Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Rodney Presbyterian Church

This is Chapter Two of my story about a trip my husband and I recently made to a place called Rodney, Mississippi. If you missed Chapter One and would like to read it before you read this post, you can click here.

The most famous story about Rodney comes from the Civil War era and took place at, of all places, the Rodney Presbyterian Church. This is how the story goes:

After the fall of Vicksburg, the Union Navy was left in charge of the Mississippi River. The gunboat Rattler was stationed in front of Rodney to monitor things in the important river town.

One of the favorite pastimes of the men on board was to line the decks on Sunday mornings and watch the southern belles as they paraded into church. The admiral had left strict orders that no one was to leave the ship, but on September 12, 1863, 24 of the sailors, including a lieutenant and captain, could stand it no more. Just before services began at the Presbyterian church, they came in, dressed in their best uniforms, and quietly seated themselves in the congregation.

As the second hymn was being sung, a Lt. Allen of the Confederate Cavalry walked up the aisle to the pulpit. Apologizing to the Reverend Baker, he turned and announced that his men had surrounded the building and demanded the Yankee sailors surrender. One of the Yankee sailors jumped behind a door and took a shot at Lt. Allen. General melee' broke out and most of the citizens dove under their pews for safety. One Yankee sailor hid in the undergarments of his local southern girlfriend. One older lady, however, would not run. She stood on her pew and shouted "Glory to God!"

A skeleton crew had remained on board the Rattler, and when they heard the commotion, began firing their guns at the church. The church and four homes were hit (more about this later).

When the dust cleared, the Rebels had taken 17 prisoners, including the lieutenant and captain. Ordinarily, the Yankees would have burned down the town, but Lt. Allen sent word stating that "the people of Rodney were in no way responsible for what my men have done, and if a solitary shell is thrown into the town, I will proceed to hang my prisoners." The crew of the Rattler became the laughingstock of the nation, for it was the first time in history a small squad of cavalry captured the crew of an ironclad gunboat.

Now, let's back up to the part about the "church and four homes being hit." One of the cannonballs did, indeed, hit the church — and as much as I would like to say that the cannonball in the following picture is the original cannonball still lodged in the brick wall of the church, local history tells us that this cannonball was placed there many years later after the original one had "fallen out."

As a southerner, born and bred, I love that story, even if that isn't the original cannonball lodged in the church.

When I was taking pictures of the church, I didn't know that story, but I could feel the history surrounding it, and wished that those old bricks could talk. Unfortunately, they can't, so I had to do some research to uncover its history.

In 1828, Jeremiah Chamberlain, a young Presbyterian minister from Pennsylvania, came to Mississippi as a missionary, locating in Rodney. His first step was to organize a church. The present church building was built from 1830-31, and was dedicated on January 1, 1831.

I found it interesting that the bell in the bell tower was cast with the inclusion of 1,000 silver dollars that were donated by church members.

Can you imagine the congregations of all those Sundays past for whom that old bell tolled?

Around 1870, the Mississippi River, which was Rodney's lifeblood, began a gradual change of course. Cut off from the river and hurt by the decline of the cotton trade after the War, the town slowly began to die — and along with it died the congregation of the Presbyterian church. By the turn of the century, Rodney's population had declined considerably, and in 1923, the church, with a congregation of only sixteen members, lost its last full-time pastor.

The Mississippi United Daughters of the Confederacy obtained the building in 1966, receiving a grant to restore it. Since then, however, funds to maintain Rodney Presbyterian have been low, and the building, among the oldest surviving churches in Mississippi, was listed in the 2003 "Top 10 Most Endangered" sites. There is a plaque on the front of the church commemorating a "Restoration Dedication" in 1990, but I'm not sure what restorations were done at that time. I was encouraged to see this update about the church on the Mississippi Heritage Trust website: "2009 Update - In Progress: The Rodney Foundation, current owners of the property, is presently reorganizing and gearing up for fund raising."

I wish them well, because everywhere I looked I saw evidence of the toll time and the elements have taken on the beautiful old church.

You can't go inside the church, except by appointment only through the United Daughters of the Confederacy, but I did manage to capture a picture of the pulpit through one of the windows. I love the way the sky and trees were reflected in the glass.

I thought I was going to be able to feature both the church and the old Rodney Town Cemetery in this post, but I'm going to have to save the cemetery until next time. I have so many pictures I want to share and haven't had time to go through them yet.

I hope you enjoyed seeing my pictures of the church and hearing its story.

Hopefully, one day that story will have a happy ending ... when the Rodney Presbyterian Church is restored to its former glory ... and that old bell in the bell tower tolls once more.


Deb said...

I love how you tell us all the history about your photos...beautiful photos...I love the gate...

RachelD said...

This is like lovely chapters in a much-anticipated book. Can't wait for tomorrow's installment!

Tonja said...

Beautiful! and so interesting! If they do re do the building and the bell tower, will there be anyone to attend the church? Or even go see it since it is in such an out of the way place, now?

Loved the pics!

nancygrayce said...

I'm Presbyterian and I loved reading the history of that church! Thanks! Love the pictures!

Jenni said...

Wow! Fascinating! I would love to walk the dusty streets of the town of Rodney.... of course, the writer in me can envision a romantic Civil War love story set in the town of Rodney amidst the events you shared with us today.... loved the story about the yankee hiding in his sweetheart's skirts!

I hope they can restore the whole town!

thanks for sharing this compelling and interesting story with us...


Duxbury Ramblers said...

Some great photos and I love old buildings, hope they save the church, so many of ours have been neglected and eventually demolished.

andrew1860 said...

Your photo's are amazing! I have a old book on antebellum architecture in Mississippi that's shows photo's of this church in black and white, it is nice to see it in color. The late Federal style architecture of the church is unusual for the deep South and is more in keeping with the East Coast. I also like the cast iron fence!

Unknown said...

very interesting and informative! I would love to visit this!

Unknown said...

I'm so glad I came across your blog. My wife & I are currently playing in the orchestra for a local production of "The Robber Bridegroom" which is set in Rodney.
I've become totally engrossed in the story, as well as the history of Rodney.
Thank you for this wonderful info!

Unknown said...

My son and I visited Rodney on Tuesday May 1, 2018, just a few days ago. The Union prisoners were taken to Richmond, Virginia and some were taken south to my hometown of Danville, Virginia. Some died in the Danville Prison and are buried in the National Cemetery here. Their headstones state that they were from the Gunboat Rattler.

Unknown said...

I went back to the National Cemetery and checked. The men who died in the Danville Prison from the Rattler were only identified as U.S. Navy on the headstones. The "Gunboat Rattler" with their names were from the hospital records.

Unknown said...

I have photos of three of the men's headstones who died in Virginia. How do I sent pictures?

Southern Lady said...

TO "UNKNOWN" -- you can send your pictures to me at southernlagniappe@njwbllc.com


Southern Lady said...

The following "lagniappe" was provided by an interested reader regarding the fates of a few of the crew from the Yankee Gun Boat, "The Rattler."

Thomas Brown “Marine Gun Boat Rattler” died Jan 25, 1864 from “Dropsy and Pneumonia” “effects overcoat, shoes, cap”

Frederick Plump “Private Co. K. Gunboat Rattler” died March 6, 1864 “effects Blouse, shoes, pants.” “Chronic/acute Diarrhea.”

Oloff Nelson died May 29, 1864 “Catarrh and cold.”

Photographs of headstones in the Danville, Virginia National Cemetery and hospital records

Walter Keif “Gun Boat Rattler entered the hospital on April 2, 1864 and returned to Prison Quarters on April 11, 1864.

F. Blunt “Gunboat Rattan (sic)” entered the hospital on November 24, 1863 and returned to Prison Quarters on January 22, 1864.

M. Ivory “Gunboat” entered the hospital on April 23. 1864 returned to Prison Quarters April 26, 1864.

Capt. Fentriss was held in Libby Prison for officers. The enlisted men were transferred to Danville tobacco factories on the Richmond and Danville Railroad due to overcrowding. The railroad was extended during the War to Salisbury, North Carolina and some men were sent south to prisons in Salisbury and Andersonville.

The reader also sent photos of the headstones of Brown, Plump, and Nelson but, unfortunately, I can't include them with this comment.

I appreciate so much your taking the time to share this interesting information with us.