The Last Confederate Chaplain Didn’t Tell All… But We Will!

by | May 23, 2024

Since 2021, the Parish History of Race and Racism Team at Grace, Silver Spring, has been working to uncover details about its founders and their ties to slavery. They seek to learn and share the truth about the past to plan actions of repentance and restorative justice in the community.

The Rev. James Battle Avirett, Grace Church’s third rector, presided over the church from 1872-1884. Under Avirett, the parish increased the size of its congregation, got a new name, started a school, became a “free seat” church, and added three mission churches. But Avirett embodied racist beliefs, strongly supported the Confederacy, and wrote The Old Plantation: How We Lived in Great House and Cabin Before the War as a vehicle to promote poisonous Lost Cause arguments about Southern life and white supremacy.

Before Grace

James Battle Avirett was born in 1835 at Rich Lands, his family’s turpentine plantation in Eastern North Carolina. His father, John Averett, enslaved 125 people, far more than nearly all other landowners in the area. The younger Avirett was ordained as an Episcopal deacon in 1861 and was then commissioned as the first chaplain in the Confederate States Army.

Avirett in Montgomery County

By 1872, Avirett was officiating at two parishes: Labyrinth (Grace’s original parish name) and Prince George’s (Christ Church, Rockville). At Grace, Avirett discontinued the requirement that congregants rent their pews, establishing the parish as a “free seat” church. (There is no indication that these free seats were available to Black congregants, who likely would have still been relegated to the balcony.)

In his efforts to grow The Episcopal Church in Maryland, Avirett arranged to open two additional church congregations, which became St. Mary Magdalene in Wheaton and St. John’s, Norwood in Bethesda, respectively. In 1874, he added a third mission: St. Mark’s (Fairland), on what is now route 29. That same year, he resigned from his position at Christ Church, Rockville.

Confederate Soldier Interment

While Avirett was expanding the reach of Silver Spring parish, he was also facilitating a popular Lost Cause plan: reburying Confederate soldiers. In 1874, Avirett arranged to move the remains of 17 Confederate soldiers from their resting place near Fort Stephens in Washington, D.C., to Grace’s cemetery. As reported in the Washington, D.C. Evening Star, “friend of the ‘lost cause’ headed by Rev. J.B. Avirett, pastor of Grace (P.E.) Church resolved to gather up the remains and remove them to the above named church yard for interment.” These soldiers had no connection to the church or its parishioners.

After the reburial ceremony, attended by a large and appreciative crowd, Alexander Yelverton Peyton Garnett—a former Confederate surgeon and personal assistant to Jefferson Davis—gave a speech in which, as reported in the Evening Star, he “alluded to the south as ‘our people’ and Jeff Davis as ‘our President.’”

The Old Plantation and the Lost Cause

Avirett went on to serve at other parishes in Maryland, New York, and North Carolina before retiring in 1899. In his retirement, he published The Old Plantation: How We Lived in Great House and Cabin Before the War, as a (delayed) response to the portrait of enslaved people’s lives presented in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Avirett’s racist and apologist memoir romanticized the relationships between the landowners and the people they enslaved and presented an idyllic (fictional!) account of plantation life. The Old Plantation advanced numerous tenets of the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy school of thought: slavery was benevolent, the Civil War was about states’ rights (not slavery), and that the Old South was a Christian land of grace and gentility.

As recent historians have shown, The Old Plantation did not simply fictionalize aspects of plantation life. Its central thesis—that the Civil War destroyed Avirett’s family’s plantation and way of life—was a lie.

Three years before the Civil War began, the Avirett plantation lay in ruins, a byproduct of the destruction of the pine forests on which turpentine production relied. As historian David Cecelski put it, “James Avirett, it turned out, had deceived his memoir’s readers just as surely as if he had chiseled another man’s name onto his own gravestone.”

At the time of his death in 1912, Avirett was recognized as the last Confederate chaplain. He was buried in his Confederate uniform, clutching a Bible in one hand and a Confederate army flag in the other. By recognizing his role both in the growth of Grace Church and as a proponent of white supremacy, our parish can tell a truer, fuller picture of our church’s history—a first step toward becoming the Beloved Community.

The full, annotated version of this history, along with an illustrated presentation and other findings from Grace’s historical research, is available on Grace’s History page.