holy song wafted out the melody of dear old hymns, until just there in the air above us the music of earth and heaven met and mingled and made immortal melody.
Pastor James Vance

"In the congregation this morning the faces of many of these old soldiers reappear. They have come to visit the place where years ago they lay with bodies wasted by disease and crippled by service. The tones of the old organ carry them back across the chasm of the years and awaken memories as sacred as heaven.

"For myself, the pastor of the church and for this great congregation to which I have the honor of ministering, I desire to extend to these veterans the warmest of warm Southern welcomes -- a welcome that comes with none heartier cordiality and brotherly regard than from the old Confederate soidiers present. What a long distance we have traveled from those years of strife and bloodshed! The animosities of sectionalism are passing and today we stand under our common flag and thank God for our common country, The wounds of battle have healed. God has led the nation by the hand, and if there is anything certain now, it is that we can safely leave the destiny of our country in the keeping of him who thus far has been her God."

Vance then encouraged all the worshippers to sing My Country Tis of Thee, which, according to the local newspaper, "was sung with a will by all present."

After the service, nearly every Union veteran shook the 32-year-old pastor's hand and thanked him for his words.

Circa-1860s image of Nashville's Downtown Presbyterian Church, used as a Union hospital during the war.
                        GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Fifth Avenue and Church Street.

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-- The Tennessean, Sept. 16, 1895

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