The Episcopal Church of the Nativity, located in small-town Union, SC, reminds one of a rural English parish church.
Built in Gothic Revival style, its cornerstone was laid in 1855 but construction was halted during the War Between the States. Featuring rusticated granite, the church was completed shortly after the war and features diagonal buttresses, steep gabled roofs and a Louis Tiffany stained glass chancel triplet window.
There is even a good-sized bell in its tower that can be rung from the ground by pulling on the old-fashioned rope that extends to the ground.
The church’s characteristics – its small size and “intimate relationship between the building and surrounding landscape, in particular – are said to derive from English parish-church architecture of the 1300s, which was a model for small churches built in the US in 1840s and 1850s, according to National Register records.
The English influence isn’t surprising given that two of the key individuals behind the construction of the Church of the Nativity were sisters Charlotte Poulton and Mary Poulton Dawkins, recently arrived in antebellum South Carolina from England.
The Tiffany triple window is behind the altar and features shades of green, gold, crimson, blue and purple. In the central bay of the window is the Good Shepherd, while Sts. John and Peter are shown in the right and left windows.
The church’s white Carrara marble font was carved by noted sculptor Hiram Powers and ordered by Mary Cantey Hampton, the wife of Revolutionary War hero Wade Hampton I, for Columbia’s Trinity Church. It proved too small and was given to the Church of the Nativity, according to National Register records.
Powers divided the font into three design units – the base, column shaft and font itself. All are octagonal and each is filled with carved sacred motifs.
The church cemetery contains the graves of many veterans, including one from the War of 1812, several Confederate soldiers, and some from World War I, World War II and the Korean War.
Among Confederates in the graveyard is William Munro, an infantry and artillery officer who was wounded at least four times but survived to go on to serve as a bank president and several terms in the state legislature following Reconstruction.
Also buried at the church is Pvt. Alpheus Cushman, a New Yorker who served with Co. B of the 7th US Cavalry Regiment. The 7th US Cavalry was among military units sent to Upstate South Carolina during Reconstruction following the declaration of martial law in response to Ku Klux Klan violence in the late 1860s and early 1870s.
Cushman, a farrier, was said to have fallen in love with a Union County girl, but grew ill, and his illness prevented him from marrying her, though it could also have been possible that the girl’s parents weren’t keen on their daughter being betrothed to a Yankee so soon after the war.
Whatever the case, Cushman is said to have taken his own life out of despair, on May 20, 1871.
After his death, the members of his company asked that they be allowed to give their compatriot a Christian burial. Locals agreed, but stipulated that they would choose the plot.
Cushman was not only buried in the far corner of the cemetery, but his grave was placed north-south, unlike typical Christian burials, and every other one at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, which is east-west.
Of course, the 7th US Cavalry would gain notoriety a little more than five years later, when more than 260 members of the unit were wiped out at Little Bighorn.