The view from (and of) Chatham–a conundrum

From John Hennessy:

The view from the terraces at Chatham. Photo by Donald Pfanz.

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.

The view from the slopes in front of Chatham, 1863--devoid of trees.

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.

Chatham during the war, as seen from the Fredericksburg side of the river--looking much as it did for its first 150 years. That's the ruins of the Chatham Bridge in the river.

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.

Chatham, today surrounded by trees that have transformed its place on the Fredericksburg area landscape. Photo by Brad Graham.

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…]


12 thoughts on “The view from (and of) Chatham–a conundrum

    • For those of you who have not been to Chatham, the cast-iron railing on the steps leading down to the middle terrace has musical notes on it–notes, we have determined, that make for a slightly askew version of “Home Sweet Home.” The steps and railing date to the ownership of the Devores, in the 1920s. John H.

  1. Is there a date for the image photographed from the west side of the Rappahannock River looking toward the Chatham home?
    Was it part of the photographs taken in 1862; or 1863; or May, 1864?
    Also, the photograph taken from the grounds of the Chatham residence was photographed in the morning on May 3rd, 1863.

    • John: I do not have a date at hand. It seems most likely to me that the image was taken in 1864, when other images of the Rappahannock waterfront were taken from the Fredericksburg side of the river. When I get a chance, I will check our files.

      For those of you reading this, John has done terrific and important work on the 1863 photographs of Fredericksburg–both in May and June 1863. For an example, check out his article on the images at Franklin’s crossing:

    • John,

      I found that image while going through the collection of the Western Reserve Historical Society. It is mounted as a stereo on nondescript card stock and lacking any printed backmark. Written, in ink, on the reverse is: “Piers of R.R. Bridge at Fredericksburg May 10, 1864.” Refernece to the railroad bridge appears to be an error, but I suspect the date is probably accurate.


  2. I’m amazed at the mind-boggling numbers of old photographs that you are able to find and share. There must be a hum dinger of an archival database maintained somewhere.

    Much appreciate the rich diversity of history you and your colleagues provide here.


    • Larry: Over the years Donald Pfanz of our staff has worked hard to digitize images both from our collection and other sources, and the collection grows almost every week. It’s safe to say that we probably have 98% of known wartime images in our digital archives, and there are few pre-1900 images that we know of that haven’t been added. We are the beneficiaries of a lot of help in this–from other federal agencies, other archives, and private collectors like Jerry Brent, who has been incredibly generous with his finds. Still, I am amazed that new things still come in, though admittedly at a variable pace. Many thanks for reading. John H.

  3. Thank you all for that image and where it came from as well as the date – Provides an important dimension to Chatham’s location.
    I know it would not be possible to cut down all the trees, but the trees are hiding the beauty of Fredericksburg and environs as well as the historic importance of the area.

  4. John,
    When we talk about the defining characteristics of historic homes, the view of the home is not often mentioned. Thanks for focusing on that very real feature. Another local battlefield landmark currently obscured much like Chatham is Federal Hill. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to see that prominent landmark from Willis Hill/Sunken Road area. Perhaps the new owners can be encouraged to replace the too tall evergreens on their foreslope with lower growing trees that obscure the factory while restoring their historic view. Hmmm.

  5. When I was first in the building I thought who would build such a long thin home until I ws on the river side and realized what a power symbol this would be when viewed from the city. Great work.

  6. As I read this posting, I thought of the following journalist’s report. Charles Carleton Coffin, Army Correspondent of The Boston Journal, wrote the following letter to his newspaper from Chatham house on December 9, 1862 (excerpted from “Four Years of Fighting” by Charles Carleton Coffin):

    “It is a clear, cold morning. The sky is without a cloud. Standing near General Sumner’s quarters, I have a wide sweep of vision. The quarters of the veteran general commanding the right grand division are in a spacious mansion, newly constructed, the property of wealthy planter, whose estate is somewhat shorn of its beauty by the ravages of war. The fences are all gone, the forests are fast disappearing, the fine range of cedars which lined the Belleplain road are no longer to be seen. All around are the white tents of the command, the innumerable camp-fires sending up blue columns of smoke. The air is calm. You hear the rumbling of distant baggage-trains, the clatter of hundreds of axes felling the forests for fuel,–the bugle-call of the cavalrymen, and the rat-a-plan of the drummers, and mingling with all, the steady, constant flow of the falling waters of the winding stream.

    Looking far off to the southeast, across the intervals of the river, you see a white cloud of steam moving beneath the fringe of a forest. It is a locomotive from Richmond, dragging its train of cars with supplies for the Rebel camps. The forests and hills beyond are alive with them. Resting my glass against the side of the building to keep it steady, I can count the men grouped around the camp-fires, turning at times to keep themselves warm. Others are bringing in wood. An officer rides along. A train of wagons is winding down the hill toward the town. All along the range of hills are earthworks with sandbag embrasures, and artillery behind,–not quaker guns, I think, but field artillery, so ranged that a movement directly across the river would be marching into the jaws of death,—as hazardous and destructive as the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava.

    I know that there is a clamor for an onward movement, a desire and expectation for an advance; but I think there are few men in the country who, after taking a look at the Rebel positions, would like to lead in a movement across the stream.

    Looking into the town of Fredericksburg we see but few smokes ascending from chimneys, but few people in the streets. It is almost wholly deserted. The women and children have gone to Richmond, or else are shivering in camp. Close upon the river-bank on either side face the pickets, within easy talking distance of each other. There has been no shooting of late. There is constant badinage. The Rebel picket asks the Yankee when he is going to Richmond. The Yankee asks the Rebel if he don’t want a pair of boots. I am sorry to say that such conversation is mixed with profane words. Each party seems to think that hard words hit hard.

    Last night the southern sky was red with the blaze of Rebel camp-fires. Far off to the southeast I see a hazy cloud, and columns of smoke, indicating the presence of a large army. I do not doubt that if we attempt to cross we shall meet with terrible opposition from a force nearly if not quite as large as our own.

    If the President or General Halleck insist upon Burnside’s making the movement, it will be made with whatever power, energy, determination, and bravery the army can exhibit. I am as anxious as any one can be to see a great blow given to the Rebellion; but I am not at all anxious to see the attempt made against such disadvantages as are apparent to the most casual observer from this position.”

    • Robert: Thanks very much for sharing Coffin’s account…. Coffin, who wrote by the name of “Carleton,” was a correspondent for the Boston Journal, and later put his wartime dispatches together into a series of books. Great addition to the post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s