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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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).
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.