JAMES CITY COUNTY — To the untrained eye, it’s a sparse field with a crushed oyster shell path and a few rain-rusted and pollen-coated signs. For Williamsburg residents, it’s a haunting yet subtle reminder of the amount of history shoved in every nook and cranny of the Historic Triangle.
Those who bike or walk the Powhatan Creek Trail have probably stopped for a water break on the bench at Church on the Main. The grassy field between the trail and The Pointe at Jamestown suburb is a humble historic marker and tribute to the cost that the Revolutionary War had on those outside of the colonial capital.
Several brick piles, along with a crushed oyster shell path, outline where the Church on the Main once stood. Built around 1750, the Angelican church served as the James City Parish as a replacement for the fifth church built on Jamestown Island, which had become difficult for worshippers to reach.
The Rev. James Madison — no, not former president James Madison — who was born in 1749 and died in 1812, served as rector of the church from about 1777 until it fell into disuse after the American Revolution due to the disestablishment of the a state church in Virginia. In 1790, Madison was named Virginia’s first Episcopal bishop and served as president of the College of William & Mary in 1777 until his death in 1812.
Like most places in the American colonies, The Church on the Main became swept up in the Revolutionary War, serving as a landmark for the right flank of the British Army Camp during the Battle of Green Spring on July 6, 1781. Several months later in October of 1781, the patriots sought victory at Yorktown, just a mere 16 miles away.
The church was demolished in the 1850s and the site along with the associated cemetery, was returned to farmland. By 1857 all above ground traces of the church were gone.
And that’s probably the most surprising fact about the Church on the Main. The field is home to over 200 unmarked graves of past church goers, all ironically placed next to a lively and unassuming suburban neighborhood.
But this site also includes the Tomb of the Unknown Patriot Soldier of the American Revolution, which houses the remains found in 1978 on the nearby Harris Plantation by archaeologists from the Virginia Research Center for Archaeology.
During the Battle of Green Spring, American forces under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette engaged the army of British Lord Cornwallis. It was here that intense combat took place, and many of the soldiers who survived this battle were later present at the victory at Yorktown a few months later.
The soldier who is buried here was hastily laid to rest where he fell, still clothed in his patched-up army waistcoat and breeches, without a coffin or a proper service.
Church on the Main is located at 2604 Sir Gilbert Loop or can be accessed from the Powhatan Creek Trail. The site was officially protected in 1999 by the Historic Virginia Land Conservancy.
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