By Colin Woodward
On a surprisingly warm day in early December, I visited Chatham again. I had gone there a few months ago to talk with John Hennessy of the National Park Service. During my first visit, I didn’t have a chance to take any pictures of the house and the grounds. This time, I made sure I got plenty of photographs, especially as I was taking them around the time of the anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg.
Chatham, as is true of Stratford, is a colonial house with strong connections to the Lee family and the Civil War. Burnside used the house as his headquarters in December 1862, which offered (and still does) a terrific view of downtown Fredericksburg. Today, visitors have a chance to imagine the opening days of the battle from the Union perspective. When you are on the Rappahannock side of the house, you can see church spires and buildings, where Confederate sharpshooters hid in order to fire at the Yankees crossing the river.
Over the years, Chatham has seen many people come and go. Some of them have been presidents. Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson set foot in the house, as did Eisenhower, William Henry Harrison, and James Monroe.
The 180 foot long mansion was built by William Fitzhugh (1741-1809) a planter, politician, and friend of Washington and the Lee family. Fitzhugh not only owned Chatham, he also bought the Lee family home in Alexandria that had served as the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee.
Not content to stop there, Fitzhugh also built Ravensworth, which was used by the Lee family during the Civil War and beyond. William’s daughter, Mary Lee Fitzhugh (1788-1853), married George Washington Parke Custis, whose daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, became Mrs. Robert E. Lee.
At the time of the war, the master of Chatham was James Horace Lacy. Lacy, a Missouri-born minister’s son, bought the house in 1857 from his sister-in-law. During the war, the mansion was known as the Lacy House. He would serve as the owner for nearly fifty years, though the house was wrecked during the war.
Lacy, as was true of so many planters, owned slaves and had land in various locations. He owned not only Chatham, but the Ellwood house in Orange County on the Wilderness battlefield site, where Stonewall Jackson’s arm was (supposedly) buried. Lacy’s brother, Beverley Tucker Lacy, was Jackson’s chaplain, who apparently buried the arm on the property. James Power Smith, who later married Lacy’s daughter Agnes, put the marker up where Jackson’s arm is reputed to have been laid to rest.
Major Lacy’s wartime experiences brought him far from Chatham. He was captured and imprisoned in 1861 but released. He initially served in Virginia under General Gustavus Smith but later moved to the western theatre, where he helped supply the Rebel armies.
The Lacy family was forced to flee once Federal troops arrived at Chatham. The Yankees occupied the house for 13 months. At the battle of Fredericksburg, Burnside’s men suffered 12,600 casualties. Chatham became a Union hospital. The Continental Monthly wrote in 1863: “Every wall and floor is saturated with blood, and the whole house . . . seems to have been suddenly transformed into a butcher’s shamble.” The Monthly noted that “all that is elegant is wretched; all that was noble is shabby; all that once told of civilized elegance now speaks of ruthless barbarism.” The slaughter brought even more famous names to the house. Walt Whitman and Clara Barton went to Chatham to nurse the wounded.
After the war, James Horace Lacy returned to find thousands of smashed panes of glass, blood-stained floors, and graffiti on the walls. Federal troops had chopped down trees, and scores of men had been buried on the grounds. As a planter, furthermore, Lacy saw the war free his slaves. Chatham still stood, but it would take decades before the mansion returned to its former glory.
Lacy and his wife Bettie lived into the 20th century. Lacy died in 1906 and his wife died the next year. In the twentieth century, as was true of Stratford, Chatham was restored. By the 1920s, the house was again photogenic. Chatham went through various owners until the 1970s. In 1975, it was willed to the National Park Service, where it is now the headquarters of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania military park system.