Place: An old methodist church, now used as a thrift shop
Location: Wilmington, DE
History: This old methodist church was built in 1874, though its origins date much earlier. Traveling Methodist pioneer Thomas Webb visited the Brandywine Valley to introduce the religion to Delaware before the American Revolution. He was influential enough that a a small group organized a Methodist society in 1775. Initially they met in each other’s homes, later building a log meeting house called Cloud’s Chapel in 1780.
The Methodists outgrew their small chapel by 1799 and built a stone building to house their growing congregation. Seventy years later a bigger building was needed again and they built this serpentine stone and brick building (that’s why the stone is tinged with green, serpentine being named after the skin of snakes). This church was used for a century until 1972 when they built the presently used church across the graveyard. This historical building (which curiously to me didn’t have any stained glass) is now used as a small thrift shop, its proceeds supporting the present day church.
I went into the graveyard which sits next to the church for a few pulled back shots…only to find large crying black crows flying around, lending a spookier atmosphere than expected. As I mentioned before I was surprised the old church didn’t have a single stained glass window. But in the cemetery I finally found some.
Really beautiful, saturated blue stained glass framed in jaded green shades with pink lilies in the center. It was on both sides of a mausoleum. The only mausoleum in a cemetery filled with mostly historical and/or simple headstones.
I peeked through the glass doors which had quite the dramatic description as well: “Going home to die no more.” Now it was becoming even more intriguing and I was interested as to who this John M.C. Prince was.
I thought that since the mausoleum was so grand in scale I’d be able to find plenty of information on Mr Prince. And though I feel a little bit hesitant digging into someone’s life when they’re not exactly a public figure, the resting place was so stately and literally imposing over everything else it seemed like they didn’t want to be forgotten. So I thought I would just do a little research.
John M. C. Prince was born in January 1836 in Delaware. He was a farmer all his life, which at first I found a bit surprising given the stone building and ornate stained glass. I thought I’d be running into an old-money rich society man. As a farmer he had quite a bit of land and must have been fairly successful because he always had a couple of servants and farm laborers living with him and his wife, oh and his mother-in-law was there too ;). While this was typical of the times, it’s interesting to note that his servants and workers were often only 14 or 15-years old. In 1900 the household’s two servants, Lola and Edward, were only 10!
At 26 John married 21-year old Hannah Talley. Hannah had a baby the next year: a boy named William, who would be their only child. According to later census records right before her death, Hannah is listed as only ever having one child with none still living. By the next census, in 1870, William isn’t listed. It’d be safe to assume that the child died within the the first couple years of his life if not soon after birth.
In 1863, two years into the U.S. Civil War John was drafted into service for the Union Army. After the original patriotism and fervor died along with many of the original enlistees at the start of the war, the Union was in desperate need of more men. Enter the Enrollment Act of 1863, or as we would say it today, the draft. This wasn’t your standard draft though. There were a few loopholes and excuses built into it…with the best of intentions I suppose.
See, the government was offering two ways to avoid service. In an effort to raise funds and avoid drafting “unwilling deserting soldiers” you could either find a substitute to fight for you or pay a flat $300 fee if your number came up. Roughly, today that would be around $6,000 U.S. dollars. A hefty fee! Of course, a substitute could be even more costly (and the government wouldn’t see that money as the sub pocketed the dough). So at first the commutation fee was a popular choice. This factors into John M.C.’s story because he’s listed as paying commutation every year instead.
The Confederacy also exempted some of the important elite, like large plantation owners, in what became known as the “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” If you’ve seen the movie Gangs of New York or are familiar with the New York City draft riots you’ll be familiar with just how popular these policies were in the North or South (as in, not at all). With commutation and substitutions available to the wealthy, the Northern sentiment also reflected tensions of the “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” saying. Working-class (largely Irish) men resented that the rich were allowed to pay their way out of service while they, the poor, were being drafted in. Though, it’s important to mention, some substitutes were black Americans and new immigrants who weren’t accepted as enlisted volunteers. Substitution was their way into the fight. (It was all messed up).
Things escalated quickly as they say; soon it turned into a full-on race riot with 119 dead (5 of those from lynchings) and 2,000 injured as a result of the violence. That was in addition to the numerous homes, buildings and a black orphanage all burned to the ground. An enormous exodus of black Americans forever left Manhattan (mostly for Brooklyn). In an interesting turn of events the rich white society paying to avoid service came to the aid of black riot victims, helping to secure them new work and homes. In the end, after all the fuss, only about 16% of the available working class draftees were conscripted into service and as the war dragged on Southern sympathies in New York steeply declined.
It’s difficult to say what John M.C. Prince’s circumstances were. The fee was an enormous sum for farmers and other laborers. In small towns where the able-bodied men were desperately needed group funds were raised to pay commutation fees. I’m not sure how integral John M.C.’s farm was but he seems to have owned quite a bit of property and both he and his wife came from money; so I doubt the community paid for him to stick around. Whether he paid to simply avoid service because he could or because he was needed on the farm I can’t say for sure. Either way, it was an option many men didn’t even have. John paid the fee for the remainder of the war and never served. He worked on his farm until he retired several years before his death. If he carried a stigma in the community for paying his way out we’ll never know.
John M.C. Prince died a few days after his 79th birthday of cirrhosis of the liver.
Here is the full song from which the lyric on his grave comes from:
My heav’nly home is bright and fair,
Nor pain nor death can enter there;
Its glitt’ring towers the sun outshine,
That heav’nly mansion shall be mine.
I’m going home, I’m going home,
I’m going home to die no more,
To die no more, to die no more,
I’m going home to die no more.
My Father’s home is built on high,
Far, far above the starry sky;
When from this earthly prison free,
That heav’nly mansion mine shall be.
Let others seek a home below,
Which flames devour, or waves o’erflow;
Be mine a happier lot to own
A heav’nly mansion near the throne.
(Hear a church group sing the full song here, which is interestingly more of a Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal song though this church did share with A.M.E. members for a short while in the first half of the 1800’s)