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Chatham is one of America’s oldest and most beautiful houses. It was built in the 18th century by William Fitzhugh, and it served as a headquarters for the Union army during the Battle of Fredericksburg. During the Civil War, it was destroyed by Confederate soldiers. Throughout the 20th century, it was restored to its former glory so that people could visit it. Inside Chatham house are films and displays about its rich history.
Many famous people have visited Chatham in the past 200 years. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, Washington Irving, and George Marshall all visited Chatham. The house has a beautiful formal garden and it has scenic views of Fredericksburg City from its location on top of bluffs overlooking the Rappahannock River.
Chatham is also the sight of many historical events in the history of the evil institution of slavery. In January 1805, Chatham’s slaves overpowered and whipped their overseers and assistants in a minor slave rebellion. An armed posse of white men quickly gathered. They killed one slave in the attack, and two more died trying to escape capture. Two other slaves were deported, likely to the Caribbean or Louisiana, and Fitzhugh soon sold the property.
In 1857, the owner of Chatham Manor, Hannah Jones Coalter died. In her will, she manumitted her slaves and made provisions for her disabled daughter, Janet. Coalter’s family sued the estate claiming that the Dred Scott decision mandated that slaves were legally incapable of choosing to achieve freedom whether or not they had enough money to establish themselves in another state. Local judges sided with the estate and Coalter and voted that the slaves be freed. The family took the case to the Virginia Supreme Court. A divided court ruled that the slaves could not be freed and the family sold the enslaved families to J. Horace Lacy, the husband of Hannah Jones Coalter’s younger half-sister Betty. Only a single slave was allowed to purchase freedom for herself and her family.
During the American Civil War, the Lacys abandoned Chatham. It was used as Union headquarters due to its strategic location overlooking Fredericksburg. The location later became home to a major Union hospital during battles for control of Fredericksburg, Virginia City, and Spotsylvania County on route to attack Richmond. Chatham fell into great disrepair due to use and disuse during and after the war.
The Lacys sold Chatham to pay taxes in 1872. It was saved from destruction by a series of wealthy owners. Chatham was renovated and then became a tourist destination. It was willed to the National Park Service in 1975 and now serves as headquarters for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
The National Park Service began to restore the east garden in 1984. The walls, statues, and Ionic columns represent this period. In the front of the building, you can see a road that goes down to the river. There are terraces at the front of the building which offers a view of Fredericksburg landmarks on the city skyline and a model pontoon bridge section recalls Upper Pontoon Crossing where Union engineers erected their pontoon bridges during the Battle of Fredericksburg.
The house had a porch with two stories on the side where the river was. It was called a Greek revival porch. But it did not have limestone entrances so they were added in the 1920s.
If you walk around Chatham, you will see that it has pineapples on the ground. They are a symbol of hospitality. The National Park Service continues this tradition to welcome new visitors.
If you’d like to learn more about Fredericksburg, click here to read about The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.