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Chatham Manor

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Title: Chatham Manor  
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Subject: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Slave rebellion, Fitzhugh family residences, Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, Landmarks in Virginia
Collection: American Civil War Museums in Virginia, Conflicts in 1805, Fitzhugh Family of Virginia, Fitzhugh Family Residences, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Georgian Architecture in Virginia, Historic District Contributing Properties in Virginia, Historic House Museums in Virginia, Houses in Stafford County, Virginia, Houses in Virginia, Houses on the National Register of Historic Places in Virginia, Landmarks in Virginia, Museums in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Museums in Stafford County, Virginia, Plantations in Virginia, Slave Rebellions in the United States, Virginia in the American Civil War
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Chatham Manor

Chatham Manor
Chatham Manor, March 2008
Nearest city Fredericksburg, Virginia
Area 4,601.1 acres (1,862.0 ha)
Built 1771
Architectural style Georgian
Governing body Federal
Part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park (= #66000046[1])
Added to NRHP October 15, 1966
Part of a series of articles on...

1526 San Miguel de Gualdape
(Spanish Florida, Victorious)
c. 1570 Gaspar Yanga's Revolt
(Veracruz, New Spain, Victorious)
1712 New York Slave Revolt
(British Province of New York, lost)
1733 St. John Slave Revolt
(Danish Saint John, Suppressed)
1739 Stono Rebellion
(British Province of South Carolina, Suppressed)
1741 New York Conspiracy
(Province of New York, Suppressed)
1760 Tacky's War
(British Jamaica, Suppressed)
1791 Mina Conspiracy
(Louisiana (New Spain), Suppressed)
1795 Pointe Coupée Conspiracy
(Louisiana (New Spain), Suppressed)
1791–1804 Haitian Revolution
(French Saint-Domingue, Victorious)
1800 Gabriel Prosser
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1803 Igbo Landing
(Georgia, Suppressed)
1805 Chatham Manor
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1811 German Coast Uprising
(Territory of Orleans, Suppressed)
1815 George Boxley
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1816 Bussa's Rebellion
(British Barbados, Suppressed)
1822 Denmark Vesey
(South Carolina, Suppressed)
1831 Nat Turner's rebellion
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1831–1832 Baptist War
(British Jamaica, Suppressed)
1839 Amistad, ship rebellion
(Off the Cuban coast, Victorious)
1841 Creole case, ship rebellion
(Off the Southern U.S. coast, Victorious)
1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation
(Indian Territory, Suppressed)
1859 John Brown's Raid
(Virginia, Suppressed)

Chatham Manor is the William Fitzhugh, after about 3 years of construction, on the Rappahannock River in Stafford County, Virginia, opposite Fredericksburg. It was for more than a century the center of a large, thriving plantation. Flanking the main house were dozens of supporting structures: slave quarters, a dairy, ice house, barns, stables. Down on the river were fish traps.

The 1,280-acre (5.2 km2) estate included an orchard, mill, and a race track where Fitzhugh's horses vied with those of other planters for prize money. Fizhugh named the mansion after the British parliamentarian William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, who championed many of the opinions held by American colonists prior to the Revolutionary War.[2]

In January 1805, the plantation was the site of a minor slave rebellion. A number of slaves overpowered and whipped their overseer and assistants. An armed posse of white men quickly gathered to capture the slaves. They killed one slave in the attack, and two died trying to escape. The posse deported two other slaves, likely to a slave colony in the Caribbean.

During the American Civil War, the site was briefly a Union headquarters but then the major hospital during the horrific Battle of Fredericksburg. The War was not kind to the building and it fell into great disrepair. Saved from total destruction by monied northerners at the turn of the 20th Century, Chatham was refurbished and became the grand showpiece that it still is today. Willed to the National Park Service in 1975, the estate now serves as the headquarters for the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park.


  • Antebellum 1
  • Slavery at Chatham 2
  • The Civil War 3
  • Postwar years 4
  • Gallery 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Chatham Manor in 1929

The wealthy William Fitzhugh built Chatham in the three-year period ending in 1771. He was a friend and colleague of Their daughter wed the future Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Evidence supports that Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe also visited at Chatham, making a veritable "Who's Who" of important Americans who stopped in to enjoy Fitzhugh's hospitality. (A letter was recently discovered among Jefferson's papers being catalogued at Princeton University; in that 1792 note, TJ writes, "...stopped at friend Fitzhugh's in Fredericksburg..." He appeared to have been traveling between the new Capital City in Philadelphia and Monticello.) William Henry Harrison stopped by Chatham in 1841 on his way to be inaugurated as President.

Slavery at Chatham

Fitzhugh owned upwards of 100 slaves, with anywhere from 60 to 90 being used at Chatham, depending on the season. Most worked as field hands or house servants, but he also employed skilled tradesmen such as millers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. Little physical evidence remains to show where slaves lived; until recently, most knowledge of slaves at Chatham was from written records.

In January 1805, a number of Fitzhugh's slaves rebelled after an overseer ordered slaves back to work at what they considered was too short an interval after the Christmas holidays. The slaves overpowered and whipped their overseer and four others who tried to make them return to work. An armed posse put down the rebellion and punished those involved. One black man was executed, two died while trying to escape, and two others were deported, perhaps to a slave colony in the Caribbean.

A later owner of Chatham, Hannah Coulter, who acquired the plantation in the 1850s, tried to free her slaves through her will upon her death. Her will provided that her slaves would have the choice of being freed and migrating to Liberia, with passage paid for, or of remaining as slaves with any of her (Coulter's) family members they might choose.

Chatham's new owner, J. Horace Lacy, took the will to court to challenge it and had it overturned. The court denied Coulter's slaves any chance of freedom by ruling that the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court had declared that slaves were property, and not persons with choice.

Ellen Mitchell was the enslaved laundress at "Chatham" who knew of and counted on Mrs. Coulter's promise of manumission. When Lacy's court case took her freedom away, Mitchell was irate and loudly proclaimed how unfair this denial was. To be rid of her (and the problem she represented), Lacy sold her to a slave trader, James Ayler, in Fredericksburg.

Ellen Mitchell continued to loudly protest the unfairness of her situation. Like Lacy, Ayler was unsure what to do with Mitchell and gave her a 90-day pass to leave Fredericksburg in early 1860 on a tour during which she attempted to raise money to buy her freedom. He sent her on her way with the understanding that she would return. She gave speeches in Washington City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, raising enough money to return to Fredericskburg and buy not only her freedom but that of her children, as well. Ayler was so impressed that he also freed Mitchell's mother. The Mitchell family moved to Cincinnati in the free (i.e. slavery-prohibited) state of Ohio. In the 1860 census, Ellen Mitchell was listed as running a laundry business. Today, some of her descendants still live in that area of Ohio.

Slavery at Chatham ended in 1865 as a result of the Civil War, upon the passage of the constitutional amendment abolishing the institution.

Recent research, led largely by National Park Service historians, has revealed a sketch made by a Unionist New Jersey soldier during the Civil War that showed other buildings at the Chatham site. Historians had previously thought that most slave dwellings were likely to be in the "rear", or the field-side area of the estate. This area had been cultivated since the slave days and in the 20th century new structures were built there.

The recently discovered sketch shows structures to the south side of the manor house, in an area across a ravine away from the central area of the property. Re-examination of old photographs shows the faint rooflines of structures in that area, which may indicate the location of heretofore unconfirmed slave dwellings. More of the slave-era story at Chatham may now be discovered.

The Civil War

Chatham Manor, 1862. From the National Archives and Records Administration.

The Civil War brought change and destruction to Chatham. At the time the house was owned by James Horace Lacy {1823-1906}, a former schoolteacher who had married Churchill Jones's niece. As a planter, Lacy sympathized with the South, and at the age of 37 he left Chatham to serve the Confederacy as a staff officer. His wife and children remained at the house until the spring of 1862, when the arrival of Union troops forced them to abandon the building and move in with relatives across the river in the beleaguered city of Fredericksburg. For much of the next thirteen months, Chatham would be occupied by the Union army; they referred to it as the "Lacy House" in their orders and reports, as well as diaries and letters.

Northern officers initially used the mansion as a headquarters. In April 1862, General Irvin McDowell brought 30,000 men to Fredericksburg. From his Chatham headquarters, the general supervised the repair of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad and the construction of several bridges across the Rappahannock River. Once that work was complete, McDowell planned to march south and join forces with the Army of the Potomac outside Richmond.

President Abraham Lincoln journeyed to Fredericksburg to confer with McDowell about the movement, meeting with the general and his staff at Chatham. His visit gave Chatham the distinction of being one of three houses visited by both Lincoln and Washington (the other two are Mount Vernon and Berkeley Plantation on the James River east of Richmond.) While at Chatham, Lincoln went to Fredericksburg, walked its streets, and visited a New York regiment encamped on what would become known as "Marye's Heights" during the later battle.

Seven months after Lincoln's visit to Chatham, fighting erupted at Fredericksburg. In November 1862, General Ambrose E. Burnside brought the 120,000-man Army of the Potomac to Fredericksburg. Using pontoon bridges, Burnside crossed the Rappahannock River below Chatham, seized Fredericksburg, and launched a series of bloody assaults against Lee's Confederates, who held the high ground behind the town. One of Burnside's top generals, Edwin Sumner, observed the battle from Chatham, while Union artillery batteries shelled the Confederates from adjacent bluffs.

Fredericksburg was a disastrous Union defeat. Burnside suffered 12,600 casualties in the battle, many of whom were brought back to Chatham for care. For several days, army surgeons operated on hundreds of soldiers inside the house. Assisting them were volunteers, including the poet Walt Whitman and Clara Barton, who later founded the American chapter of the International Red Cross.

Whitman came to Chatham searching for a brother who was wounded in the fighting. He was shocked by the carnage. Outside the house, at the foot of a tree, he noticed "a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc.-about a load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near," he added, "each covered with its brown woolen blanket." In all, more than 130 Union soldiers died at Chatham and were buried on the grounds. After the war, their bodies were removed to the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Years later when three additional bodies were discovered, the remains were buried at Chatham, in graves marked by granite stones lying flush to the ground.

In the winter following the battle, the Union army camped in Stafford County, behind Chatham. The Confederate army occupied Spotsylvania County, across the river. Opposing pickets patrolled the riverfront, keeping a wary eye on their foe. Occasionally the men would trade newspapers and other articles by means of miniature sailboats. When not on duty, Union pickets slept at Chatham; Dorothea Dix of the United States Sanitary Commission operated a soup kitchen in the house. As the winter progressed and firewood became scarce, some soldiers tore paneling from the walls for fuel, exposing the underlying plaster. Some of the soldiers' pencil graffiti is still visible, with additional scrawls being deciphered by Park Service staff.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker served the wounded at Chatham. Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor, the only woman from the Civil War to be so recognized, for her meritorious service to the wounded during several battles. When the law for the Medal of Honor was changed to restrict the medal to combat veterans, the US government asked her to return hers. She refused and died with the medal in her possession. Her family continued to petition for the full restoration of the honor. In 1977, then-President Jimmy Carter signed the Congressional bill into law that restored Dr. Walker's medal.

Military activity resumed in the spring. In April, the new Union commander, General Joseph Hooker, led most of the army upriver, crossing behind Lee's troops. Other portions remained in Stafford County, including John Gibbons' division at Chatham. The Confederates marched out to meet Hooker's main force and for a week fighting raged around a country crossroad known as Chancellorsville. At the same time, Union troops crossed the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg and drove a Confederate force off Marye's Heights, behind the town. Many of 1,000 casualties suffered by the Union army in that 1863 engagement were sent back to Chatham which again served as a hospital.

Postwar years

By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, Chatham was desolate and severely damaged. Blood stains spotted the floors, graffiti marred its bare plaster walls and sections of the interior wood paneling had been removed for firewood. In addition to the damaged house, the grounds had suffered. The surrounding forests had been cut down for fuel, the gardens and several of the outbuildings where damaged or destroyed, and the lawn had been used as a graveyard. In 1868 the Lacys returned to their home. Unable to maintain it properly, they moved to their house known as "Ellwood" and sold Chatham in 1872.

The property had a succession of owners until the 1920s, when Daniel and Helen Devore undertook its restoration (and made significant changes). They literally saved the house. During the restoration, they re-oriented the house away from the west front on the river, as it was no longer the main transportation route; they made the east entrance the main entrance, easily reached by the automobile. They also added a large, walled English-style garden designed by the noted landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman on the east side. Shipman completed re-making of the estate's grounds. As a result of the DeVores' efforts, Chatham regained its place among Virginia's finest homes.

Today the house and the 85 acres (340,000 m2) of surrounding grounds are open to the public. The last private owner, Dwight Eisenhower.

Upon Pratt's death in 1975, his will bequeathed land for parks to Stafford County and Fredericksburg, as well as a large section to the region's YMCA. This also left the manor house and approximately 30 acres (120,000 m2) surrounding it to the National Park Service, which uses it as the headquarters facility for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Five of the rooms are open as a museum facility, and the grounds are open to the public. The remainder of the house and outbuildings are used as administrative offices and maintenance facilities. In the late summer and early fall of 2014, the National Park Service undertook landscaping project designed to improve the vistas to and from Chatham. By clearing trees, the Park Service hopes to increase visibility of the house and, in essence, restore the view to what it was in the past.

Additional support for the site since 2012 has been provided by the Friends of Chatham, an affiliate of Friends of Frededricksburg Area Battlefields, a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Organization, formed to support the preservation of the historic building and its grounds. In partnership with a local Rotary Club, as well as an area garden club, the Friends group is providing extensive garden maintenance and plantings to supplement NPS budgeted services there. Also, to add to the federal expenditures on the large house, the Friends are repairing the 1940s era Summer House—at the edge of the gardens—and initiating a project to repair all 80-plus windows in the original house and outbuidlings. Visit for more information.


See also


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places.  
  2. ^ Copied from "Chatham Manor", National Park Service, accessed 11 Apr 2009

External links

  • Chatham Manor "Chatham Manor", National Park Service website
  • Chatham Plantation: Witness to the Civil War, a National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan
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