From John Hennessy:
It is perhaps the most famous, photographed view in the Fredericksburg region: from Chatham’s middle terrace, looking over the cannons, across the Rappahannock River to Fredericksburg, with its skyline featuring the three dominant elements that have marked it since 1855–the Baptist Church, St. George’s Episcopal Church, and the Circuit Courthouse. But, while it’s pleasing and useful, it’s not the most important view related to Chatham.
Think for a moment about the great antebellum plantations. Most of them have a signature element that bespeaks the owners’ wealth and power. Kenmore has its stunning plaster work inside. Mannsfield was an elaborate, elegant place built of a material (sandstone) almost unheard of it major construction in the Fredericksburg region. Shirley has its exquisite woodwork.
But what about Chatham? What’s its signature?
On the inside, Chatham has always been rather plain. It has beautiful paneling, but little ornamentation. Architecturally, it’s fairly simple, though elegant. What distinguishes Chatham is its size. The main house is 185 feet long. Include the flanking laundry and kitchen, and the entire complex amounts to a horizontal slab of brick 220 feet long.
Situated as it is on Stafford Heights overlooking Fredericksburg, Chatham was not just meant to be seen; it was meant to awe.
Which brings us to the point of the day: historically by far the most important view or vista related to Chatham is that OF Chatham, not the view FROM Chatham. Clearly when William Fitzhugh’s had Chatham built in 1771, he meant for the place to project his wealth, status, and power within the community. If you looked east from Fredericksburg, you saw Chatham. Its visibility on the landscape is surely a major reason it attracted so many prominent visitors; certainly it’s why Union generals so often chose it as headquarters, especially during the mid-1862 occupation of Fredericksburg.
Today, Chatham’s defining place in the landscape of Fredericksburg and Stafford has been lost, diminished by trees along the formerly clear banks of the Rappahannock, disrupted by trees on the grounds of Chatham itself.
You may leap to the conclusion that this is the result of neglect–that the vistas have stealthily been reduced to the point of nothing by outsmarting unaware NPS maintenance crews over the years . You’d be wrong. In fact, Chatham’s virtual disappearance from Fredericksburg’s landscape (and, with all due apologies to Stafford County, Chatham was emphatically part of Fredericksburg’s landscape) was a conscious decision that in itself tells us something important about the centrality of the Civil War to American history. After the war–after the end of slavery–Chatham underwent a transformation common to many Southern plantations: from a working, profit-oriented plantation of 1300 acres to a vastly smaller (30 acres) refuge for the rich.
Chatham’s later owners sought privacy, not prominence. The imperative for tillable land eventually disappeared, and former fields grew into forests. Massive, purposeful trees grew up on the foreslope of Chatham. And, just as significant, as the importance of the Rappahannock to the prosperity of Fredericksburg diminished in the 20th Century, trees grew up along its banks too. Chatham disappeared. Today there are precious few places in Fredericksburg from which Chatham can be seen, even in winter. Most residents hereabouts don’t even know it’s there. And that is exactly how the famously private John Lee Pratt (Chatham’s final private owner, from 1931 until 1975) wanted it.
While it’s easy to recognize that Chatham’s literal obscurity is the result of a historical continuum that tells us important things about a changing American economy, society, and landscape, it’s also important to recognize that the evolution of Chatham from working plantation to a secluded retreat for wealthy owners came at the expense of its defining physical characteristic: its dominant place on the Fredericksburg landscape. Given modern imperatives for managing watersheds and a societal affection for trees, that’s not likely to change.
[It’s worth noting that even if the NPS clear-cut the foreslope in front of Chatham, its visibility from Fredericksburg would still be limited. Many of the trees that obscure the view are in the river bottom, on the Fredericksburg bank of the river. Still, it’s fun to ponder the effect if Chatham were once again made visible on the Fredericksburg landscape. No doubt it would be as attractive today as it was to the steady flow of visitors that beset Fitzhugh in the 18th century (and in part inspired him to move to a townhouse in Alexandria). Our visitation would probably triple, curious to know the story behind that brick slab that dominates Fredericksburg from Stafford Heights. Alas, it will not be…]