Stories From Chatham
National Park Service, Chief Historian, John Hennessy, and local historian, Scott Walker, share some of the stories of Chatham Manor. These stories serve as background information to students as they prepare their monologues, dialogs, or multi-performer skits for the Friends of Chatham 2018 contest, “Local History: Live!” Student performances will be held May 5th from 2 to 6 o’clock at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts.
For more information on Chatham, visit the Park Service page on Chatham Manor.
This is a story of two brothers. Edgar Newcomb was a Massachusetts soldier who, before the Battle, was visited at Chatham by his younger brother, Charlie. In the battle, Edgar was seriously wounded and taken back to the Chatham, then serving as a hospital. He was nursed and cared for by his brother in an upstairs room there where he died. Clara Barton was present. Charlie then took his Edgar’s body back to Boston.
Chatham’s Slave Rebellion
In 1805, after their scheduled New Year’s holiday, the slaves of Chatham rose up in armed revolt against a harsh overseer who, they believed, tried to make them return to the work of the plantation earlier than the agreed time. There were dire consequences for both sides of this controversy.
Clara Barton is best known for establishing the American Red Cross in 1881. But, in December 1862, she was nursing Union soldiers wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Before the Civil War, Thomas Plunkett was a young machinist. But, tragically, during the Battle of Fredericksburg, Plunkett’s wounds necessitated the amputation of both of his hands. His story shows the problem of adapting to a changed life after the war.
Ellen Mitchell was an enslaved, African-American woman who, in the 1850s served as the head laundress at Chatham. In 1857, on the death of Chatham’s owner, that owner’s will, in effect, freed all of the slaves on the estate, including Mitchell. The next owner of the plantation took the will to court and, based on laws at the time, re-enslaved the workers. Ellen Mitchell did not accept that and, after many discussions and shifts of ownership, undertook a journey to gain her and her family’s freedom. She was successful, and the story continues from Chatham to Cincinnati, Ohio.
Chatham Gardens and Ellen Biddle Shipman
The formal east side gardens at Chatham were designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman, a renowned landscape architect hired by the owners during the 1920s. Traditionally, women were not landscape architects but she succeeded not only here but at sites throughout the U.S. Though changed some since then, today’s gardens are enjoyed by Chatham’s visitors.
The Devores and the Pratts
Since Chatham has always symbolized wealth and power, it was fitting that, in the 1920s, a former General and a Washington D.C. heiress acquired the estate to make it a showplace and center for high society.
Since Chatham has always symbolized wealth and power, it was fitting that, in the 1920s, a former General and a Washington D.C. heiress acquired the estate to make it a showplace and center for high society. In 1931, John L. Pratt – a wealthy General Motors business man – bought the estate, lived there for the rest of his life and, on his death, gave Chatham to the National Park Service.
While Chatham was serving as a hospital following the Battle of Fredericksburg, Walt Whitman, the American writer, arrived there looking for his brother, a New York soldier who had been wounded. He was so moved by the scene there and by the condition of the soldiers, that he stayed and helped care for them. His writing about his experiences helped Northerners understand the realities of war.
William Fitzhugh financed the building of Chatham, beginning in 1768. The manor house was completed in 1771. Fitzhugh and his wife Ann, lived there until the 1790s and sold it in 1806.
Washington was an enslaved man, working in Fredericksburg when, in April of 1862, Union soldiers arrived on the Chatham side of the Rappahannock River. When he went to the river’s edge in Fredericksburg, those soldiers beckoned to him and urged him to cross the river “to freedom”. The moving story of his life as a free man begins at Chatham.
Washington Irving and other Famous Visitors to Chatham
Throughout its history, Chatham has been the type of place that attracted famous visitors. In the 19th Century, one of the most famous was the American author, Washington Irving, who came for dinner in 1833.
Lillian Pratt and the Faberge Eggs
How could exquisitely jeweled Imperial Russian Faberge Eggs wind up at a house in Stafford County? Hear how the last private owners of Chatham, John and Lillian Pratt, collected these priceless items, now part of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ “Lillian Pratt Gallery” in Richmond.
The American Revolution and Chatham
Chatham owner, William Fitzhugh had been active in the Patriot movement before the Revolutionary War as a member (with George Washington) in the Colony’s House of Burgesses. He actively supported the American cause.