|Patrick Cleburne |
Churches occupy important places in our society. Many of them, and the grounds that surround them, are packed full of history. (You can check out a previous post on churches in the crossfire of the war here). One of those churches full of history is St. John’s Episcopal Church, just outside of Columbia, Tennessee.
St. John’s was consecrated in 1842 by the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Tennessee, James Hervey Otey. It was built by Leonidas Polk, the Missionary Bishop of the Southwest. The land was donated by the Polk family, a part of a land grant awarded to William Polk of North Carolina. The church was constructed by the slaves from the various Polk plantations in the area, and served not only as a church, but as a school as well.
During the war, Federal soldiers under the command of General Buell, on their way to reinforce Grant at Shiloh, forced their way into the church, wrecking the organ and removing some of the pipes. In 1864, as the Confederate army advanced towards Columbia, General Cleburne, on passing the church, reportedly told his staff “So this is the church built by General Leonidas Polk and members of his family? If I am killed in the impending battle, I request that my body be laid to rest in this, the most beautiful spot I ever beheld.” (Yeatman, “St. John’s-A Plantation of the Old South.” Tennessee Historically Quarterly, Vol. 10, No 4 (December 1951): 340)
Following the battle of Franklin, in which six Confederate generals were killed, three of them, Patrick Cleburne, Hiram Granbury, and Otho Strahl, along with two staff officers --Col. R. B. Young, Granbury’s chief of staff and Lt. John H. Marsh, who served with Strahl--were buried in the “potter’s field” section of Rose Hill Cemetery in Columbia, Tennessee. Hearing of this, Brig. Gen. Lucius E. Polk, with the help of Confederate chaplain Charles Quintard, had the five exhumed and reburied at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Many decades after the war, the three generals were again exhumed and reburied in other cemeteries. Cleburne was reburied in Helena, Arkansas; Strahl was reburied in Dyersburg, Tennessee; and Granbury was reinterred in Granbury, Texas. Young and Marsh are still interred at St. Johns.
There are other Confederate graves here as well, including Col. Robert F. Beckham, chief of artillery for Stephen D. Lee’s Corps. He was mortally wounded at Columbia, Tennessee on November 29, 1864. Brigadier General Lucius E. Polk, who was a nephew of Leonidas Polk, is interred at St. John’s, as is George Campbell Brown, who served on the staff of Richard Ewell in the Army of Northern Virginia, and James H. Thomas, a Tennessee delegate to the Confederate Provisional Congress. Mary Martin Pillow, the wife of General Gideon J. Pillow, is also buried at St. John’s. The form for the Ashwood Rural Historic District, for the National Register of Historic Places, states that there is a Confederate section with the dead from the battle of Ashwood behind the church.
Carroll Van West, in her book Tennessee’s Historic Landscapes, considers St. John’s a “magnificent achievement in rural Gothic Revival architecture.” (368) The church is no longer in use, save for one Sunday a year. But the building itself and the surrounding grounds are kept in immaculate condition. St. John’s is the oldest surviving church building in Maury County.
My first and only visit came in May 2021.