From John Hennessy:
Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the Confederate capture of Union wounded at Sherwood Forest in southern Stafford County. The moment prompts a post on this compelling place.
In the last ten years, as the threats that would consume it intensify, Sherwood Forest has assumed a majestic aura wrapped in melancholy. Atop a rounded hill a mile from the Rappahannock (near what we know as Fitzhugh’s Crossing), the former home of Henry Fitzhugh and his wife Jane Downman Fitzhugh peers out between massive trees over a landscape that was for two centuries formed and managed by slaves. Today, the “big house” is boarded and mouldering. The adjacent kitchen quarters (an impressive building) is likewise sinking, while a nearby slave cabin (which we have written about here) is near collapse. The prospects for Sherwood Forest are not bright. A development company owns the house and surrounding acres. No plan is in place to preserve it. No one has stepped forward offering to do so. Thus the melancholy aspect of Sherwood Forest.
Though the house is commonly dated to 1810, it’s more likely the Fitzhughs built Sherwood Forest just after their marriage in 1837. In the years before the war, Henry Fitzhugh established himself as one of the best farmers in the region. He also developed a reputation for hard drinking and hard dealing, especially as his slaves saw it (we have written about that here). During the war, two sons entered the Confederate army and the elder Fitzhugh left for more southern environs, leaving the house to the care of his wife and daughter.
The Union army always gravitated to houses that projected power and influence, because usually those houses sat atop high ground (Chatham, Belmont, Clearview, and Brompton are all examples). Sherwood assumed an especial role during the Chancellorsville campaign when, in mid-April, the balloon corps took over the place and began ascensions from the yard of the house. Two weeks later part of the Union First Corps crossed at what we now know as “Fitzhugh’s Crossing,” at the mouth of Pollock’s Run. When the Confederates discovered this crossing, they punished the Union troops with artillery (click here for a post on the crossing of the First Corps in late April and early May 1863). The casualties from that artillery action ended up back at Sherwood Forest.
A young soldier by the name of John Fay, 13th Massachusetts, suffered a wound noted by many near Sherwood Forest. As he lay on the ground on May 2, perched on his left elbow, his right hand resting atop his right knee, an artillery shell struck him, severely wounding his hand and nearly severing his leg at the same time.
Soon after I was wounded I was packed up by Andrew J. Mann and by him, with the assistance of another man, was carried to a house about a mile in the rear that had been taken for a hospital. When they was carrying me to the hospital, I was satisfied that my leg and arm would have to be amputated, after they got me there and the doctors told me so I requested that Dr. A.W. Whitney of my Regiment should perform the operation. After waiting a few minutes for him to get through with another patient that he was at work upon when they carried me in. They gave me chloroform and that was the last that I knew until about half past eight when I came out of the effects of it and found my rand hand and right leg amputated. [For more on the 13th Massachusetts, see Brad Forbush’s truly outstanding website on the regiment–it’s one of the best of its kind anywhere).
Fay was among nearly 100 men taken to Sherwood Forest. Surgeons had four tents erected in the yard, while the remaining wounded filled the house itself. Most of the wounded were sent north by early June, but on June 13, thirty-four men still remained, most of them severely wounded, including Fay. That day, the Union army left the Rappahannock, leaving behind the wounded at Sherwood Forest. Whether this was oversight or intent is not clear.
Two days later, the Confederates crossed the river and took as prisoners the Union wounded at Sherwood Forest. This may have been the last act at Fredericksburg that resulted in “casualties” before the armies left altogether. Eventually, the captured wounded were sent to Richmond for care.
Few sites in the Fredericksburg region embody as varied a story as does Sherwood Forest–agriculture, slavery,civilians amidst war, balloons, medical care, and a landscape that served as setting for the major movement of part of the Union army. On its present trajectory, however, the site cannot last long. In 2011 Preservation Virginia listed it as one of the state’s most endangered historic sites. Its survival represents a significant challenge to this community.