The National Bank building has a long and interesting history in Fredericksburg, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as well as the Virginia Landmarks Register.
The first cashier of the Farmers Bank, Dabney Herndon, had a remarkable group of children. Son William Lewis Herndon entered the Navy as a midshipman at 15. He served in the Mexican War, explored the Amazon for the U.S. government and became a national hero when he saved 152 women and children aboard his ship before he went down with it off Cape Hatteras in 1857. It is his statue at the Naval Academy in Annapolis that is greased and climbed by plebes in a year-end ritual. Herndon, Va. is named for him.
One daughter married Chester Arthur, who became the 21st U.S. president, and another married Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury, the U.S. Navy officer, famous “Pathfinder of the Seas” oceanographer and the man for whom Fredericksburg’s old Maury School was named.
Other sons also gained prominance. Brodie Strachan Herndon was a chief Richmond hospital surgeon during the Civil War and is credited with performing the first caesarian section. John was Secretary of the Commonwealth and a judge, and Charles was a state delegate and state senator.
Later, but prior to the Civil War, the Ware family took over the bank and residence. John Washington was a slave of Catherine Ware and tended to the property for decades, fleeing early in the war. He eventually returned to the bank building as a servant to the Union officers who headquartered there. Washington later wrote a memoir about his life as a slave and life in mid-19th century Fredericksburg that has become a staple for local historians.
The bank had a troubled existence during the Civil War as the city was a center of hostilities. It became a Union headquarters in April 1862, which is when President Abraham Lincoln came to speak. The bank became the National Bank of Fredericksburg in October 1865 as the city and region began the long road to recovery.
Serving the bank’s residential quarters was a separate kitchen house to the rear of the property. In the mid-1950s, the decision to add drive-though teller windows put the kitchen house in jeopardy and a major preservation controversy ensued.
An agreement was reached to move the structure rather than demolish it, so it was disassembled and then reassembled at the corner of U.S. 1 and Princess Anne Street, where it served as a city welcome center for a time and still stands.
Out of that controversy, the preservation group Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc. was born.
Historic information in these stories is included in the National Register application form, which was prepared for the bank in 1983 by the late Lemuel W. Houston. He was a former postmaster of Fredericksburg who earlier worked at The Free Lance–Star. Houston, who died in 1998, was on duty at the newspaper on Dec. 7, 1941, and received the initial Associated Press report that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Other information is from the Fredericksburg Remembered blog by John Hennessy of the National Park Service, as well as The Free Lance–Star archives.