History buffs and local luminaries gathered on Saturday during Centreville Day to dedicate a historic sign that memorialized a Civil War controversy over the alleged desecration of St. John’s Church by one of the armies that occupied it.
The sign, installed as a commemoration of the war, talks about conflicting accounts of what happened at the church. It was a Civil War example of what today we would call battlefield media spin.
After the resounding Union defeat in the First Battle of Manassas (or Bull Run), journalists rushed into the area to help understand what had happened. Correspondents for the southern-leaning Richmond Dispatch reported that the church was covered with drawings and insults to the Confederacy. The blame was pointed at the retreating Union troops. Reporters for The New York Times countered that Confederate troops were responsible. The truth was never uncovered and the building was destroyed in the war. Today’s St. John's Episcopal Church stands on the original site and was built about 1867.
Debbie Robison, the Sully District history commissioner, said the conflict at the church, as well as the wartime occupation, taught important lessons to both the correspondents and the soldiers. Those lessons hold true today.
“The correspondents had been putting in details of the armies they were following, like troop strength and movements,” Robison said, “not realizing that the other side was reading their papers. They stopped doing that and this was a point where they became war correspondents.”
The papers also were full of useful advice for soldiers seeking to make their encampments more livable, like how to vent the camp smoke from inside their temporary structures and how to stay dry during the rainy season.
The historic signs, as well as the Centreville Day celebration, help bring the past to life while building a sense of community spirit, Robison said. “These days, we come from all over and history helps tie things together,” she said.
Carlos Hernandez and Karu Perera, who recently arrived from Los Angeles, agreed. They came to attend the Centreville Day ceremonies and watched the sign dedication.
“We heard about Centreville Day and we came here because we were really interested in the history of the area,” said Hernandez, a researcher.
Perera was gripped by the community’s welcoming spirit. “It’s a very family friendly environment and very joyful. We are surprised to see the community’s wide diversity.”