A Tale of Two Presidents and One City
"Fredericksburg; may it increase and its commerce flourish." --Toast by George Washington, 1784
Fredericksburg-area residents and visitors have the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Washington and Lincoln. Both presidents were entertained lavishly across the river at Chatham estate, but under very different circumstances.
To Washington, this small town of Fredericksburg was his childhood home, populated by many friends and relatives. His sojourns here are noted in his diary with a pleasant familiarity. Lincoln's view of Fredericksburg could hardly be of greater contrast, for Fredericksburg was a Union-occupied town, and although the president was certainly welcomed by his own men, it is unlikely that the majority of the townspeople could have been friendly to him. In the chill of that December, the town would become the site of one of the Union's worst defeats.
Over a hundred years before Lincoln's visit, Washington came to the frontier port of Fredericksburg as a young boy to live on his family's farm by the Rappahannock River. This estate, known as the Ferry Farm, was inherited by him after his father's death. He along with some young relatives attended a school conducted by the Reverend Marye in Fredericksburg during the 1740s.
Some little time after his half-brother's death, he moved his residence to Mount Vernon, located within easy traveling distance of Fredericksburg. Washington spent a lot of time at his new property, improving the buildings and experimenting with agricultural techniques. Yet his Fredericksburg connections persisted. In 1752, Washington became a Mason at the Fredericksburg lodge. Today the Masonic Museum (803 Princess Anne Street) is home to a number of Washington artifacts including a painting of Washington by Gilbert Stuart, a minute book marking his initiation and even a lock of his hair.
A few years before his initiation, Betty, Washington's only sister, married Colonel Fielding Lewis who owned property in town as well as a store. Lewis' store (1200 Caroline Street) is still standing directly across the street from the library headquarters building (1201 Caroline Street) and is now undergoing renovation under the direction of the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.
As the years passed, Fielding Lewis and George Washington enjoyed a close friendship. Both held seats in the House of Burgesses, and Lewis' mansion was conveniently located en route to Williamsburg-- at that time a four-day trip. Washington often noted in his diary that he would dine at Colonel Lewis' and afterwards stay with his mother across the river at their farm.
The site of Lewis' first house can also be viewed from the library headquarters building. Fielding Lewis sold this first house in 1776 to further the construction of the mansion that became known in later decades as Kenmore. This first house of Lewis' was burned during the fire of 1807, and its replacement was built in 1817. Lewis' house was notable for the falling gardens that sloped down towards Caroline Street, the outlines of which are still visible. That structure (1201 Princess Anne Street), built in 1817, is now known as the Wheelers' house and is a private residence. Its design follows much the same lines as Fielding Lewis' original mansion.
Washington's mother, Mary, continued to live at Ferry Farm until 1772 when he at last persuaded her to move into town. Mrs. Washington lived in a small cottage at 1200 Charles Street near her daughter, Betty, and younger son, Charles. Charles sometimes entertained his brother at his house at 1306 Caroline Street which is now known as the Rising Sun Tavern and may be toured.
During the years of his presidency, Washington returned to Fredericksburg where parties were held in his honor. Washington was a frequent guest of William Fitzhugh who had built the fine mansion Chatham. Chatham is visible across the river from the rear parking lot of the downtown library and may be visited as it is now a National Park Service property. Fitzhugh was known for his love of horse racing and his extravagant entertainments. Entertaining on such a lavish scale had its costs, and in 1806 the property passed out of the hands of the Fitzhugh family.
Lincoln's time in Fredericksburg was determined by its military nature to be brief and mainly concerned with the functioning of his army. At the commencement of the Civil War, Chatham was owned by J. Horace Lacey who served as a major in the Confederacy. Chatham was occupied by Union forces and served as a headquarters during the Civil War. Walt Whitman visited there, seeking his wounded brother. The house was used as a hospital during the heaviest fighting and Clara Barton was among those who nursed the wounded. But before the worst of the fighting began, the hospital was a strategically positioned military command post.
On the morning of Friday, May 23, 1862, Abraham Lincoln arrived by train and met with Brigade Commander Marsena Rudolph Patrick, acting military governor of the town at his headquarters in the Farmer's Bank of Fredericksburg. The Farmer's Bank is now the downtown office of the PNC Bank at 900 Princess Anne Street and houses a small museum. Lincoln's mode of transport was a carriage pulled by four gray horses and owned by corps commander Irvin McDowell.
Later in the afternoon, Lincoln reviewed the federal troops at Stafford and attended a reception at Chatham. There was much pageantry, and Lincoln seemed very much at ease, joking with the soldiers. He gave orders to wait a few days before beginning the push to Richmond. This proved to be a pivotal decision and one that might have extended the conflict.
The material for this article was drawn largely from these sources, both of which are available in the library:
Chatham: The Life of a House by Ralph Happel.
* Images featured in this article are from the postcard collection of Dee Scott. Learn more about the lives of Washington and Lincoln with the webliography, Washington and Lincoln.
Places to See
A National Park Service property. William Fitzhugh entertained Washington here. The estate was later occupied by Union forces; Abraham Lincoln visited them in 1862.
Kenmore and Ferry Farm
George Washington's Fredericksburg Foundation administers these two properties. Ferry Farm was Washington's boyhood home, and Kenmore was the home of Washington's sister, Betty.
The Mary Washington House
Mary Washington's last home is located halfway between the Headquarters library and Kenmore. The property is administered by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA).
The Masonic Museum
Washington was initiated into the Freemasons at Fredericksburg. The museum has quite a number of Washington artifacts including a portrait by renowned artist Gilbert Stuart.
Princess Anne Street branch of PNC Bank
This historic building is on the site of Lincoln's visit to Fredericksburg in 1862. The museum also has exhibits on the history of banking in Fredericksburg.
The Rising Sun Tavern
This home of Washington's brother, Charles, is open to the public as a living history tavern and is also owned by the APVA.
The Virginiana Room of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library
Research room is open to the public and focuses mainly on regional history. The Web page contains a shelf list of items in the collection.
In the Library
Please note that the library owns more books on George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, many of which are located in the Virginiana Room of the Headquarters Library.
George Washington in Fredericksburg
Felder, Paula. Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg Felder, Paula. George Washington's Fredericksburg
Haynie, Mariam. Washington's Boyhood
Other Facets of Washington
Fusonie, Alan M. George Washington: Pioneer Farmer
Higginbotham, Don. George Washington and the American Military Tradition
George Washington: Founding Father
From his youth of privilege to his inauguration as the nation's first President, here is George Washington's remarkable life.
George Washington: Music for the First President
Harpsichord, violin, recorder and hammered dulcimer. Tunes include "White Cockade", "The Death of General Wolfe", "The President's March" and others.
Royster, Charles. The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of Washington's Times.
This book explores the mad scheme by prominent colonials (including young Washington) to make a financial killing by draining the Great Dismal Swamp.
On Abraham Lincoln
Four-part video series from PBS features James Earl Jones, Jason Robards and Glenn Close.
Gross, Ruth. True Stories about Abraham Lincoln.Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln.
General George Washington.
"George Washington comes thrillingly alive in this electrifying animated video about the general's extraordinary military exploits."
George Washington Wasn't Always Old.
Presents the boyhood life of George Washington up to his twenty-first birthday.
"A century ago, only one man stood in the way of the disintegration of the United States: Abraham Lincoln. This video tells the story of the first Republican president and how he helped preserve our country during the Civil War."
A Picture Book of Abraham Lincoln.
Follows the life of the popular president, from his childhood on the frontier to his assassination after the end of the Civil War.
Text and illustrations depict the life of a boy born on the Kentucky frontier who became one of the most beloved presidents. Winner of the Caldecott Medal.