Digging Mannsfield

From John Hennessy (click here for a short prior post on an artifact from Mannsfield). Information on Mannsfield’s location and current condition is at the end of this post. Please remember that the site of Mannsfield is on private property and not accessible to the public.

Spotsylvania has been particularly hard-hit by the loss of historic homes over the decades. In some areas, you can travel miles without coming upon an antebellum home–this on a landscape that was once liberally dotted with them. Some succumbed to war, more to neglect. And a few disappeared to the bulldozer’s blade. Of all those that have vanished, none in its day shined more brightly than Mannsfield.

The remains of Mannsfield, probably in the 1870s. The ruins of the big house are at center; the north wing at left, and the south wing on just on the right edge. These ruins stood until the 1920s.

It stood about two miles south of downtown Fredericksburg, on the banks of the Rappahannock River.  Mannsfield is today most famous as the site where Union general George Dashiel Bayard was killed at the battle of Fredericksburg–he was mortally wounded in he front yard and died just four days before what was to have been his wedding day. But, in fact, Mannsfield was probably the most impressive antebellum plantation in the Fredericksburg region, and one of the oldest, too. It was built in 1765-1766 for Mann Page III,* and it was close to being a literal copy of Richmond County’s Mount Airy, where Page’s mother grew up a Tayloe (the only major difference I can see is the design of the riverside entryway–otherwise the places seem to have been identical; Mount Airy still stands). Page was the Fredericksburg region’s first congressman, selected to the Continental Congress in 1777, at age 28. He died in 1803 and is buried in the nearby family cemetery–the only surviving feature of the Mannsfield complex.

Stuart Barnetts romantic vision of the west (front) facade of Mannsfield, showing the main house and wings.

The house was anything but understated, built of sandstone blocks with two advanced, detached wings linked to the main house by a circular covered walkway. In the main house was nearly 7,000 square feet of living space, plus an elaborate basement. By the time of the Civil War (when Arthur Bernard owned it), thirty outbuildings sprawled across Mannsfield’s 1,800 acres (one of the biggest plantations around), including a stable, corn house, machine house, three barns,  dairy, garden office, pump house, meat house, three poultry houses, ice house, a private owner’s stable, carriage house, overseer’s house, blacksmith shop, tobacco house, and six slave cabins (the site of some of these cabins, which in 1860 housed some of Bernard’s 77 slaves, is in the park off Lee Drive). Mannsfield’s prominence guaranteed it got attention in both peace and war. Washington reputedly visited here; so too did Union luminaries in 1862. For long stretches of 1862 and 1863, the house was in Confederate hands. Indeed, it was by the hands of Confederate pickets that the big house burned, accidentally, in early April 1863.

The standing ruins, looking at the west facade--looking southeast likely in the 1870s. The north wing is at left, the ruins of the big house faintly visible at center, and he remnants of the south wing at right.

The ruins of the main house and the decaying remnants of the wings stood for six decades, until the early 1920s when artist Gari Melchers of Belmont acquired the accessible stone from the then landowner, R.A. James. According to local news reports, Melchers used stone from Mannsfield to build his new studio on the grounds of Belmont. Some of it also ended up in local buildings, like this one on Virginia Ave–near upper Princess Anne Street.

A decade later, the National Park Service undertook a well-photographed investigation of Mannsfield.

That work is usually described as an archeological investigation, but it resembled archeology only to the extent that my singing resembles…well…singing. The work was directed not by an archeologist, but by a historical architect named Stuart M. Barnett. Assisting Barnett were eight workers from one of the local Civilian Conservation Corps camps. They did the digging, Barnett did the measuring, drawing, and talking. Barnett’s purpose was to expose and document the foundation of the big house and wings and determine, if possible, whether Mannsfield was in fact a twin of Mount Airy, as had long been presumed. He was apparently unaware of a wartime engraving of the house that might have rendered his work unnecessary.

This image of Mannsfield appeared in the January 10, 1863 issue of Harpers Weekly

Though by today’s measures Barnett’s work was a horrific, unscientific destruction of one of the region’s most important archeological sites, he did indeed succeed in his purpose. The project yielded some beautiful renderings by Barnett, along with some vivid photography of the ruins.

Here is Barnett’s rendering of the east (riverside) facade. Its perspective matches almost exactly that of the image published in Harpers.

A diagrammatic sketch of the foundation ruins as Barnett and his crew found them in 1935:

Click to enlarge

Fully uncovered, the basement and foundation looked like something out of biblical Jerusalem. This image shows the basement of the main house, looking northwest:

A closer view of the doorway within the cellar.

The door led to this intact cellar room with an impressive vaulted ceiling. Barnett speculated the room was used to store wines and perishables:

Barnett’s workers also revealed the stone-paved walkways that connected the main house with the wings.  A modern archeologist would cringe at the haphazard scatter of cut stone and soil obviously just pushed to the side to reveal the underlying pavers. Still, it’s hard to imagine a more elegant setting for a stroll in 1776:

While much of the stone used in the basement appears roughly cut, Barnett uncovered at least one remnant of a wall with highly finished stone. This almost certainly reflects the above-ground appearance of both the big house and the forward wings.

While it was not Barnett’s purpose to retrieve artifacts, he most certainly did. The local newspaper reported that the CCC workers “have been digging in the ruins. Bits of china, metal work and plaster are preserved in fact nothing that was associated with the razed house is left to further exposure of the elements.” Eric Mink tells me that at other similar architecture-driven investigations (Catharine Furnace and the Chancellor House ruins were similarly investigated by Barnett), the workers simply threw the artifact haul back into the site when they were done. Not so here. Clearly someone kept the artifacts. Where they are today is a mystery (the land was privately owned at the time, and the NPS had no claim to the artifacts; the best guess is that they stayed with the property owner).

A huge variety of metal pieces came out of the site.

Farm implements

Decorative iron work

Firebacks. The park indeed has a fireback from Mannsfield in its collection, though it was donated by a local resident--not recovered from the site in 1935.

What of the site today?  In the early 1960s, VDOT mined gravel and sand from the site for the construction of I-95. Today the ground is likely many feet lower than it was in 1766 or 1860. The archeological remains of Mannsfield are today amidst fill holding up some part of I-95. Only the cemetery remains.

The site of the house and its wings straddles the property line between modern soccer fields and a subdivision.  In the photo below, the cemetery is the wooded knoll to the right; Mannsfield stood near the site of the white shed visible at left. It’s likely that the historic level of the land was at the height of the cemetery knoll; quarry operations appear to have removed 15-20 feet of soil, gravel, and sand.

Please note that the site of Mannsfield is privately owned and not accessible to the public.

For those of you wanting to read Barnett’s meager report on this huge project, you can find it here.  In a future post we’ll dig for Mannsfield in the background of some well-known Civil War photos and offer up some of the outstanding documentation Noel Harrison has accumulated on the place over the years.

*As with many Colonial gentrymen, confusion reigns when it comes to names and generations. There were in fact six Mann Pages. One–Mann Page’s younger half brother–died soon after birth. Most historians ignore his presence in the lineage and designate Mann Page (born 11749) of Mannsfield as Mann Page III, though in fact he was the fourth to beat that name. We can only be thankful Page wasn’t a Fitzhugh. There were TEN William Fitzhughs alive in the 18th century, scattered from Chatham to Annapolis.

15 thoughts on “Digging Mannsfield

  1. I find this, and the other, past postings I have seen fascinating. I live in Springfield and probably won’t get much closer to Fdksbg again (age, lessened mobility) but have spent enough time in and going through/around town to be able to orient myself and follow along. I’m a lifelong Civil War buff. I don’t know what I can contribute to this operation but would be glad to help if anyone can show me how. Thanks for, and please keep up, the good work.

    • Craig. The surnames of former slaves is an interesting question. A few certainly took the names of their masters, but in my encounters of them through source material, relatively few took that course. I am unaware of the lineage of an of the Mannsfield slaves–though I confess I have done little more than glance. The one Bernard slave we do know of post-bondage was a fellow named Henry Tyler, who became something of a celebrity in 1862 when he escaped and returned to the Bend and perhaps Mannsfield to convince the remaining slaves there to leave. He was beaten for his efforts, but continued undeterred. I hope this is mildly helpful. John Hennessy

  2. Thank you Mr. Hennessy 🙂 I’ve been working on my family tree in my spare time and have traced the Mann branch to Virginia where things become less clear because of slavery. I can get as far back to Fredericksville Parish, Albemarle, Virginia from the 1870 census to where my great-great grandfather (born abt 1834), wife and children were noted (counted). Funny, another branch (also on my father’s side) the Bland’s also map back to Virginia. So, I’ve got Virginia roots to the same neck of the woods connecting to some preeminent surnames of that regioin and era. Oh well, the journey continues. Craig Mann, San Jose, CA

  3. Thanks Craig. The silence imposed upon slaves found its way into the historical record, as you have painfully noted. Of the more than 250 names (almost all with just nicknames) of slaves we have documented leaving Fredericksburg farms, homes, and plantations in 1862, I’ve been able to track only a handful into freedom. It’s a tough road to travel, but good luck to you, and if we can help in any way, let us know. John H.

  4. Hi John, Apparently Mr. Bernard was quite a Confed. Sympathyzer. Could that be a Confed flag flying from Mannsfield in the Harpers Weekly sketch?
    Bob Barnshaw

    • Both of the Bernard brothers were widely known as Confederate sympathizers, as were most people in the Fredericksburg region. But I do think the flag in the image is a US flag. It would have taken intolerable nerve to display the CS flag while the Union army was using your house as a headquarters…. Thanks for reading. John

  5. I appreciate all your hard work in uncovering the mysteries behind this grand southern plantation. I grew up in Fredericksburg, was a history major at UVA, and wrote my senior history thesis on family graveyards. I found a few books that mentioned Mansfield, but never gave the exact location of the ruins or family graveyard. I had wanted to include this in my research, and perhaps take a photo and document the ancestors buried there. Ironically, my parents moved to a small retirement community called Mansfield, as, yes, it is within walking distance to where the house stood. Thank you for all your research and wonderful photos! I am still very much a history buff, and now that the internet is here, I am able to read about mysteries such as Mansfield.

  6. On a pay newspaper archive site, I came across an August 1796 advertisement for the establishment of horse races on the Mannsfield plantation. The ad seems to have been placed by Larkin Stanard (evidently the secretary of the newly-constituted Rappahannock Jockey Club).

    The first sentence of the ad entitled “Fredericksburg Races” read, in part: “… the races will commence on the third Tuesday in October next, over the course on the ground of Mann Page, Esq.”

    Indeed, after an earlier aborted attempt to get the club up and running, the races took place as scheduled on Tuesday, October 18 and continued that week as advertised. The history was summarized from the records of John Tayloe in the following publication. His two famous mares, Virago and Calypso, captured the first official races run at Mannsfield:


    (The link between the Pages and the Tayloes was mentioned in one of the posts here.)

    According to my research, the races were run continuously at Mannsfield through at least 1805; also, in the Fredericksburg vicinity in 1810 and 1819-20. (It is likely that the latter races were at Mannsfield.) I also seem to recall that racing was reconstituted in Fredericksburg in the 1830s or 1840s, but I cannot easily locate those mentions.

    Many great horses of the era ran at Mannsfield, including the incomparable grey gelding Leviathan, who happened to be defeated by the mare Fairy (aka “Ariadne”) during his only start there on 10-13-1801.

  7. This is fascinating! I’m researching the past and I believe an ancestor was buried at Mannsfield. His name was Thomas Lunsford Lomax. When I think of the four years I spent at Mary Washington and these ancestors were just a hoot and holler away! I could have done the research then except I was young and foolish. Thomas’ wife remarried and apparently is buried at the Masonic Cemetery in Fredericksburg. Guess I need to make a trip! Thanks.

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