On a leafy side street in present-day Brooklyn, a faint echo of the Civil War can still be heard.
By John A. Barnes
The Episcopal Church of St. John, in Brooklyn, New York, is considerably less quiet today than it must have been in the days when Captain Robert E. Lee and 1st Lieutenant Thomas J. Jackson (who would not be called ďStonewallĒ for another 12 years) worshiped there. Now the church is overshadowed by the thundering concrete and steel approach ramps of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which tower hundreds of feet overhead, just above the little churchís front steps.
The burning of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812 emphasized the vulnerability of major American ports to assaults from the sea, and Fort Hamilton was established in 1814 to guard the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island. The fort, which was named for the late Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, was the keystone of a new defense system that included tiny Fort Lafayette (which now serves as the foundation beneath the tower of the Verrazano Bridge on the Brooklyn side) and Batteries Morton and Hudson on the Staten Island side of the Narrows.
At the time the fort was established, there were only two Episcopal churches in the county, both located in what is now downtown Brooklyn, near where the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges today stand. Episcopalian members of the garrison, which grew steadily in size during the 1820s and 1830s, thus faced a long trek by horse or boat to attend Sunday services.
To remedy this situation, the Denyse family, who were local landowners in the area, agreed to donate a plot of land for the building of a new Episcopal church that would serve Fort Hamilton and the surrounding area. A month later, on September 29, 1834, the parish of St. Johnís was officially founded. While the church was being constructed, services were held in a barn on the fortís property. The new church building, situated just outside the fortís main gate, was consecrated by the Episcopal bishop of New York on July 16, 1835. The entire garrison of Fort Hamilton was in attendance. To this day, the rector of the Church of St. John serves as a chaplain for the fort.
Although Robert E. Lee spent five years at Fort Hamilton, between 1841 and 1846, the time was not professionally or personally satisfying for him. His mission as an engineering officer was to improve and refine the harborís defenses, a task he performed with his customary diligence and efficiency. Indeed, by the time he left, Fort Hamilton had become a substantial emplacement. A quadrangular structure of gray granite, it boasted 14 casemates and 26 barbettes, the latter mounting heavy 32-pounders and a few guns of even larger caliber.
Leeís unhappiness at Fort Hamilton was caused to a great extent by the fact that his marriage was under some strain at this point. His family grew to seven while he was at the fort, and his wifeís health became increasingly fragile and unpredictable.
Normally homebound, Lee perhaps rebelled against the strains in his marriage by becoming more socially outgoing while stationed at Fort Hamilton. The bright lights of the nearby city were too much to resist, and the future Confederate general frequently attended the theater and the opera. Among his companions and fellow parishioners were future Union Army generals Henry J. Hunt, whose artillery would smash Pickettís charge at Gettysburg, and John Sedgwick, who commanded the Army of the Potomacís VI Corps until he was fatally wounded at Spotsylvania Court House. Although the church lists future Union Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum as having worshiped there, it is not clear whether this was before the war or during Slocumís residence in Brooklyn after it.
Lee was strongly religious, and the Lees were all Sunday regulars at St. Johnís. One day the rector complained to Lee that his children were paying more attention to the family dog than to the sermon. The next Sunday, Lee resolved to leave the dog, named Spec, at home. But the animal jumped out the window and raced to the church just as the family was going inside. Spec was allowed to stay, provided the Lee children did not give him undue attention