Bells across the land

Published 9:00 pm Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Bells at hundreds of sites across America will ring at 3:15 p.m. today to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War.

Three downtown Suffolk churches — Suffolk Christian, Main Street United Methodist and St. Paul’s Episcopal — will ring their bells in concert with other houses of worship, schools, public buildings, historic sites and others across the nation that was ravaged by the conflict.

The National Park Service-sponsored recognition, titled “Bells Across the Land: A Nation Remembers Appomattox,” will mark the 150th anniversary of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, where a major event will take place today.

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The first bells will ring at Appomattox at 3 p.m., coinciding with the time the meeting between Lee and Grant in the McLean House at Appomattox Court House ended.

“While Lee’s surrender did not end the Civil War, the act is seen by most Americans as the symbolic end of four years of bloodshed,” according to a press release from the park service.

After the ringing at Appomattox, sites across the country will toll their bells beginning at 3:15 p.m. for four minutes, each minute symbolic of a year of war.

Sean Bilby, the handbell choir master at Suffolk Christian Church, said the church’s electronic carillon will join in the ceremony.

“It’s a nice way to commemorate it,” he said. “This is interesting because it’s coordinated with so many other sites. Bells have marked important events for centuries, marking victories, births, deaths, memorials and even warnings. Our participation with other churches in the area and the country is a chance to join in a national commemoration.”

Suffolk Christian Church was founded in 1860, shortly before the war broke out. Its founding pastor, Dr. William B. Wellons, served as a chaplain in the Confederate army. His house and the church were used by Union forces, Bilby said.

“When he returned, he found his house in very poor condition,” Bilby said. “I think the church was in pretty good condition. That wasn’t true of all the churches in the area.”

Bilby said the carillon has played hymns and chimed the hour over downtown Suffolk since 1963.

Following the commemoration, Suffolk Christian’s carillon will play “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at 5 p.m. and “Ashokan Farewell,” as heard in the Ken Burns Civil War documentary, at 6 p.m.

Keith Emerson of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Barbara McPhail of Main Street United Methodist Church also said their churches would participate by ringing their tower bells.