Preserving the past

Charleston Cumberland Presbyterian site a part of Civil War and community history

By JOYANNA LOVE Banner Senior Staff Writer
Posted 8/8/16

Off the main road in Charleston, nestled in a quiet neighborhood, sits a cemetery and historic church said to be the site of a makeshift hospital during the Civil War.

Charleston Cumberland …

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Preserving the past

Charleston Cumberland Presbyterian site a part of Civil War and community history


Off the main road in Charleston, nestled in a quiet neighborhood, sits a cemetery and historic church said to be the site of a makeshift hospital during the Civil War.

Charleston Cumberland Presbyterian Church seems a logical location for Union soldiers to have picked. Back then, before the cemetery was established, it had room for tents and it is located about a block away from the train tracks.

Church elder Moe McCormick said some think the soldiers merely set up camp there to treat their wounded, but he believes (based on some of his reading) that the actual church building was used as the hospital.

“In 1927, the federal government paid us $525 for damage that they had done during the Civil War to the church,” McCormick said.

A shadow box hanging on a wall toward the back of the church holds bullets thought to be from the time of the Civil War, and other small items found on the grounds.

“Ronnie Wilson, he was searching for artifacts and all in the cemetery and that is stuff that he found,” McCormick said.

The mutilation of some of the bullets dug from the site seems to indicate that they were fired on the grounds of the church.

Some of the damage to the church is thought to have been from the Union soldiers’ horses chewing on the windowsills; however, McCormick said some of the damage that can be seen today was likely from churchgoers’ horses.

McCormick said the Union soldiers had established a base at Fort Cass in Charleston.

“There used to be a musket hole on one of the pillars out there (the front of the church), but somebody painting it filled it in with putty,” McCormick said.

The building was constructed in 1860, and the church was formally accepted into the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination in 1861, the same year the Civil War began.

The church is not the oldest in Bradley County or even Charleston, but it does rank among the oldest continuous congregations. It was the third Cumberland Presbyterian Church to be established in Bradley County. There are five now.

Each year the church tries to revisit its history by having a service in the old church.

“There is no air conditioning, and you had to raise the windows in the summertime,” McCormick said. “Trains interrupted a lot of services.”

McCormick said he began attending the church 13 years before the congregation moved to its current sanctuary just outside the Charleston city limits.

“We [Charleston Cumberland] try to preserve it,” McCormick said. “There is a lot of history here.”

The church features a typical Cumberland Presbyterian style of three rows of pews facing the front of the sanctuary with a wooden pulpit on the platform facing both main aisles.

The original windows and pews have been preserved.

“A lot of the studs in the wall are pine logs ... they are not hewn, not trimmed or anything,” McCormick said.

The historic building has also served as a place for the church to preserve organs from a prior era.

The congregation treasures a pump organ that was later converted to have a fan motor. McCormick said the organ was used in the church from 1925 to 1941.

The organ had been played at the church by Lillie Mackey.

“I won’t say they were pioneers of Bradley County, but they were old-time Bradley County people,” McCormick said.

“She was married to Dugan Mackey. He was a pharmacist in Charleston,” McCormick said. “They moved to Jasper and some way they wound up with this organ. Her grandson contacted me. His mother had died and they were cleaning her house out and he found this organ. He didn’t know much about it.”

McCormick said he looked in the church records and found when the Mackeys had been members. The grandson gave the organ back to the church.

“It sounds fantastic,” McCormick said.

At the back of the church are two enclosed rooms with a large opening at the front facing the front of the church. One room still has pews in it. Although he is not certain, McCormick has an educated guess as to why the rooms were designed in such a way.

“These two rooms back here, and again this is tales that I’ve been told ... these two rooms are where the blacks worshipped. They came in and worshipped with us … That’s oral history, but it’s a known fact that the blacks did worship in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church at that time, and then they split off into their own denomination,” McCormick said.

At first, the black attendees were most likely slaves of white members. Then, after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War in 1865, they all would have been free. According to the “Miniature Souvenir History of the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church” by Jno. J. Jenkins, the African-American members of the church led the formation of this new denomination in 1868.

The church records from before 1903 are believed to have been destroyed in a fire because no record can be found before this date. Cumberland Presbyterian Churches keep minutes of each board meeting. These minutes then serve as a history of the action of the church.

Historian Roy Lillard was able to find other sources to compile a list of all the pastors who have served Charleston Cumberland Presbyterian Church, McCormick said.

“We have always been a pretty small church,” McCormick said.

In the graveyard that surrounds the church, a monument stands near the grave of the church’s first pastor, Hiram Douglas.

“I’m sure he was the first grave here,” McCormick said.

“In the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination, we have a moderator over the General Assembly,” McCormick said. “The tale goes, and I can’t prove this, but he [Hiram Douglas] came back from the General Assembly [where he had served as moderator] and preached on Sunday morning, and he was walking to one of the elders’ homes after church and he told that elder, ‘I believe I’ve preached my last sermon,’ and he died.”

McCormick said the church gives tours when members of the community request them.

The church is also raising funds to cover the cost of preservation efforts.

Charleston Cumberland Presbyterian Church can be reached at 336-5004.


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