- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009

When war neared in the spring of 1861, no city was more immediately and profoundly affected than Alexandria.

Literally a stone’s throw across the Potomac River from what quickly would become an enemy capital city - Washington - and directly on the road to the other combatant capital - Richmond - Alexandria residents were frantic, packing, moving businesses, joining the Army or otherwise responding to the inevitable military campaign that soon would overrun the town.

The students at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), founded in 1823 in Old Town and then relocated to the “country” a mile or so away, were perhaps even more anxious than most. Their institution was enjoying a zenith of sorts, having just completed construction of a series of beautiful new buildings that included Aspinwall Hall, an impressive brick structure at the top of a gentle hill and crowned with a tower and cupola.

The wooded campus was attracting a growing enrollment of future clergymen in the low or evangelical church tradition, and it was at the time (and remains today) the largest Episcopal seminary of its type in the United States.

The roughly 60 students in attendance on the eve of the war represented North and South almost equally, and the sectional tension in early 1861 was a direct challenge to the spirit of “brotherly kindness” and evangelical focus the seminary inculcated.

In April 1861, most of the students from the North voluntarily left for home. (They were not forced to leave, as some rumors suggested.) The Southern men who remained were deeply saddened, and their leading professor, the Rev. William Sparrow, recorded that they even held a special meeting to resolve their feelings.

“So strongly did the Southern students feel this painful interruption, that they held a meeting, and by resolution unanimously passed, expressed their feeling of affection for their Northern brethren … and their deep regret at the separation,” Sparrow said.

Soon, however, most of the Southern students had left as well, to join the army (some to serve as chaplains; others as ordinary soldiers) or to help prepare families and homes for war. By the beginning of May, the seminary was forced to close down, not only for lack of students, but also because of the escalating military threat.

On May 24, 1861, strong Union forces crossed the Potomac River and occupied the south bank, moving on to the seminary grounds, which by that time were practically abandoned.

Sparrow, who remained in contact with the board, was “restless and distressed” as he relocated his family to Staunton, Va., where he hoped to continue seminary operations. Rumors reached him suggesting that Union troops were committing depredations on the Alexandria property, and he feared there would be no school to return to. He eventually learned, however, that the Union Army had turned the seminary and neighboring high school into a military hospital.

The campus was still relatively intact, and rather than purchasing a building at a new location or permanently moving, the board and Sparrow elected to continue temporary operations in Staunton.

Ironically, though Sparrow probably didn’t know it at the time, a VTS alum had joined the staff at what was then called Fairfax Seminary Hospital. The Rev. John A. Jerome, class of 1851, was a U.S. Army chaplain for almost three years on the former VTS grounds, caring for and ministering to as many as 1,800 patients. His duties included some that were not pleasant: “I have officiated at a large number of funerals,” he wrote solemnly.

While Jerome ministered to the wounded, the work of VTS struggled forward in the Shenandoah Valley.

“School continued, in a fashion, at Staunton,” says Julia Randle, archivist at VTS. “A handful of students were educated to the extent that they could be ordained.”

It was not an easy task, however, and Sparrow seldom had more than three or four students at any given time. Most of the Southern students had joined the army or were actively supporting their families at home. At least 31 chaplains in the Confederate army were alumni of VTS, including seven members of the class of 1861.

Some, like Randolph H. McKim, began service in the infantry and later became chaplains.

Sparrow, meanwhile, was unwavering in his commitment to keep VTS running. At one point, his family and the entire student body - such as it was - were forced to move to a plantation in Halifax County to escape the turmoil. Even there, the heavy hand of war reached out and almost stopped the school’s functions.

Among the students studying there was John Burke, who was killed in action at the Staunton River Bridge when he accompanied a group of civilians out to challenge a Federal raiding party. Later, the school returned to Staunton for the balance of the war.

At times, Sparrow found himself with only one student, acting more as a guide than a formal instructor. Students sometimes referred to him during the war as “professor of everything.” Sparrow also found time to serve as a delegate to church councils and to write reports, one called a “masterpiece” by a peer. Through his efforts, VTS survived the war.

However, when students and professors returned in 1865, they found a different school. Many of the trees on the wooded lot had been cut by soldiers for firewood. The buildings, though essentially unharmed, were dirty, unkempt and bereft of any prior furnishings.

Corpses had been buried on the property because of the grim work of the hospital that had functioned there. Many of the bodies were exhumed later and taken to Arlington National Cemetery. The seminary also was financially broken and was unsuccessful in attempts to have the Union Army compensate it for the use of the property during the war. The next new building would not be constructed until 1920.

In spite of this, Sparrow’s remarkable efforts paid off. The seminary reopened in 1865 and has remained open ever since.

In 1861, Sparrow had harbored has own doubts, writing: “I have no heart to speak about things here. … Is there on record the case of a nation holding to its lips a cup so full of blessing, and so wantonly and wickedly dashing it to the ground?”

Yet thanks to his efforts, Virginia Theological Seminary remains a beacon of light to many pursuing religious education.

• Special thanks go to Richard Corney, former VTS plant manager, for his guided tour. Jack Trammell can be reached at [email protected]

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