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Did Cornwallis stable his horses in St. James Church when he stopped in Wilmington?

Ben Steelman
Stained glass artist E.V. Richards created this image of St. James Church about 1838. From Special Collections, Randall Library, UNCW

Stained glass artist E.V. Richards created this image of St. James Church about 1838. From Special Collections, Randall Library, UNCW

Susan Taylor Block, in “Temple of Our Fathers: St. James Church,” blames it all on Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, the model for the bad guy in the Mel Gibson movie “The Patriot.”

According to Block, Tarleton arrived in Wilmington on April 6, 1781, a day or two earlier than Cornwallis, and used the church to stable his dragoons’ mounts.

That story is fogged in legend, though, and even Block admits there are some problems with it. First, Wilmington had already been occupied by Maj. James Craig’s regulars since Jan. 29. Second, Lord Cornwallis had a reputation as a devoted churchman – he was, after all, a nephew of the archbishop of Canterbury – and St. James was technically a parish of the Church of England and, thus, property of the British Crown. Would Cornwallis have permitted Tarleton to desecrate a sanctuary under the protection of King George III, titular head of the Church of England? Or would he have tolerated it for very long, once he found out?

Some sources also claim that Cornwallis used the church as a hospital, which seems more plausible. Of Cornwallis’ force of slightly more than 2,000 men, more than 400 had been wounded just three weeks earlier at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781. (One of them was Tarleton, who had just lost two fingers off his right hand.)

Also, like most military units in the field before modern sanitation and antibiotics, about half of Cornwallis’ soldiers were sick with various diseases. If Tarleton had stabled his horses in the church, it seems likely that Cornwallis would have ordered them to the nearest pasture and used the building for a more urgent purpose.

At any rate, Cornwallis lingered in Wilmington only until April 25, when he marched north toward Virginia and, eventually, Yorktown. Craig’s occupation force remained in town until Nov. 14, 1781.

Note: This was not the present St. James Episcopal Church building, on which construction began in 1839. This was an earlier, smaller structure completed in 1751 and demolished in the 1800s. Surviving records indicate that the earlier St. James looked much like St. Philip’s Church, whose ruins still stand in Brunswick Town. Block notes that both buildings shared the same chief carpenter, Thomas Dick, and the same brick mason, Richard Price.

The present St. James Church became a hospital for about eight months in 1865, when Union troops occupied Wilmington during the Civil War. Maj. Gen. Joseph R. Hawley, the local Union commandant, seized the church (reportedly on Ash Wednesday) after its rector, the Rev. Alfred Watson, refused to offer prayers for Abraham Lincoln. (Watson later explained to his diocesan convention in 1866 that he judged he did not have authorization for such prayers from his bishop.)

During the occupation, parishoners worshiped at “St. Paul’s Chapel,” the forerunner of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, then at Fourth and Orange streets. Services resumed at St. James on the second Sunday of Advent 1865, Block reports. The parish, however, had to replace the pews, which had been hacked up by Union soldiers; the U.S. War Department declined to foot the bill for replacements.


Am I nuts, or did the very beautiful St. James Episcopal Church used to be a lovely soft pink instead of the beige it is now?

Why did Cornelius Harnett establish Harnett County?

Is it true that smugglers’ tunnels run all under downtown Wilmington?


User-contributed question by:
Bert Williams

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