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Brompton: Front door on the battle

 
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

Part 26 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. See previous stories.

FREDERICKSBURG BOASTS many historic homes, but few felt the heel of war more keenly than Brompton, a brick mansion that overlooks the intersection of Hanover Street and Sunken Road.

Lawyer John L. Marye built Brompton sometime after 1821. Originally, it was a rectangular structure, but Marye added wings and a porch to the building, giving it a graceful appearance that it still enjoys today.

Marye had eight children, and laughter filled the house. Diarist Jane Beale attended a May Day celebration there in 1851. Seldom had she beheld a more lovely sight than the Marye girls and their friends preparing for the evening dance "dressed in white with blue sashes."

The Civil War brought an end to Brompton's gaiety. John Marye was a member of Virginia's secession convention. He hoped that the North and South would settle their differences amicably, but, when peace negotiations failed, Marye joined a majority of other delegates in reluctantly voting the state out of the Union. He little imagined the impact that decision would have on his family and house.

For the first 18 months of the war, Fredericksburg suffered little from the war. Union troops occupied the town in the spring and summer of 1862, but there was no fighting and the Union troops dealt gently with their hosts. That changed in November when opposing armies converged on the town for the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Gen. Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate forces, occupied a seven-mile defensive line that stretched across the heights south and west of the town. Part of Lee's line ran along Marye's Heights, past Brompton's front door. Marye saw the danger and wisely evacuated the house, moving to his in-laws' house, Forest Hill, south of town.

In the owner's absence, Col. James Walton made the building his headquarters. Walton commanded an artillery battalion in Lee's army, and nine of his guns crowned the heights. Below them, in a sunken section of Telegraph Road, stood a brigade of Georgia riflemen led by Thomas R.R. Cobb. On Dec. 13, 1862, Union troops poured out of the town and attacked Marye's Heights. Cobb's men easily repelled the assault, aided by Walton's guns on the ridge and by sharpshooters firing from the upper windows of the Marye House.

But the Union army was just beginning. Over the next eight hours no less than 18 brigades--more than 30,000 men--attacked Marye's Heights, prompting Lee to reinforce the position. At 2 p.m., he ordered four South Carolina regiments to join Cobb and Walton on the ridge. The 2nd and 8th South Carolina augmented Cobb's beleaguered men in the road; the 3rd and 7th South Carolina took position on the ridge above.

Col. James D. Nance commanded the 3rd South Carolina Regiment. Nance led his men past Brompton to an exposed knoll overlooking the road. Immediately he began to take heavy casualties. Nance ordered his men to lie down, but casualties continued to mount. Nance was among the first hit. As he hurried to the right of his line, looking for a more sheltered position for his regiment, a bullet struck him in the thigh.

Command passed to the unit's lieutenant colonel, but a Minié ball soon buried itself in his side. Other bullets incapacitated the regiment's major and senior captain. When the next ranking officer suffered a shattered leg, command of 3rd South Carolina passed to Capt. John C. Summer.

Summer was not a religious man, and it was, therefore, with some surprise that a fellow officer found him on his knees in prayer before the battle. When the officer jokingly suggested that fear had prompted his friend's newfound piety, Summer replied seriously that he was going to die in the coming battle and thought it wise to make his peace with God. His premonition proved accurate. Moments after taking command of the regiment, a bullet struck Summer in the head, killing him instantly. He was the sixth commander to fall.

Reflecting on the regiment's exposed position in front of the house, a South Carolina soldier commented that it was "wonderful everyone was not either killed or wounded." As it was, 166 men were hit.

Brompton, too, suffered severely. A Confederate staff officer who visited the structure after the battle observed that "Not an inch of the surface of the bricks on the front of the housewas free from the mark of a Minié ball. Bushels of flattened ones were to be seen on the ground, while the woodwork was torn to pieces by them" Another soldier wrote that the building had been "raked by musket balls until it looks as if a hail storm had scoured it."

A second round of Union assaults against Marye's Heights during the Chancellorsville Campaign in May 1863 only added to the damage. By battle's end, Brompton was a battered shell of its former self. A man who visited the house in 1864 commented on the desolation.

"Ah! It was a sad thing to thread the deserted halls and chambers of this old house and hear only the echo of your footsteps," he reflected. "Not even a rat squeaks behind the wainscot. The silence is awful."

The damage extended beyond the house onto the grounds, which were scarred by earthworks and hasty graves.

Brompton's trials were not at an end. In May 1864, the Union and Confederate armies clashed again at Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. Overnight, Fredericksburg became a vast hospital, as ambulances and wagons rolled in from the west bearing more than 10,000 wounded soldiers. Ninth Corps surgeons commandeered Brompton, packing the house from cellar to garret with hundreds of injured men.

Surgeon William Howell Reed described the suffering. "In one corner, upon a stretcher, lay a soldierHe was wounded through the lungs, and breathed only with sharp stitches of pain. Another ladwas slowly wasting away. We kept him alive with stimulants and could not but feel that even this effort was a mockery." A third soldier lay "in the last agonies of death--a poor mutilated remnant of a man, and a most loathsome sight. His case was too bad to be placed with others, and he was laid carefully upon such ragged garments as we could collect for a bed, not enough to keep his shattered

Conditions were horrid. "The poor fellows," Reed noted with pity, "had not had their clothes off since they were wounded, and were sleeping in blood and filth, and were swarming with vermin. They lay as close as they could be packed, the contaminated air growing worse every hour. The openings in the torn and battered walls assisted somewhat in ventilation."

As the weather improved, many of the wounded were carried out of the stifling house and placed under a large oak tree on the east lawn. Nearby, soldiers dug a long trench in which to inter those who did not survive their wounds. After the war these bodies would be moved down the ridge a few hundred yards and buried in Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

John Marye returned to Brompton in 1865 and began repairing the house. After his death in 1868, his heirs sold the estate to John G. Lane. Lane's family, in turn, sold the property to Capt. Maurice B. Rowe, who made it into a thriving dairy farm.

As years passed, many Union and Confederate veterans stopped to see the house that had played such a large part in their lives. One veteran even asked to be married there. As he explained to the owner, "he was unable to take Marye's Heights by storm in December of '62, [and] that he wanted to take it now in his own way by being married there."

Today, the house serves as the residence of Mary Washington College's president.

Although Brompton is not open to the public, you can get a good view of it from both the Sunken Road and from Hanover Street. If you look hard, you may even be able to see a Civil War trench that slants across the front yard. What you won't be able to see are the hundreds of bullet marks that still scar the brick walls--vivid reminders of the violence that once engulfed the house.

NEXT: Martha Stephens, heroine or hoax?

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."