Preserving history for future generations 

By Dennis Gallahan  

Zion was built in 1859 and just five years after its construction, it was pressed into service as a hospital for the wounded and headquarters for two generals during the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse in May 1864. Artillery shelling of the courthouse area by the Union Army caused major damage to the sanctuary, and there was a period after the Civil War when the congregation attendance fell significantly.

When asked to service as historian, I gladly accepted the challenge. The church historians before me did a great deal of work which made my job easier, but after accepting the duties, I realized there was still more work to do.

The historians before me had mostly written in longhand and offered only a cursory overview in their records which I felt should be more detailed.
When I started, I had no guidelines on how to do the job other than to “record the church history each year.”  My first act was to determine what history should be recorded, where to get the information and how to record it.

I then developed a model Annual Summary document delineating the format of an annual summary, information that should be recorded and where the information should originate.

I wrote instructions on how to gather and created the annual record to assist the historians that would someday come after me. These guidelines provide detailed instructions on where to get the data and how to record the annual data.

  Dennis Gallahan in the Zion sanctuary.

The importance of history preservation

God tells us in Psalm 78:3-4 to preserve and pass history to future generations for God’s glory, just as generations of Israelites told and recorded their story in the Holy Bible. There can be no better reason to record history than to tell future generations of God’s deeds and the stories of earlier generations of humanity. We must study and understand our past, so we’re able to recognize our successes and failures in the future. 

By looking at the past of a church, historians can discern the struggles and successes of a church.  They can tell what types of people lived in past generations or the focus and faith of the congregation during specific times in history.

I recently completed a year-long project of researching the families of 10 of our cemetery’s older grave sites. The results told the family line as well as significant information about the people themselves. The research told me their occupation, where they lived, how they lived, how they worshiped and their contributions to the church and community.

I found that one saint risked his life to save a slave child from a burning building during the Civil War.  Despite being permanently injured for his heroics; he went on to make significant contributions to the poor in our community. I also discovered we have an ordained Methodist minister resting in our cemetery that we did not know was a minister. 

Connecting the church with their history

Our congregation has been helpful in so many ways.  Many members helped guide me when I first accepted the duties of church historian.  The administrative council helped me find the material I needed to make an annual record.  One member volunteered to help me digitize flat paper records.  The trustees agreed to clean headstones in our cemetery that were old, dirty and moss grown.  One member seems to always have her camera ready for every event, and must have hundreds of pictures, both at important events and casual ones.

The trustees also are sensitive to our past by preserving it.  In 2010, they made the entrance more accessible by removing the old stone steps and installing a concrete ramp.  They preserved the original stones beside their respective door and placed a plaque beside them. 
Reaching out to the larger community

Working with other church members and the National Park Service, we created an “information stop” near the front entrance at Zion UMC, for persons visiting the nearby Civil War battlefields. It is bordered by a Civil War-era split rail fence, and it has a Park Service historical “designated stop” marker, a historical marker (describing some of the history of Zion during the war) and an information box containing a full one page write up of the history of Zion during the war. Bill Crislip, a local historian and member of Zion UMC, and I created the one-page writeup.

In May 2013 and 2014, Bill and I hosted presentations and guided tours of Zion on the 150th anniversary of the battles of Chancellorsville and Spotsylvania Courthouse, and the role Zion played in those battles. The 2014 event was a large success.

In May 2015, Bill worked with the National Park Service to host events at four local churches. Each of the four churches had a program on its role during the Civil War. 

In 2015, I began researching the older grave sites at Zion UMC.  I completed the work in early 2017. In June 2017, I held a presentation on 19th century Spotsylvania and we sent out invitations to the local Civil War Roundtable, the Spotsylvania Historical Association and our own congregation. The presentation was on lifestyles, prominent people, slavery, the seven buildings in the immediate courthouse area that pre-dated the Civil War, changes made to Zion over the years and on the members in our cemetery that I researched.

Preserving history for future generations

Based on information gathered during my last two years of research, I am off on two new adventures. The first is to create a book based on the 19th century presentation. The second effort is to create a plot of the cemetery, delineating veterans and pastors’ graves. Some of these graves are already marked on the existing headstones, but many are not. So, this will create a record of that part of our history.

Many of our existing records are hardcopy paper and I plan to digitize them. 

When growing up in the Fredericksburg area in the 1960s, a lot of local people got involved with civil war relic hunting with metal detectors. I was no exception, and I continue it today. Receiving permission from the trustees, this fall I will embark on searching the church property for relics and other artifacts to be placed on display in our fellowship hall.

- Dennis Gallahan is the church historian for Zion UMC in Spotsylvania. He has held the position for about eight years.

Zion Sunday School circa 1885-86




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