Orchards and Slavery on the Rappahannock

Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields.  I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip.  This is the second in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.

Chatham Manor today. Before the Civil War, this was the back of the house, with the front yard overlooking the Rappahannock.

Chatham Manor today. Before the Civil War, this was the back of the house, with the front yard overlooking the Rappahannock.

Chatham Manor sits on the north bank of the Rappahannock River, on a high bluff overlooking the City of Fredericksburg. It was built for entertaining Virginia’s elite.  Its first owner, William Fitzhugh, was among that elite, and at different times both Washington and Jefferson were guests at the house. The 1280 acre plantation, surrounded by carefully-designed and managed gardens, two orchards, and fields of commercial crops, was designed to impress its guests with the wealth and refined tastes of its owner. We can imagine William Fitzhugh providing guests like Washington and Jefferson with a spectacular meal, perhaps one that ended with a dessert of fine and rare fruits from his orchards. And we can imagine the fruits of Chatham’s orchards being a subject of their conversation. Both Washington and Jefferson were immensely proud of their own carefully kept orchards of the fine fruit, acquired from nurseries on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps Fitzhugh and his guests promised to exchange grafts of especially rare varieties with each other, as members of this elite club were wont to do.

William Fitzhugh, member of the 2nd Continental Congress, builder of Chatham Manor.

William Fitzhugh, member of the 2nd Continental Congress, builder of Chatham Manor.

The Fitzhughs, Jeffersons, and Washingtons of Virginia could afford to devote time and resources to the hobby of fruit growing because they commanded the labor of hundreds of unfree persons. Slavery made Chatham’s fine gardens and orchards possible. Despite the efforts of Fitzhugh and other southern planters to present themselves to the world as benevolent patriarchs overseeing an Edenic and peaceable kingdom, the truth was that all of this wealth and refinement was derived from their exploitation of other people. In 1805, Fitzhugh’s slaves rose up in rebellion against their cruel treatment. An armed posse of white men put the rebellion down. Two of the rebels were killed as they tried to escape; another was captured and executed as a warning to others; two more were sold away to another plantation, probably in the West Indies. Fitzhugh, who had come to find both managing enslaved laborers and entertaining other elite Virginians a wearying task, sold Chatham the next year.

James Horace Lacey, owner of Chatham Manor, confederate staff officer.

James Horace Lacey, owner of Chatham Manor, confederate staff officer.

Its subsequent owners continued to operate Chatham manor as a plantation estate.  When southern states seceded in 1861, believing Lincoln’s election a threat to the institution of slavery, Chatham’s then thirty-seven year old owner, James Horace Lacy, followed his interests and joined the Confederate army as a staff officer. In April of 1862 when the Union Army occupied the north bank of the Rappahannock,  Lacey’s wife and children fled to Fredericksburg on the south side of the river.

In December of 1862, Union General Ambrose Burnside used Chatham as a command center. He hoped to launch a quick strike across the Rappahannock before Lee and his Army were prepared, then push on towards the Confederate capitol at Richmond.  But when he arrived with his army on the north side of the Rappahannock, the pontoon boats he needed to build a bridge across the river had not. As Burnside waited, Lee and his army dug in, occupying a long imposing ridge just south of the city of Fredericksburg.

The Sunken Road at Fredericksburg. Hundreds of Union soldiers fell trying to take this position.

The Sunken Road at Fredericksburg. Hundreds of Union soldiers fell trying to take this position.

In the 19th century, it was customary for armies to suspend campaigns in winter. Most of the major battles of the Civil War occurred in the spring, summer or fall.  But Lincoln, eager for a decisive victory before the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on January 1, pushed Burnside to act. Burnside, too, was eager to demonstrate that he was different from the overly-cautious McClellan whom he had recently replaced. The result of this impatience was one of the costliest, most lop-sided Union defeats of the war. Union forces were able to make the crossing and take the town, but the assault on the Confederate position on Marye’s Heights, across open fields, was a terrible folly. Confederate riflemen fired upon advancing Union soldiers from a sunken road at the base of the heights; Confederate artillery rained down upon the exposed soldiers from the heights. Burnside stubbornly persisted, sending fourteen separate charges against the entrenched Confederates, all of them costly failures. At the end of the day, Union casualties just in the Marye’s Heights section of the line, were six to eight thousand, while Confederates lost less than a quarter of that many. After the battle, Chatham Manor was converted from Union Command Center to field hospital. Hundreds of wounded and dying men faced triage and amputation in tents set up on its grounds, many of those who did not survive were temporarily buried in Chatham’s gardens.

One week after the battle the poet Walt Whitman came to Chatham House to nurse and comfort the wounded and the dying. Today Chatham is owned and maintained by the National Parks Service, as part of the Fredericksburg National Battlefield Park. On a wall next to a window that overlooks the front garden, a copy of Walt Whitman’s The Wound Dresser is mounted, open to the pages that describe what he witnessed at Chatham:

“Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc., about a load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its brown woollen blanket. In the dooryard, toward the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel staves or broken board, stuck in the dirt.”

Whitman's catalpa tree from a parlor in Chatham Manor.

Whitman’s catalpa tree from a parlor in Chatham Manor.

The catalpa tree which sheltered the pile of unsalvageable appendages survives, and is visible from that window.  Its bark more gnarled and knotted with age, and its aging trunk and some of its heavier branches now held up with steel supports, in a heroic effort to preserve the last witness to this terrible scene. It is as if this old catalpa has become Whitman himself, pointing at the precise spot of the carnage, telling us not to look away.

While Whitman’s catalpa tree survives, the orchards of Chatham Manor, a symbol of the luxury that slavery provided to an elite group of white men, do not.  After the battle the Union army hunkered down for the winter on the north side of the river. On January 1, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, and the Rappahannock became one of the most important boundaries between slavery and freedom. Throughout that winter Virginia slaves stole themselves and gained their freedom by crossing to the Union side.  Many stayed with the Union camp, and took jobs with the army. Soldiers and freedmen scoured the countryside that winter, seeking fuel to keep them warm. By spring the north shore of the Rappahannock was mostly denuded of trees, save Whitman’s Catalpa and a few other mature trees that graced the lawn of Chatham Manor. Chatham’s two orchards were no doubt among the first targets of the fuel foragers. When I asked the park rangers on duty at Chatham if they could point me to the original location of these orchards, they could not.  The opulent orchards of Chatham, created by slavery, were ultimately extirpated by the soldiers and freedmen who brought about slavery’s demise.

The gnarled, knotted bark of one of the last witnesses of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The gnarled, knotted bark of one of the last witnesses of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

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2 thoughts on “Orchards and Slavery on the Rappahannock

  1. Pingback: The Sherfy Peach Orchard | American Orchard

  2. Pingback: The Trees of Camp Chase Cemetery | American Orchard

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