During the Civil War, Chatham served as Union Army headquarters, communications center, a sanctuary for soldiers picketing the Rappahannock River, and as a hospital. Following the Battle of Fredericksburg, hundreds of wounded Union soldiers, and a few wounded Confederates, received treatment inside the main house. One source placed the number treated at Chatham between December 13 and December 15, 1862 at 371. Clara Barton, who assisted the surgeons at Chatham described the crowded conditions:
“They covered every foot of the floors and porticos and even lay on the stair landings! A man who could find opportunity to lie between the legs of a table thought himself lucky. He was not likely to be stepped on. In a common cupboard, with four shelves, five men lay, and were fed and attended. Three lived to be removed, and two died of their wounds. Every man had left his blood at Fredericksburg – every one was from the Lacy house.”
It is not surprising that some of those treated at Chatham found time to leave their mark on its walls. Sergeant Sylvester Ostrander of 16th Michigan Infantry was one such patient.
On March 14, 1994, park Maintenance Workers James Patterson and Bob McGibbony were stripping paint from the plaster walls within the Morning Room at Chatham. They uncovered a good bit of graffiti, but only one piece was legible and that was the signature of Sergeant Ostrander.
Sylvestar Ostrander was a native of New York, having been born in Monroe in September of 1832. The 1860 Census shows him living in Marquette County as an unskilled laborer. He began his military career in the spring of 1861 when he enlisted as a 90-day volunteer in the 1st Michigan Infantry. Private Ostrander served in Company F of that regiment and fought at the Battle of 1st Manassas before mustering out at the end of his term of service on August 1, 1861. Three weeks later, he re-enlisted.
Perhaps due to his prior experience, he mustered in as a sergeant in Company G of the 16th Michigan Infantry. With his regiment, he participated in the Peninsular Campaign and the Seven Days Battles around Richmond, Va. On June 27, 1862, at the Battle of Gaines Mill, Sergeant Ostrander suffered a slight wound when he was struck in the right hip by a bullet or small shell fragment. The wound was not serious enough to require hospitalization and Ostrander remained with his regiment.
Sergeant Ostrander survived the December 13, 1862 Union assualts at Fredericksburg, but suffered a debilitating wound the following day, while still on the field of battle. At some point during the day on December 14, a bullet struck him in the torso. The bullet entered between the seventh and eighth ribs, eight inches from the sternum on the left side of his chest and extited his back, missing his spine by a mere five inches, but clipped the lower lobe of his lung. Shortly after his wounding, Ostrander was probably removed to Chatham for treatment. It is likely during his stay in the house that he scribbled his name on the wall.
On December 24, Sergeant Ostrander was admitted into a hospital in Washington, D.C. Although he recovered from his wound, Ostrander never returned to his regiment. On July 16, 1863, he was transferred to the Veteran Reserve Corps. On August 7, he was assigned to the 12th Company, 2nd Battalion of the Veteran Reserve Corps, with the rank of 1st Sergeant. He performed duties at Columbia General Hospital in Washington, D.C. On August 23, 1864, Sergeant Ostrander mustered out of service.
Returning to Michigan, Ostrander married Julia A. Wright just three weeks after leaving the army. The wound he received at Fredericksburg stayed with him for the rest of his life. In 1866, he was granted a veterans pension of $4.00 a month. This amount was cut to $3.00 in 1877 before eventually rising to $12.00 a month in 1892. On August 14, 1899, Sylvester Ostrander died and is buried in Redford, Micgigan.
As work continues on the house, there is always the possibility that more names of its patients and visitors will be found.
Much of the material on Sylvester Ostrander’s life, both civilian and military, comes from research conducted in 1994 by Roger Hill of Annandale, Virginia. A paper written by Mr. Hill is on file at Chatham.
For more of Chatham’s graffiti, see this previous post.
Eric J. Mink