November 20, 2011

A rainbow of colors pouring through stained and painted glass windows splashes across the altar of Portsmouth’s historic Trinity Episcopal Church and drenches its pale gray walls and white pews.

These windows, including half a dozen Tiffanys and several equally prized Whitefriars, nearly all bear inscriptions to loved parishioners and ministers – or, in the case of the “Confederate Window,” one that raised the hackles of Union occupiers and nearly got the shipyard and naval hospital closed down.

The window, dedicated to Confederate officers who gave their lives defending their homes “against the invasion of the U.S. forces,” was removed in 1868, then restored two years later with a less-offensive dedication.

The stories behind the windows are recounted in detail in a new book by Portsmouth historian Dean Burgess in honor of the church’s 250th anniversary – A Picture History of Trinity Church, Portsmouth, Virginia.

The Colonial-era church, with its Greek revival exterior touches and barrel-vaulted ceilings, is the second oldest in South Hampton Roads. The parish church was formed in 1761 and the church building rose at the corner of High and Court streets the following year.

With its windows, churchyard and baptismal font held by a lifesize stature of an angel, Trinity is as close to being a history museum as you’ll find. Louis Comfort Tiffany was partial to the window depicting an angel speaking to a centurion about alms.

“In the pencil list Tiffany noted that persons wanting to see an example of his work should see this window,” Burgess writes.

Of all the windows, there’s one without an inscription, but that’s about to change.

It’s the Emmerson Window in memory of Arthur Emmerson II, the fourth rector of the church (1785-1801), and his son, Arthur Emmerson III, a one-time ship captain who helped save Norfolk, Portsmouth and the shipyard from invasion by the British in the War of 1812.

The younger Emmerson raised and trained a light infantry militia squad as the war broke out. Then, in June 1813, facing a landing of far more numerous British forces at Craney Island, he uttered a stirring cry that was to ring down through a couple of hundred years of local history:

“Now my brave boys, are you ready?”

A Trinity Church committee has agreed to commission a memorial at the base of the window with those words inscribed on it.

The wide glass panel at the base of the window will also include art work depicting the British Union Jack and the Stsr Spangled Banner. On one side it will show the battle on the island; on the other, Trinity Church – symbolizing the community the soldiers were protecting.

The brave boys of 198 years ago were indeed ready and answered the command to open fire with a devastating barrage that splintered landing craft and sent the attackers back to their ships with heavy casualties. Not a single patriot was injured.

The Battle of Craney Island, one of the few American land victories of what has been called the Second War of Independence, has been all but ignored by historians outside of Hampton Roads. It is not even included in the Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trail – which lavishes attention on Maryland and, of course, Fort McHenry, the inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s oh-say-can-you-see lyrics.

Never mind that the red glare of British rockets had pierce the dawn’s early light over Hampton Roads more than a year before, or that a tattered flag – with 15 broad stripes – was still there after the invaders’ resounding defeat.

Armed with a copy of Burgess’s book and accompanied by J. Brewer Moore, a retired Portsmouth planning director and avid local historian, I got a tour of the church last week.

Moore has long sought recognition of that long-ago American victory, only to be told that it was only of local, instead of national, significance. The window is to debut on Sunday, June 24 during OpSail Virginia’s massive War of 1812 celebration.

Pausing before the window, he said, “I have high hopes that it will attract people and bring attention to what happened here.”

Well, we didn’t have a lawyer-poet to memorialize the victory, but we did have this unsung hero.

Interior view of Trinity Episcopal Church shows the Emmerson Window, near right. Courtesy of Dean Burgess.