Fame, a first, a fire, balloons, and a radio tower: the Phillips House

From John Hennessy (Note:  all of the sites described in this post are on private property and not open to the public):

Look to the east from Chatham or Marye’s Heights and you’ll see it. No, not the Phillips House itself, but rather the huge radio tower that rises next to the site of the house, visible from miles around. It is, I think, the only time and place we take advantage of (rather than lament) the presence of a 500-foot tower.  We point it out probably a thousand times a year.

The Phillips house was located about a mile east of Chatham

“Mulberry Hill” was the home of wealthy merchant Alexander K. Phillips. During the war it became world-famous as the “Phillips House.”Completed on the eve of the Civil War, this was one of the most fashionable homes in the Fredericksburg region.  Its high style befit its wartime owner, Phillips, a diverse entrepreneur who served on town council and owned a brew house, warehouse, three wharves, and a lumber yard in Fredericksburg.  Phillips purchased the land at “Mulberry Hill” in 1855, though he lived in his mother’s residence on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg.  In 1860, Phillips, 56, lived with Anna Phillips, 28, his daughter, and his mother, Margaret, 82. Phillips kept twelve slaves at Mullberry Hill, working its 550 acres.

The Phillips House reflected one of the stylistic rages of the time—Gothic architecture with some features of an Italian villa.  Among other niceties, it featured running water—supplied from a tank in the attic. A reporter for the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch described the Phillips House in January 1863, just weeks before its destruction.

The only known image of the Phillips House before its destruction in February 1863.

This building, now used as the head-quarters of Major General Sumner, is situated on the summit of a high hill, about a half a mile from the Rappahannock river, and a quarter of a mile from the Lacy House.  It’s of modern construction, two and a half stories high, of pressed brick, in the Italian villa style of architecture, with high, peaked, slate roof, variegated.  In front it has a covered piazza entrance, with wide hall running through to the rear, where there is another covered piazza.  The drawing-room on one side of the hall has fine large bay windows, reaching the ground, which afford a free circulation of air during the heat of the summer.  The piazzas are so arranged that one is shaded in the morning and the other in the afternoon, so that the occupants can always enjoy the advantage of shade.  A water tank in the upper portion of the house supplies each room with water, which flows into marble wash-basins from silver faucets, as in the residences of your favored ‘upper ten’ on West Chestnut and Walnut streets, and furnishes abundant means for bathing.  Everything about the building is in the most costly style.  Fine prints and paintings, in gilt and walnut frames, adorn the walls, and an air of wealth and elegance pervades the whole establishment….The location of the house is its chief beauty.  From the front piazza the wide valley of the Rappahannock, for miles on both sides of the river, is spread before you, as on a map.

Burnside’s Headquarters

With its spacious quarters and magnificent views toward Fredericksburg, the Phillips House was a natural to serve as headquarters for several Union generals during the ten months Union armies occupied southern Stafford County in 1862 and 1863.  At various times during the spring and summer of 1862, Union generals Abner Doubleday, Rufus King, and George McCall made their headquarters in the house.   Camps, hospitals, and even the army’s balloon operation would take up residence on the lands surrounding “Mullberry Hill.”

Most famously, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside established temporary headquarters at the Phillips House four days before the Battle of Fredericksburg.  Here, Burnside both planned his attacks of December 13 and was talked out of resuming them on December 14. A Union cavalryman arrived at the Phillips house on December 11, 1862:

The building occupied by Gen. B—- is brick; in style a combination of the Swiss and Italian.  Beautifully located, it stands upon an eminence, the ground descending gradually the distance of a mile towards the river, on the opposite shore of which stands Fredericksburg.  Upon all sides, every inch of ground seemed occupied by infantry troops, cavalry and artillery.  I passed the entire day about the porch, and immediate grounds of these headquarters.  Here I enjoyed the opportunity of seeing many of the great men of our army:  Gens. Burnside, Hooker, Sumner, and Patrick, with Sigel[,] little Pleasanton, and others.  Here also, I saw Prof. Lowe, the balloonist of the army….

A soldier in front of the ruins, weeks after the fire.

Union General Herman Haupt described the view from the house on December 13, 1862:   “From the window in Burnside’s room [in the Phillips House] I could, with a field glass, see our columns move to the attack, then the smoke of battle would obscure everything.  When it cleared away, our forces were found driven back and the ground strewn with dead and wounded.”

Telegraph Meets Battlefield

On December 11, 1862,  for the first time in history, a telegraph from the Phillips House transmitted orders from a rear headquarters to a front-line unit actively engaged in maneuver and, eventually, battle.  At 3 a.m. that morning, Captain Frederick E. Beardslee, at the Phillips House, tapped out the first messages on a newly-strung line to a mobile receiver with Union General William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division, which would soon cross the Rappahannock River downstream from Fredericksburg.  For the next three days, the mobile receiver would go where Franklin went.  All the while, Franklin remained in direct communication with Burnside’s headquarters at the Phillips House.

Captain Frederick Beardlslee invented a mobile, battery-less magnetic telegraph that could be hauled to the front lines. Two horse-drawn wagons (shown here) carried wire, which could be put up wherever necessary.

The following day, another line would be run from the Phillips House a mile to Chatham (the Lacy House). While the line was eventually extended across the Rappahannock into Fredericksburg, the receiver in fact never left Chatham. Still, by virtue of the war’s first mobile telegraph, General Burnside was able to maintain almost instantaneous contact with both wings of the Union army engaged at Fredericksburg.  The advantage did Burnside little good.

The Valentine’s Day Fire

By mid-January, Burnside’s headquarters had moved, and Union General Sumner had relocated his headquarters to Mulberry Hill. On February 14, 1863, Union soldiers attempting to light a fire in a stove in the chimney of the Phillips house accidentally ignited the building.  The fire spread quickly. No water to fight the blaze was available.  Thousands of soldiers turned out to watch the flames consume the Phillips’s home, leaving just the brick walls standing.  While the fire still smoldered, photographers arrived to document the scene—leaving a visual record of one of the notable days of the winter encampment of 1863. (For another example of a house that met an accidental end in 1863, see our post on Mannsfield, burned similarly and carelessly by Confederate solders.)

Today, a post-war building sits on the site of the original house; a single wartime outbuilding survives.

The Phillips House site after the war. The outbuilding visible in this view still stands; a postwar home stands on the site of the original.

A nearby curiosity

One of Thaddeus Lowe’s ballons launching from just north of the Phillips House.

A few hundred yards north of the Phillips House is a site used by Thaddeus Lowe to launch balloons during the winter of 1862-63. The circular wind break dug into the hillside is still plainly visible.  Today, this site is in the midst of a subdivision–on private property.

A final note: kudos must always be given to Noel Harrison by anyone writing about any local Civil War site in the Fredericksburg region. Noel’s pioneering research in the 1980s and 90s (and the resultant files) is a boon to anyone writing about these sites today. Such was certainly the case in my writing about the Phillips House.

3 thoughts on “Fame, a first, a fire, balloons, and a radio tower: the Phillips House

  1. John
    This is fantastic! I had never seen an image of the Phillips House intact before the fire. My wife and I bought the property in April 1992 and have raised our daughter here. We still live here and hope to remain here all of our lives. Thanks for the great blog!
    Rob Grogan

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