Vincentian Lens: Erasure of Southern Historical Documents

Authored by Lauren King

This photograph shows the early members of the Emmaus Christian Church outside of the church building, date the picture was taken is unknown.

Emmaus Christian Church was founded in 1826 as the first organization for the Disciples of Christ located in Caroline County; it is described as “rather small” but with approximately a 100 living members at the time of survey (Farmer and George 1937, 1). The survey conducted by Farmer and George (1937) describes the current church members as being a prominent part of the community providing a list of names. Yet, that is all that is known about those members. Without existing church records there is no supplemental information is available (i.e. marriages, deaths). The records from the churches are a vital source of social information that can increase the available knowledge to the public that might be lacking otherwise (Olson 1942). However, the records from Emmaus Christian Church were destroyed in 1864 during the Civil War (Collins, n.d.).

There are many records that are not available to the modern age as they were destroyed during the Civil War. The importance of archives became apparent and noted by elected officials and newspaper editors during the war and were targeted by both sides. National records were better protected than county or state records (Stoykovich 2017). As a result, Virginia is missing important documents mostly due to the Civil War, the Library of Virginia suggests using church records to supplement missing documentation (Archive Reference Services 2017). However, some churches were also targeted by armies for their records. In 1864, Emmaus Christian Church, the union army destroyed the church records but left the church standing (Collins, n.d.).

While the Union won the war and are on the right side of history, their tactics are not above reproach. Both parties in the Civil War were striving to destroy the official public records of the other but there was more destruction just than official archival records. The church records were burned in the year 1864 which was when the “scorched earth policy” was in effect. One confederate solider responded to the Union’s policy stating that the destruction of public and church records reveal “a desire or intention to destroy our monuments of property, our evidences of marriage and legitimacy, our history, and the very bonds of society” (Stoykovich 2017, 152).

While general society is in agreement that the Confederacy needed to dissolve and rejoin back in the union of states, the Union destroyed more than just documents relating to the Confederacy but also local history extending beyond the existence of the confederacy. They destroyed private property, invading sacred spaces to do so erasing familial and community history. The records from Emmaus Christian Church were destroyed in the wake of the scorched earth policy the Union enacted resulting in there being no church records until after the Civil War erasing 39 years worth of history from their community.


Anders, J. Olson. 1942. “Local Church Records as Source Material.” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 1 (2): 134–40.

Archive Reference Services. 2017. “Lost Records Localities:  Counties and Cities with Missing Records.” Library of Virginia.

Collins, Herbert Ridgeway. n.d. “Cemeteries of Caroline County.” Collins. Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

———. 2012. ​Caroline County, Virginia Estates: Residences and Historic Sites. Tappahannock, Virginia: Barbour Printing Services.

Farmer, Selma, and George, L.D. 1937. “Emmaus Christian Church. WPA Historical Survey. 1826.” Caroline County WPA survey. Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

Stoykovich, Eric C. 2017. “Public Records in War: Toward an Archival History of the American Civil War.” The American Archivist 80 (1): 135–62.

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