History in the balance–Sherwood Forest and its crumbling slave cabin

From Hennessy:

Here is a
conundrum that falls not to the NPS, but to all of
us. Let’s start with some powerful context for a look at
one of the region’s most threatened, rarest structures.

duplex slave cabin at Sherwood Forest

After the
Civil War, ex-slave Randall Ward testified about his former owner,
Henry Fitzhugh of Sherwood Forest. Fitzhugh had applied to
the Federal government for damages done to his property during the
Civil War, and Ward was summoned to a hearing to comment on
Fitzhugh’s claims of loyalty (reimbursement for damage claims
required that the person making the claim be able to demonstrate he
had remained loyal to the Union throughout the war). The
government lawyer asked Ward about Fitzhugh’s treatment of slaves,
and in answering Ward offered perhaps the most stunning narrative
of cruelty to slaves ever documented in the Fredericksburg region.
He had an old Baptist colored woman there and he stripped
her stark naked and tied her to a peach tree right in the front
yard, at 12 o’clock in the day, and got a board and made holes in
it and slapped her with that I reckon about fifty lashes, and then
he got some pepper and salt and water, and made another woman wash
it over the woman he had shipped, and then he whipped into her, and
then made her after that stand up there and dance a jig for him,
and made her curse and swear for him. He did that because
this old woman had a daughter there and Mr. Fitzhugh wanted to have
an intimacy with her, and the girl didn’t want him to, and he
thought it was the old woman who kept him away.

forest during a visit by park staff in 2008

the park staff stands in front of Sherwood Forest–on or near the
site of the “peach tree in the front yard” referenced by Ward as
the scene of this horrific act. Sherwood Forest is one of the most
vivid cultural landscapes in the Fredericksburg region. It
is an 1810 plantation that still stands (though losing ground
by the day) in southern Stafford County about four miles downstream
from Fredericksburg. The place was originally owned by Mary
Ball Washington, who acquired it when she was five and owned it
until 1778–indeed the tract constituted part of what the
Washington’s called the “lower plantation” (relative to their home
at Ferry Farm). It soon passed to Jane Downman (a Ball
descendant), and in 1837 she married Henry Fitzhugh. The
newlyweds built Sherwood Forest that year. The house and
outbuildings sit on a hill about a mile from the Rappahannock. The
place offers a beautiful view of the Rappahannock bottom, but more
than that, it could be seen for miles around. During the
Union occupation of Stafford in 1862-63,, Fitzhugh’s place was
constantly used by the Union army–as a picket post, as a launch
site for balloons, and as an exceedingly well-documented field
hospital after Chancellorsville.

Today the
site sits abandoned. The house, as you can see, is boarded
up. The adjacent brick kitchen is likewise boarded
(right). About 100 feet north of the kitchen is the
duplex slave quarters, crumbling. Sherwood Forest is owned by
a major development company; the vast bottomlands around the house
(see aerial view, below) are slated for subdivision. But to
their credit, the owners have carved out 35+ acres atop the hill,
including the big house, kitchen quarters, and other outbuildings
for separate sale and, hopefully, preservation (if you have a few
extra dollars lying around and a penchant for fixer-uppers, let me
know and I’ll put you in touch with the owners). But the
duplex slave quarter sits just outside the protected area, and
the house itself is in dire need of someone to live in it and love
it. The slave quarter at Sherwood Forest is a rare survivor
of a type of building that once was common on this
landscape. It consists of two interior spaces–one,
presumably, for each family (a post-Civil War shed addition on
the back has expanded the space from its original configuration).
And though covered with asbestos shingling from the early 20th
century, most of its structural elements remain, including the

There can be no doubting the precious nature of this
building. But the conundrum: what can be done to save it? The
property is privately owned; the cabin lies outside the area
intended for protection; its salvage and restoration at this point
would be exceedingly expensive. Should it be moved and
restored elsewhere? Should it be left to ruin? Should
the community rise up to preserve it in place? What of the
big house and other buildings–they are deteriorating by the
day? What other options are there? A historic
property at risk of demolition or deterioration is not an umcommon
problem hereabouts, but in this case we have an exceedingly
uncommon resource at play. Doug Sanford and Gary
Stanton are completing a major study of slave buildings in the
Rappahannock region, and they included the cabin at Sherwood Forest
in their study. We hope to hear the results of their work
soon. I include
here a few other images and some other bits of testimony from
Fitzhugh’s claim to the Southern Claims Commission, in the National
Archives. This particular claim offers more testimony about
the treatment of slaves than any other I have seen from this
area. The government lawyer tried to equate cruelty toward
slaves with allegiance to the Confederacy (a tactic I have not seen
used in any other case), and so a good portion of the testimony
revolved around Fitzhugh’s management of his slave
population. The testimony is from the files of the
Southern Claims Commission, Henry Fitzhugh file, 1695), Court of
Claims files, Record Group 123, National Archives. We have a
copy of the entire claim (indeed of all Stafford and Spotsylvania
claims) in the park files. William
Little (a nearby farmer) on Henry Fitzhugh:
He was the finest farmer on the Rappahannock River, and
made the best crops of any man, I believe, in that section of the
country. I think Sherwood Forest was the best farm,
certainly, between Fredericksburg and the mouth of the river….He
had the reputation of being one of the best farmers in that section
of the country….He was a gentleman…”
A man named John
M. Cox helped Fitzhugh with his farm during the war. He
testified: “[Fitzhugh] was a very good man to his
family only sometimes he would get to drinking but as to anything
else when he was sober he was as nice a man as ever was born
and he had a nice family. His wife was also a Union woman—a
loyal woman she was.”
When asked if Fitzhugh whipped
slaves Cox said: “Yes sir. I heard that they used
to whip them sometimes, but I never saw him whip one in my
life. The overseers did the whipping….[they] used to whip
them in the field—that is, the overseers did, they used to have to
whip them to make them work….[didn’t see the whipping.] I
just heard the overseers whipped them. I suppose that was all
over the country.”

Interior walls. Courtesy
Gary Stanton, UMW

Ward, slave, on Fitzhugh’s treatment of him:
I belonged to Henry Fitzhugh of Sherwood Forest, Stafford
County, Virginia. … He whipped me because he said I had said
I would rather kill a Southern man than kill a Yankee. Then
he took and handcuffed me, and sent me to Fredericksburg and put me
in jail. He whipped me with a cat-o’nine-tails and I have got
the scars on me now.
Samuel Fitzhugh, a son, on
Randall Ward, the slave. “He was one of my
father’s pet servants. He didn’t do nothing but just work
around the house, hitch up the carriage, saddle the horses and one
thing and another….Never saw [my father] whip Randall Ward more
than once or twice when he took a carriage whip and slapped him
over the shoulder, with his coat on, for not cleaning the horses
off right.”
Samuel Fitzhugh, Henry’s son, when
asked about his father whipping Randall Ward: “I
don’t think my father ever had a cat and nine tails on the
farm. When they wanted to whip them they whipped them with a
cowhide—the old fashioned cowhide.”
Samuel Fitzhugh when
asked about Ward’s recounting of the whipping of the Baptist
woman: “I don’t think I ever saw my father whip one
of the Negro women more than once or twice in my life, and then he
would taka whip—a buggy whip—and strick out a few licks right
across the shoulders.”

Aerial view of the Sherwood
Forest. The house site as at the end of a half-mile-long driveway.
The Rappahannock is just off the lower left corner. Route 3 runs
through the image.

close-up of the area around the big house. The kitchen quarters are
obscured by trees.

12 thoughts on “History in the balance–Sherwood Forest and its crumbling slave cabin

  1. A fascinating post! Thank you for sharing the information about Sherwood Forest’s slave and slave holder worlds. I can only pray that the site is protected and well-cared for in the future. When I win the lottery…

    • Dustin: Your interest in Sherwood Forest in 2010 has just hit my desk. (They say nothing on the internet goes away.)

      If you are interested in an historic property that might be more manageable than Sherwood forest, I represent Cleydael in King George. It has a liveable/repairable house and 12 acres and a DHR easement. It has Virginia tax credits available to the buyer.

      Contact me at ehunton.law@verizon.net

  2. Hi,
    A friend in Virginia led me to this blog. I was looking for the Fitzhugh House near Fredericksburg, and here it is. Specifically, I’d like to know more about its documentation as a hospital and where I could get copies of the information.

    I have a particular story about this building, set in late April to mid June, 1863, when the hospital & staff, were captured by the advancing Confederate army. Surgeon Allston Waldo Whitney, of the 13th Mass. V.I. was in charge of the hospital at that time. He and several inmates were transported to Libby Prison in Richmond some days following its capture. Whitney was incarcerated for many months (January 1864 I think was his release), but the wounded who were captured were exchanged 33 days after internment at the Libby Prison Hospital. Several of the patients did not survive the ordeal. ( I research the 13th Mass.)

  3. Hi, can someone get me the information of the owner of this land. I live in king gorge and it is still abandoned and in much worse condition now. I want to explore it and look around the grounds without trespassing. I would love to get actual permission to be there.

  4. You mention that you have Henry Fitzhugh’s claims file. (Southern Claims Commission, Henry Fitzhugh file, 1695), Court of Claims files, Record Group 123, National Archives.) Do you have an electronic copy? Is there a way to request it? If so, what is the process?

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