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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Chatham Manor

Amidst the modern structures and developments of Fredericksburg, Virginia, lies a historic gem. Chatham Manor embellishes a 250-year history of Southern living. It has witnessed both the birth of a nation and the near- destruction of one. Built upon Stafford Heights, Chatham stands imposingly over the Rappahannock River and Fredericksburg, and has seen the area grow from a settler's community to a bustling city. Over the years, some of America's most beloved figures, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, visited this lavish estate. Today, it stands as one of the nation's most treasured landmarks.

Chatham was constructed on 1300 acres of land between 1768-1771 under the direction of William Fitzhugh. Fitzhugh was a representative in the House of Burgesses prior to the Revolutionary War and was good friends with George Washington. They shared a love for horses and racing. Washington frequented Fitzhugh's stables and racetrack for over two decades. During the war, Fitzhugh served in the Virginia House of Delegates and was a state senator from 1780-1787.

Entrance to Chatham Manor

Fitzhugh ran a sizable plantation. He owned anywhere from 60-100 slaves. Many of these people worked in the fields, growing corn, wheat, and tending livestock. Other slaves worked as artisans and carpenters, operating a blacksmith shop and a mill on the property. Chatham was constantly the site of entertainment and lodging for travelers, some of whom were of prominent status, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and William Henry Harrison. The frequent visitation took a toll on Fitzhugh's fortune and the slaves who persistently worked to keep up appearances.

In January 1805, a slave rebellion broke out at Chatham. The trouble started when the slaves were order back to work shortly after the Christmas holiday. Feeling as though they were put back to work too soon, a number of slaves overpowered the overseer and four farmhands and viciously whipped them. The revolt was soon repressed by the local militia, resulting in the deaths of one of the farmhands and two of the slaves. One of the leaders of the revolt, known as 'Abraham,' was later executed while two of his accomplices were deported.

A year after the revolt, Fitzhugh sold the property to Churchill Jones, a Major in the Continental Army. Churchill's brother, William, took over the estate shortly after his death. William's daughter, Hannah, married judge John Coalter in 1825 and received the deed to the estate as a wedding present. After Hannah's death in 1857, Chatham was passed to her sister, Betty, and her husband of nine years James Horace Lacy. The couple would own the estate up through the Civil War.

Union Battery Line

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lacy enlisted in the Confederate Army, leaving his wife and children to oversee the estate in his absence. However, as the Union army advanced towards Fredericksburg in March 1862, Betty and her children fled the house. Union officers soon turned the estate into a headquarters and campground. In April 1862, General Irwin McDowell and 30,000 troops stationed at Chatham. Their task was to rebuild portions of railroad and construct pontoon bridges in oder to cross the Rappahannock to Fredericksburg. President Lincoln and Secrretary of War Edwin M. Stanton visited Chatham on May 23, 1862 to discuss strategy with the officers and oversee the progress of the construction project.

Novermber 1862 came about with the arrival of General Ambrose Burnside and the Army of the Potomac, 120,000 strong. They crossed the Rappahannock and took over Fredericksburg. Union batteries in front of Chatham bombarded the town. From December 11-15, 1862, the Battle of Fredericksburg ensued. The Union army, having already seized the town, attacked Confederate positions on the bluffs above the town. Despite the strength in numbers, the Confederates held the strategic position and repelled the frontal attacks. By the end, over 12,500 Union casualties were sustained in what has been called the most one-sided battle of the Civil War, a "butchery" in the words of Lincoln.

Many of the Union wounded were transported back across the river to Chatham. It was at that point the property transformed from a headquarters to a field hospital. Among those to tend the wounded were poet Walt Whitman, Red Cross founder Clara Barton, and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. Whitman witnessed what he describes as a "heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands..about a load for one horse-cart" piled next to some Catalpas trees. Numerous casualties filled the house and the surrounding property, their blood soaking the floors and walls, and their screams of pain echoing in the mansion's chambers. Whitman's bother, Lieutenant George Whitman of the 51st NY Infantry, was among those wounded in the battle.

Barton had herself quite a daunting experience at Chatham. She arrived in December 1862 to help tend the wounded being transported from the city. Her services were soon needed inside the town. As she crossed the pontoons, an officer helped her down. According to legend, an artillery shell passed between their arms and detonated a few feet behind them. Barton was unscathed, but the soldier was killed instantly. While in town, she set up a soup kitchen for soldiers and town folk. She also recorded the names of deceased Union troops and where they were buried for later identification.

Soldier graffiti by 'LeRoy Strickland'

In all, about 130 men died at Chatham. Their bodies were recovered and moved to Fredericksburg National Cemetery in 1866. However, three additional unidentified bodies were discovered years later. Today, they remain on the property with granite markers reading "Unknown Soldier" to commemorate them. Chatham would again serve as a hospital later in the war after the battles of Chancellorsville and Marye's Heights.

After the Civil War, Chatham was in a state of severe disrepair. The paneling inside the house was used as firewood during the winter months, blood stains were found all over the walls and floors, and the gardens were dug up and replaced with gravestones. Soldiers' graffiti littered the plastering, some of which can still be seen today. The Lacy's returned home, but were unable to pay the expenses of the house. Due to the emancipation of slaves, Lacy's net worth plummeted from $180,00 in 1860 to a meager $2,000 postwar. They ended up selling the home in 1872.

The property exchanged hands on multiple occasions through the 1920s, when Daniel and Helen Devore embarked on Chatham's restoration effort. The mansion underwent significant changes in order to be restored to its former glory. Additionally, a classic Greek-revival garden was constructed in the front of the property (probably to add some Roaring Twenties flare). The Devores sold the property to John Lee Pratt in 1931 and willed it to the National Park Service in 1975.

Chatham really took me by surprise. It is tucked away behind modern houses and groves of trees. After walking down a short part, the house presents itself in all of its grandeur. I was quite taken. The gardens were in full bloom and the hundred year-old trees stood with thick, youthful foliage. The inside of the house has been turned into a small museum detailing Chatham's 250 year history. On display were some colonial artifacts, Civil War relics, and personal affects from Chatham's previous owners. On the side of the house facing the river, I explored the Union earthworks marked by two cannons and walked around the grounds, finding a couple of the 'Unknown Soldier' graves. Though the day was rainy and gloomy, I could see clearly across the Rappahannock the church steeples and brick buildings of Fredericksburg. In its heyday, Chatham was certainly a site to see.

The self-guided tour of the grounds and the exhibits inside took about an hour. It was definitely worth the trip, especially when you consider that it's free! If you're ever in the Fredericksburg area, give Chatham a visit.

The Gardens in front of Chatham Manor


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