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Park volunteers save Chatham from closure
Volunteers turn out in force to help keep Chatham open longer in face of federal budget crunch

Date published: 12/10/2004


After the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, when the Union Army needed help tending the wounded at Chatham Manor, notables such as poet Walt Whitman and nurse Clara Barton stepped forward.

Now, at a time when the National Park Service desperately needs help to keep the Stafford County historical site open longer hours, volunteers have once again answered the call.

In October, for the first time ever, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park had to reduce operating hours at Chatham from seven days a week to weekends only, because of federal budget cuts. The grounds have remained open to visitors.

But closing Chatham, which sits high atop a hill overlooking the Rappahannock River, was unacceptable to the Park Service and Friends of Fredericksburg Area Battlefields, who put out the call for volunteers last month.

"We expected 20 or 30, and 72 people showed up" at an open house, said John Hennessy, the park's chief historian and chief of interpretation. Of those, about 45 agreed to volunteer.

"We now have a corps of people very interested" in donating their time to explain the history and significance of the place to visitors, Hennessy said. "We're just now about to initiate the whole process of training after the holidays."

Hennessy said he was gratified by the outpouring of support.

"The response was beyond our expectations. It was just an outpouring of concern and energy for Chatham."

With any luck, the mansion-museum should be back on its usual schedule by March.

Chatham is one of the most significant--but least known--of the Fredericksburg area's many historic houses.

During the Civil War, it was occupied by Union troops for 13 months. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln met under its roof with Union army Gen. Irvin McDowell.

The house fell into disrepair following the war. Industrialist John Lee Pratt purchased the property in 1931 and in 1975 willed it to the Park Service, which has its area headquarters there.

And Chatham's history predates the Civil War. Built between 1768 and 1771 by William Fitzhugh, the Georgian-style house was, for many years, the hub of a thriving plantation.

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