Building research into media: Virtual Chatham

From John Hennessy:

While we generally enjoy the process of research and writing about the landscapes we manage, we ultimately do it to inform the public. We continue to search for ways to deliver important and interesting things to park visitors and those who engage the park online (be it here, on our website, or on the park’s Facebook page, which our staff is fast turning into a very interesting resource–check it out). As we have mentioned before, we are developing a number of digital projects. Our latest uses the accumulation of decades of knowledge about Chatham and its landscape, including Eric’s Mink’s work on Chatham’s slave cabins, first presented on Mysteries and Conundrums a few months ago (you can see his work  here and here).  It is a digital re-creation of Chatham over the decades, showing its evolution from classic Georgian mansion to the still-beautiful-but-altered vision of Chatham we have today (for a post on Chatham and its modern setting, click here).  This fly-around will soon go on permanent display at Chatham (and elsewhere), but we present here publicly for the first time.  The silky voice of the narrator you might recognize as Donald Pfanz’s.

Bear in mind that this vision of Chatham shows only what we can reasonably deduce from the evidence. It does not show everything–there were at times more than 25 outbuildings on the site. 


A long life ending, and a dilemma

From John Hennessy (for an earlier post on the Chatham catalpas, click here):

The Chatham catalpas are among the most famous trees in Virginia, likely mentioned by Walt Whitman in his remembrance of his time at Chatham in December 1862. He described the scene outside “the surgery”–the room we today use to show our A/V program:

The catalpas in front of Chatham, 1863

At the foot of a tree, immediately in front, a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening–in the garden near, a row of graves.

By then, Chatham’s catalpas were probably 40 years old. Today, they are famous, old and gnarled. Their decrepitness conveys a sense of nobility.  (If only it were so with people).

Last summer a regular walker at Chatham came in to tell us she thought one of the trees was leaning precariously. Continue reading

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? Continue reading

The earliest photograph of Fredericksburg?

From John Hennessy:

Original held by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin

Noel Harrison used this image in his exploration of the upper pontoon crossing, and Eric Mink has looked at it and others taken about the same time in a Military Images article in 1998 (I hope he will expand on that work here sometime soon), but I do want to point out a few notable things about this image, taken in July 1862.

Given all the images that followed, this distinction is hardly dramatic, but it’s worth noting that this is likely the earliest known photograph ever taken of Fredericksburg. The photographer, unfortunately, seemed more interested in the foreground of Stafford Heights than the river and town beyond. Still, from his vantage point in what is today Pratt Park—north of the maintenance building—the steeple of the Baptist Church and St. George’s are visible, as is the cupola of the courthouse.  The openness of the landscape is in sharp contrast to the heavy woods that border the river today.

On the extreme left of the image is an artillery park adjacent to the woods that mark what we call the north ravine—the ravine just north of Chatham, which sits behind the trees on the left edge of the picture. The road running through the foreground leads to Chatham.

But most interesting in the image are the collection of bridges visible in the background. Most obvious—as discussed by Noel—is the pontoon bridge at the base of Hawke Street. Continue reading

“I was a slave of Major Horace Lacy.” – Andrew Weaver of the 23rd United States Colored Troops

From Mink:

In two previous posts (found here and here), the possible locations for J. Horace Lacy’s slave cabins at Chatham were discussed. The 1860 slave census reveals that Lacy owned at that time, 39 slaves on his Chatham plantation, 48 slaves at his Ellwood property in Spotsylvania and Orange counties, and hired out 8 slaves to individuals in Fredericksburg. Of the 95 slaves owned by Lacy on the eve of the Civil War, little to almost nothing is known about them. Who were they? Where did they go and what became of them following emmancipation?

The names of slaves were not recorded in the 1860 census. We simply have their ages and gender. Tracking them is extremely difficult, but in the case of two of Lacy’s slaves we know that upon securing their freedom, these two men chose to join the Union army.

Charles Henry Sprout (aka Sprow) served in the 1st United States Colored Cavalry from his enlistment in 1863 until he was mustered out of service in 1866. His army service record states that he was born in Spotsylvania County between 1840 and 1842. After the war, he returned to the area and worked as a farmer. His 1926 obituary provided the identity of his prewar owner, as it stated he had been born “into the family of the late J. Horace Lacy…” Sprout is buried in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

Andrew Weaver is another of Lacy’s slaves who served the Union following his escape from slavery. In Weaver’s case, we are fortunate to have, in his own words, more specific information about his service in the army and his own admission of ownership by Lacy.

Continue reading

A cruel fate

An update:

Here’s a shot of the remnant stump of the adolescent tree, with the ancient catalpas beyond. 



The good news is that the park maintenance staff foresaw the need to plant a descendant catalpa tree next to the ancient specimens that stand in front of Chatham. They did so a couple decades ago, and the tree–just north of the pair of catalpas that appear in every Civil War-period image of the place–thrived, achieving a size comparable to its progenitor in 1863 (see historic photo, below).

Until Saturday night.  And that’s the bad news.

The catalpas in front of Chatham, 1863

A brief, violent storm ripped off the weighty branch of a huge Kentucky Coffee tree nearby. The branch, very precisely, crashed down on the adolescent catalpa, killing it dead.  The adjacent grand catalpas survived unscathed.

The orginal trees at left; the remnants of the adolescent catalpa beyond.

The catalpas at Chatham may be the most famous trees in the region.  They are gnarled and curious, imposing and evocative, and the object of much devotion and affection. These are the trees likely mentioned by Walt Whitman in his description of the surgeons at work at Chatham.  Over the years, the NPS has put in herculean efforts to keep them upright (they probably have as much metal as wood in them)…but their demise seems to be approaching rapidly. That makes the sudden death of the emerging specimen nearby all the more tragic.

Kevin Rawlings presents a program on Walt Whitman in front of the catalpas

“If these signatures could talk…”: Chatham Graffiti, Part 3

From Mink:

When one considers that Chatham continued to be a private residence until 1976, it is amazing that so much graffiti does survive. Each owner upgraded or rennovated the property’s structures, but it is the retention of so much original fabric that has allowed these signatures to survive.

On October 6, 1993, park staff was involved in removing lead paint from the exterior woodwork of Chatham. On the paneling surrounding the south entrance on the west facade of the main house, it was discovered that the paint had filled in carvings into the bottom panel.

Once the paint was removed, graffiti left by a New York soldier was revealed.

Continue reading