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Chatham feels the hand of war

ëBehind the Linesí

Don PfanzA weekly series, ëBehind the Lines.î An anecdotal narrative tells the in-depth story of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburgóthe action, the major players, the behind-the-scenes intrigue and the effect on the town. Writing the series is Donald C. Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. A native of Gettysburg, Pa., Pfanz graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg in 1980, then joined the National Park Service. He served at Petersburg National Battlefield and Fort Sumter National Monument before joining the Park Service here. He has written two books: ëAbraham Lincoln at City Pointí and ëRichard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life.í

See previous stories.

Part 30 on a series of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

DURING THE BATTLE of Fredericksburg, the city of Fredericksburg became one vast hospital. Nearly 10,000 Union soldiers--a number twice the size of the town's population in 1860--came streaming back from the front with ghastly wounds to the head, arms, legs, face, and body. To accommodate these injured men, nearly every building in the area became a field hospital. Among the largest of these was Chatham.

Chatham is a magnificent old plantation house overlooking the Rappahannock River. In 1862, it was the home of the Lacy family--or at least it had been until the spring of that year, when the arrival of Union troops forced Betty Lacy to move. Betty's husband, James Horace, was serving as a major in the Confederate army, and Betty did not feel safe remaining in the house by herself. She and her children moved across the river to stay with friends in town, later joining Maj. Lacy in the southwestern part of the state.

Gen. Irvin McDowell, meanwhile, occupied Chatham and used it as his headquarters. McDowell had commanded Union forces at Bull Run, the first battle of the Civil War, and was now in charge of the Department of the Rappahannock, a geographical area covering all of Northern Virginia. Mrs. Lacy would have been shocked to learn that McDowell had hosted President Lincoln at her house, but, otherwise, he was an ideal tenant, inflicting minimal damage on the house during his brief stay.

The same could not be said for the grounds. Prior to the war, Chatham boasted beautiful shade trees, terraced grounds, and a fabulous garden. McDowell's occupation destroyed much of that. A Union soldier noted that the manicured grounds that had surrounded the house "were now covered with the tents of staff officers and orderlies; the fences were gone, the shrubbery destroyed, and the whole plain, now covered with troops, was, aside from the bustle of marshaling hosts, a barren, uninviting waste."

It was but a sampling of what lay ahead. The Union army returned to the area late in the year to fight the Battle of Fredericksburg. Again, Chatham became a headquarters for Union officers. Gen. Orlando Willcox used the building for several days in November 1862, and Willcox's boss, Gen. Edwin Sumner, made it his command post on Dec. 13, the day of the heaviest fighting.

To soldiers used to sleeping in tents, Chatham was a welcome change. In a letter to his wife, Willcox described sitting in "a quaint old-fashioned room with green high wainscoting" at the end of the house. "At night, by the fire in the grate, in the perfect stillness & with the old time furniture, I can scarcely help falling into fantastic reveries," he mused. "It is such a room as would please an author"

The rooms so admired by Willcox would soon be ravaged by war. The fighting at Fredericksburg resulted in 9,600 Union soldiers being wounded, many of whom were treated at the house. Capt. Wesley Brainerd of the 50th New York Engineers was among the first Union soldiers taken there. Brainerd was in charge of building one of six pontoon bridges that the Union army used to cross the river.

On Dec. 11, while construction of the bridges was in progress, Confederate sharpshooters fired at the engineers. A bullet struck Brainerd in the arm, and he was carried into Chatham feeling, he wrote, like "a lifeless lump of lead." Brainerd's attendants placed him in a chair, but the weakened officer soon slumped unconscious to the ground. When he awoke, he found the room "filled with the wounded, dead and dying. Some were crying, some groaning and others were too far gone to do either." A surgeon bound Brainerd's wound and later that day sent him from "that horrid place" to a hospital farther to the rear.

Others took his place. Sgt. Josiah F. Murphey of the 20th Massachusetts was shot in the face that afternoon and, like Brainerd, was brought back to Chatham. Murphey's attendants laid him in the corner of a room next to a wounded Confederate from Mississippi. An hour later, they brought a man from Murphey's regiment into the room. The soldier had a nasty wound and was crying out in pain.

"As soon as he caught sight of me," wrote Murphey, "he begged me piteously to kill him and end his suffering." The man received a painkiller instead.

Not all were fortunate enough to find lodging inside Chatham. As casualties mounted, the house filled up, forcing orderlies to place patients outside on the cold ground.

Murphey reflected on their suffering. "Think of it, wounded and unable to help yourself, and lying on the ground in the month of December with only a rubber blanket between you and the cold earth; but it could not be helped."

Some of the unfortunate men, he noted, later gained admittance to the house by taking the place of those who died.

Volunteers assisted Union surgeons in caring for the wounded. Clara Barton, who later founded the American chapter of the International Red Cross, arrived at Chatham on Dec. 8, three days before the battle. From her room on the second floor of the house, she could see the rows of Union tents stretched endlessly before her. Inside were soldiers, many of whom, she knew, would not survive the coming conflict. "As I gazed sorrowfully upon them, I thought I could almost hear the slow flap of the grim messenger's wings, as one by one he sought and selected his victims for the morning sacrifice."

Wounded soldiers began streaming in on Dec. 11. Forty-eight hours later, the stream had become a flood. They "covered every foot of the floors and porticos," Barton reported. They lay on stair landings, under tables, even in cupboards! Blood ran freely across the wooden floors, saturating the bottom of her dress, but she simply wrung it out and kept on working. There was no time to rest.

Poet Walt Whitman came to Chatham on Dec. 21 in search of a brother who had been wounded in the fighting. The battle was then a week old, but the situation had not significantly improved.

"The house is quite crowded," he noted critically, "everything impromptu, no system, all bad enough, but I have no doubt the best that can be done; all the wounds pretty bad, some frightful, the men in their old clothes, unclean and bloody."

Whitman picked his way through the building, stopping now and then to write letters for wounded men or to talk to those "who seemed most susceptible to it." Among those he met was a 19-year-old Mississippi captain--the same man Josiah Murphey had seen 10 days earlier. The young man had lost a leg and his face was pale, but his eyes still shone "bright as a hawk." Whitman would run into him again three months later at a hospital in Washington.

Walking outside the house, Whitman stumbled upon a gruesome sight: "a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening"--about enough, he estimated, to fill "a one-horse cart." The dismembered body parts had been tossed out a window by surgeons working inside the house and had piled up at the foot of a tree--possibly one of the gnarled catalpas that still graces Chatham's front lawn.

A few yards away, an even more horrid sight met the poet's gaze--a line of corpses, covered with brown woolen blankets, awaiting burial. In all, more than 130 Union soldiers were buried at Chatham, their rude graves marked by a barrel stave or piece of broken board. Most were later removed to Fredericksburg National Cemetery, but three graves remain on the property to this day.

The gory scenes witnessed by Clara Barton and Walt Whitman would be repeated in May 1863, during the Chancellorsville Campaign, when Chatham again became a field hospital. Today, the building is the headquarters of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

NEXT: Lee misses his chance

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of "Abraham Lincoln at City Point" and "Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life."