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File:Chatham Manor.JPG

Chatham Manor, March 2008.

Template:North American Slave Revolts Chatham Manor is the Georgian-style home built between 1768 and 1771 by William Fitzhugh 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: 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. The house was named after British parliamentarian William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, who championed many of the opinions held by American colonists prior to the Revolutionary War.[1]

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. One slave was killed in the attack, two died trying to escape, and two others were deported.

Slavery at Chatham[]

Fitzhugh owned upwards of one hundred 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. No physical remains show where slaves lived; all knowledge of slaves at Chatham is 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. She stated that, upon her death, her slaves would have the choice of being freed and migrating to Liberia, with passage paid for, or remaining as slaves for the new owner of Chatham.

That new owner, J. Horace Lacy, took the will to court to challenge it and have 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 -- without choice -- and not persons with choice.

The slave story at Chatham ended in 1865 with end of the Civil War, and passage of the Constitutional Amendment abolishing the institution.

Recent research, led largely by National Park Service historians, has revealed a sketch made by a New Jersey soldier during the Civil War that showed other buildings at the Chatham site. Most slave dwellings were thought to be in the "rear", or non-river side area of the estate, an area long over cultivated and upon which had been built 20th Century structures. The sketches show buildings 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 show the faint rooflines of buildings in that area, thus indicating the possible location of heretofore unconfirmed slave dwellings. More of the slave era story at Chatham may now be discovered.


Fitzhugh was a friend and colleague of George Washington, whose family's farm was just down the Rappahannock River from Chatham. Washington's diaries note that he was a frequent guest at Chatham. He and Fitzhugh had served together in the House of Burgesses prior to the American Revolution, and they shared a love of farming and horses. Fitzhugh's daughter, Mary Lee, would marry the first president's step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. Their daughter wed the future Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Evidence supports that Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe also visited at Chatham, beginning a veritable "Who's Who" of important Americans who stopped in to enjoy Fitzhugh's hospitality. His feasts were legendary and included caviar from the sturgeon in the Rappannock. (They lasted in that habitat until the 1930s.) Fitzhugh trapped the fish in what essentially was a "caviar factory" on his river frontage.

In 1806 Major Churchill Jones, a former officer in the Continental Army, purchased the plantation for 20,000 dollars. His family owned the property for the next 66 years.

William Henry Harrison stopped by Chatham in 1841 on his way to be inaugurated as President.

The Civil War[]

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 plantation owner and slaveholder, 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 across the river. For much of the next thirteen months, Chatham would be occupied by the Union army who would refer to the manson as the "Lacy House" in their orders and reports as well as diaries and letters.

Northern officers initially utilized the building 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 of 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).

Seven months after Lincoln's visit, fighting erupted at Fredericksburg itself. 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 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.

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, she was asked 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 of Marye's Heights, behind the town. Many of 1,000 casualties suffered by the Union army in that engagement were sent back to Chatham.

Postwar years[]

File:Chatham Manor House .jpg

Chatham Manor, Historic American Buildings Survey

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 and used for firewood. In addition to the damage to the house itself there was a lot of damage to the grounds as well; The surrounding forests had been cut down for fuel, the gardens and several of the outbuildings where damaged or destroyed and the lawn had become a graveyard. In 1868 the Lacys returned to their home but were unable to maintain it properly and moved to another house they owned called "Ellwood", selling 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). Their efforts can probably be credited with literally saving the house. In addition to the restoration, the DeVore's re-oriented the house away from the river / West front and made the East entrance the main entrance. They also added a large, walled English-style garden on the East. As a result of their 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 owner John Lee Pratt purchased Chatham from the Devores in 1931 for $150,000 cash. Chatham's distinction as a destination of note continued during his ownership. Serving as one of President Roosevelt's "Dollar-a-Year" men, Pratt met and had as visitors Gen. George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower. Upon Pratt's death in 1975, his will provided additional land for parks to Stafford County and Fredericksburg, as well as a large section to the region's YMCA.

Pratt gave 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 offices and support facilities.


See also[]


  1. Copied from "Chatham Manor", National Park Service, accessed 11 Apr 2009

External links[]