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Chatham

Chatham

For over 200 years Chatham has stood on the high ridge above the Rappahannock River, a serene sentinel watching over the city of Fredericksburg. The house and its occupants have been involved in most of the critical events of Virginia’s history from the American Revolution through the War of 1812 and the Civil War. The design of the house bespeaks the elegance and dignity of the Virginia plantation era at its height. That dignity was sorely strained during the unwelcome Yankee intrusion of the Civil War; like the spirit of the war-ravaged Southerners, however, it emerged from the experience older, somewhat battered but none the less proud.

William Fitzhugh I (c.1651-1701) arrived in Virginia about 1670 and settled on the Potomac River in Stafford County (now King George County) on a plantation which he called Bedford. Fitzhugh was a planter, politician, attorney, and a very wealthy man. Although far removed geographically from others of his class at Jamestown, Fitzhugh managed his own estate, was a leading lawyer and Queen’s Counsel, and a member of the House of Burgesses as well as Lieutenant Colonel of the Stafford militia. He maintained a sizable law practice and served as a justice of the Stafford Court, where he became a friend and law partner with George Brent of Woodstock on Aquia Creek....

William I’s tremendous land holdings eventually passed to his great-grandson, William, land holdings which included the acreage that would later become Chatham. Earlier generations of Fitzhughs had operated a plantation on the Chatham property and had built a grist mill on Claiborne Run about a mile east of the present house, but a sizable dwelling at Chatham did not arise until the time of William I’s great-grandson, William (1741-1809), who for the sake of clarity is referred to as William of Chatham. This William was born at Eagle’s Nest, the Fitzhugh estate in King George County, and was descended from William I’s son Henry (1686-1758) and his grandson, Henry of Eagle’s Nest (c.1705-1742). The wealthiest of the Fitzhugh clan, William of Chatham married Ann Randolph (1747-1805) of Henrico County.

The young couple were living at Somerset in King George County when Fitzhugh decided to seat the Rappahannock property across from the new town of Fredericksburg. Fitzhugh sold 10,000 acres to finance the building of the house which he named after William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. Though quite long, the house was not wide. A two-story center section was flanked by two single-story wings built of Flemish bond brickwork with glazed headers.

The Virginia plantation era was at its height and the economy was strong. Fitzhugh continued to add to his land holdings until by 1768 the Quit Rent rolls list him as owning 23,975 acres, the total being comprised of numerous individual plantations. From 1783 to 1785 he was taxed on 105 slaves, 29 horses, and 28 cattle in Stafford County alone.

The Chatham plantation consisted of some seven hundred acres worked by a large number of slaves. Fitzhugh was keenly interested in experimental farming and planted a great variety of crops, testing their success in the Virginia soil.

In 1771 Fitzhugh was elected to represent King George County in the House of Burgesses during the turbulent period preceding the Revolution. In 1775 he was present at the Second Virginia Convention and heard Patrick Henry make his fiery speech. A strong supporter of the American cause, he contributed substantial funds to help his friend and neighbor, James Hunter, manufacture guns and supplies for the Revolution.

In 1777 Fitzhugh became a Burgess of Stafford County. A redrawing of county lines earlier that same year had placed Chatham in Stafford rather than in King George. After the Revolution, Fitzhugh continued to farm at Chatham despite the financial and physical strain. The economy floundered after the war and he was no longer a young man. In his fifties, Fitzhugh found Chatham a burden and sold the house and 1,288 acres in 1806 to Major Churchill Jones for $20,000. At this time the house consisted of nine large rooms, a center entry hall, two pairs of stairs and a cellar. There were numerous outbuildings including a meathouse, laundry, several offices, storehouses, stables for thirty horses, a carriage house, kitchen, servants’ quarters for fifty, barns, granary, sheds, overseer’s house, and a blacksmith shop. In the gardens grew all sorts of fruits and there were fields of clover and hay as well as open fields for planting all types of crops.

It was Churchill Jones who built the first bridge across the Rappahannock River to Fredericksburg. This marvel of engineering was a massive stone and timber structure that took one and one-half years to build but was washed away three years later in the flood of 1826.

Churchill died in 1822 and Chatham was inherited by his brother, William. Chatham was just one of several plantations belonging to William Jones, who was an astute businessman and something of a dandy. Despite the fact that they were no longer in style, he dressed in ruffled shirts and knee britches until he died. After over forty years of marriage, he became a widow in 1823 at the age of seventy-three. Apparently single life didn’t agree with him for five years later he shocked the community by marrying Lucy Gordon, his first wife’s niece. Lucy was sixteen. The marriage lasted eighteen years and, in 1829, produced a daughter, Betty Churchill Jones.

William continued to live at his Spotsylvania home, Ellwood, but in 1825 deeded the Chatham farm to his son-in-law, John Coalter and Hannah Jones Coalter, daughter by his first marriage. During the Coalter tenure, Chatham was known for its splendid hospitality and many dignitaries visited the plantation.

Betty Jones spent her childhood at Ellwood but was sent to Chatham to be educated. She spent several years there, enjoying the endless visitors and lovely parties. She felt at home at Chatham and came to love the beautiful plantation.

In time Betty was sent away to continue her education. She fell in love with her tutor, James Horace Lacy, the Missouri-born son of a Presbyterian minister and they were married at Ellwood in 1848.

In 1857 Betty’s half-sister, Hannah Coalter, died. She left Chatham to her daughter, Janet, for her lifetime, then to Betty’s children. Unfortunately, Janet was physically and mentally handicapped and unable to manage Chatham. Contrary to Hannah’s wishes, the executors of the estate put Chatham up for sale. Betty, who had always loved Chatham, wanted to live there again so Horace bought it for her.

Chatham thrived under the Lacy tenure, producing bountiful crops and seven Lacy children. Several hundred slaves worked the fields, planted and tilled the gardens, maintained the magnificent brick home and tended the endless domestic chores of a well-to-do Virginia plantation household.

Betty’s comfortable life at Chatham was brought to a sudden, cruel end when, on April 22, 1862, Union general Irvin McDowell and his troops moved onto the estate. The Lacys were ordered to leave their home. McDowell had chosen Chatham as his headquarters because its position high above the Rappahannock provided a fine view of the town of Fredericksburg below. In some respects, this occupation may have been a blessing, for McDowell respected the property and took care to see that it was not totally destroyed. He even had two French chefs brought in to cook and he frequently entertained important guests at Chatham, including Abraham Lincoln. During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Chatham served as a hospital and Clara Barton nursed the wounded on the lawn outside the house.

Horace joined the Confederate army and Betty and her young children left Chatham for a safer part of the state. Horace, with his connections to many influential Southern supporters, was considered “one of the most dangerous rebels” in this part of the state. He was with Robert E. Lee in Fredericksburg in 1862 and the two of them looked across the river at the Yankees occupying Chatham. Horace asked Lee to shell the house and the despised intruders, but Lee refused. He, too, had been a visitor in the fine old home and could not bear the responsibility for its destruction.

In November 1865, seven months after the war had ended, Betty and Horace and their seven children moved back to Chatham. There was little left that even resembled their once-lovely home. The house had been used by the Yankees as a field station, hospital, and troop headquarters. Fredericksburg had been shelled from cannon placed in the garden overlooking the town. Wagon wheels and thousands of marching feet had all but destroyed the lawns, which were also littered with the graves of Union soldiers and overgrown with briars and weeds. The great shade trees had all been cut to the ground. The interior floors had been damaged when soldiers had ridden their horses through the house. The banisters, doors, windows, and some of the paneling had been ripped out for firewood. Over 5,000 panes of glass were broken and the fields were overgrown.

Betty wept when she saw what had become of her home. She thought they would at least still have her beautiful mahogany and walnut furniture, but much of that was lost, also. General Lee had managed to remove most of the valuable furnishings just prior to Union occupation. He had had them transported across the James River for safekeeping, but on the way back to Chatham, the boat sank. After two months on the river bottom, some fo the furniture was salvaged and dried out but much of it was ruined.

Even after the Lacys’ return to Chatham, life was dangerous and difficult. The government Burial Corps dug up the lawn once again, exhuming the remains of the soldiers and reburying them at the cemetery in Fredericksburg. The children couldn’t even play outside without risking being hit by stray bullets from occupation troops in Fredericksburg.

Betty and Horace struggled to return the plantation to a working farm, a difficult task with a labor force, a nearly impossible one without. Lacy had never been as wealthy as the previous Chatham owners and the economic depression that followed the war proved more than he could manage. The Lacys simply could not afford to keep their home and they sold it in 1872 to a Pennsylvania banker for $23,900, which was $12,000 less than they had paid for it fifteen years earlier. The Lacys moved into Fredericksburg and became active in town affairs.

After the war, Chatham exchanged hands several times before being purchased by Mr. and Mrs. John Lee Pratt in 1931. By this time, the estate consisted of 256 acres. Mrs. Pratt engaged the services of numerous gardeners to tend the flowers and grounds. Not only interested in gardening, she was also a collector of fine art and gave to the Virginia Museum in Richmond a priceless collection of Russian jeweled Easter eggs created by Peter Paul Fabergé.

The Pratts had no children and, at his death in 1975, the property was willed to the National Park Service. It is now open to the public, although the Pratt’s exquisite furnishings were auctioned in 1976. The Park Service has undertaken extensive research into the history of this magnificent old home and has determined that most of what survived the Civil War is original to the Fitzhugh home. The focus of the Park Service interpretation is the role of Chatham during the Civil War.

This article originally appeared in They Called Stafford Home: The Development of Stafford County, Virginia, from 1600 until 1865, by Jerrilynn Eby, and appears here with the author’s gracious permission.