ST. JAMES — When the United States became embroiled in the Civil War 150 years ago, people such as farmers, schoolteachers and business owners were caught in the chaos.
Saint James School was not immune from the ravages of the war, according to Ted Camp, who talks about the school being in the middle of “Route 1 of the Civil War,” in the path of retreats from major battles, including those at Antietam and Gettysburg.
One of the times Saint James School found itself in the middle was in 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg, Pa., when Union troops were pursuing Confederate troops and both sides reached the Episcopal boarding school five miles southwest of Hagerstown, according to Camp, who is chairman of the school’s history and religion department.
Union forces were stationed along Sharpsburg Pike in the area where a Food Lion store is today and Confederate troops were on the other side of Saint James School, Camp said.
Union Gen. George Meade considered drawing Confederate troops into battle in the area around the school, but it had been raining heavily and Meade was concerned about the soggy conditions, Camp said.
A battle was averted when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to cross the Potomac River into Virginia, Camp said.
“What if they decided to have a knock-down battle? (The school) probably would have been destroyed,” Camp said.
Saint James School was in a precarious situation in more ways than one in the Civil War.
The faculty of the school, established in 1842 as a preparatory school and college, were mostly northerners, but many of the students were from the south, Camp said.
The College of St. James, as the school was known then, was a well-known institution, but parents of the students grew increasingly worried about their offspring attending school in a war zone, Camp said.
The school closed its doors in 1864, “due to the decimation caused by the war,” according to the school’s website at www.stjames.edu. It reopened in 1869 as a secondary school. Today, students attend grades eight through 12 on the campus.
Troops from both sides often went to the school for the pure water at its Bai Yuka spring, and Confederate troops once raided a dining hall and stole 100 pounds of butter, Camp said.
When the Battle of Antietam broke out on Sept. 17, 1862, John Barrett Kerfoot, the school’s first headmaster, couldn’t stand idle.
The battle was so intense that Kerfoot could hear it from the school, Camp said. He loaded up some water from Bai Yuka spring and some food, and headed off to the battlefield to tend to the wounded, Camp said.
Kerfoot also took with him Bibles and prayer books to help him meet the spiritual needs of the soldiers and to give last rites to those who were dying, Camp said.
Kerfoot had another experience with this military. In 1864, he was taken hostage by forces under Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early and held for ransom, Camp said. He was released under the terms that he leave the area.
Kerfoot left the school and became president of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., Camp said.
Over the years, Civil War artifacts such as musket balls, Minie balls, belt buckles and buttons from Civil War uniforms have been found on the school’s grounds, Camp said. A 6-pound cannonball was found near what is referred to as “the old orchard house,” originally the dwelling of the school’s doctor and which today is the school chaplain’s residence.
Among the school’s memorabilia is a handbill signed by Kerfoot and other area clergy members during the war. Although Maryland did not secede from the union in the war, the state had southern sympathizers and the handbill urged people to obey the laws during the time of unrest.
The handbill calls on residents to “rise superior to the passions of the hour, be kind and forbearing to those who differ from you, even to those who may have wronged you and your country.”
In addition to Kerfoot, clergy members who signed the handbill, dated July 14, 1863, included Henry Edwards, rector of St. John’s Parish on Prospect Street in Hagerstown, Camp said.
One of the handbills is framed and hangs in a hallway at Saint James School.
Today, youths attend Saint James for an education that focuses on moral and spiritual development. As an Episcopal school, it welcomes students and faculty of all faiths, supporting each in “our common pilgrimage of life,” according to its website.
The campus structures include Kemp Hall and Claggett Hall, which stood at the time of the Civil War. In front of Claggett Hall is the “senior circle,” a neatly landscaped area that is off-limits to students except on graduation day, when seniors and their guests can be on the grass.
On that day, they can walk across the lawn, which is highlighted by a giant poplar tree under which wounded Union and Confederate troops were treated for battle injuries, Camp said.