Chatham Manor is a Georgian-style mansion home completed in 1771 by farmer and statesman William Fitzhugh, after about three years of construction, on the Rappahannock River in Stafford County, Virginia, opposite Fredericksburg. It was for more than a century the center of a large, thriving plantation, and the only private residence in the United States to be visited by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Chatham also reflected the new country's racial tensions. In January 1805, Chatham's slaves overpowered and whipped their overseer and assistants in a minor slave rebellion. An armed posse of white men quickly gathered. They killed one slave in the attack, and two more died trying to escape capture. Two other slaves were deported, likely to the Caribbean or Louisiana, and Fitzhugh soon sold the property.
Five decades later, in 1857, owner Hannah Jones Coalter (the 77-year-old mother of a disabled daughter named Janet), died and attempted to manumit her 93 slaves after making provision both for her daughter and the slaves. Her relatives sued, claiming that after the Dred Scott decision, slaves were legally incapable of choosing whether to remain enslaved or receive their freedom and enough money to establish themselves in another state. While local judges thought the executors should free the slaves per Hannah's intent, a divided Virginia Supreme Court disagreed. Thus, the executors sold Chatham with its slaves to J. Horace Lacy (husband of Hannah's much younger half-sister Betty), although soon one slave was allowed to travel to raise money to buy freedom for herself and her small family, and succeeded.
During the American Civil War, the Lacys abandoned Chatham. Its strategic site overlooking Fredericksburg briefly served as Union headquarters, and later as the major Union hospital during battles for control of the strategic Virginia city and Spotsylvania County en route to the Confederate capital. Due to wartime use and disuse, Chatham fell into great disrepair. The Lacys ultimately sold Chatham to pay taxes (including on their other estate, Ellwood Manor) in 1872. Saved from total destruction as the 20th century began by a series of wealthy American owners, Chatham was refurbished and became a showpiece. The estate was willed to the National Park Service in 1975 and now serves as the headquarters for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
Wealthy lawyer and planter William Fitzhugh financed building the main house at Chatham over a three-year period ending in 1771. Fitzhugh was a friend and colleague of George Washington, whose family's farm was just down the Rappahannock River from Chatham. Washington's diaries note that he was a frequent guest at Chatham. He and Fitzhugh had served together in the House of Burgesses prior to the American Revolution, and shared a love of farming and horses. Fitzhugh's daughter, Molly, married the first president's step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, as well as becoming a leading abolitionist together with her friend Ann Randolph Meade Page. Their daughter Mary Anna, born at Ann Page's estate, later wed the future Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who freed the Custis slaves as executor after his in-laws' deaths.
The 1,280-acre (5.2 km2) plantation included an orchard, mill, and a race track where Fitzhugh's horses vied with those of other planters for prize money. Fitzhugh named the mansion after the British parliamentarian William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, who championed many of the opinions held by American colonists prior to the Revolutionary War. Flanking the main house were dozens of supporting structures: slave quarters, a dairy, ice house, barns, and stables, plus fish traps installed on the river.
Fitzhugh sold the Chatham plantation to Major Churchill Jones, who had served under Col. William Washington and Gen. "Light Horse" Harry Lee. The elderly Fitzhugh then moved to a city house in Alexandria, Virginia. Jones was a member of the Society of the Cincinnati, and greatly improved the estate, adding terraces down to the Rappahannock River as well as constructing the first bridge across that river to Fredericksburg. The bridge took a year and half to build but washed away in the flood of 1826, slightly more than three years after Churchill Jones died. Churchill's brother William Jones had long owned an estate, Ellwood Manor, in Spotsylvania County, and inherited Chatham around the time his wife of 40 years died. Hannah Jones Coalter was William's daughter by his first wife, and after her first husband died, in 1825, she married three-time widower and Virginia Court of Appeals judge John Coalter (1771–1838) and received the deed to Chatham as their wedding present. Meanwhile, the 78-year-old William Jones then remarried, to Lucy Gordon, his late wife's niece. Their 18-year marriage produced a daughter, Betty Churchill Jones, who in 1848 married her former tutor, James Horace Lacy of Mississippi, son of a Presbyterian minister.
Chatham remained known for its hospitality: Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and William Henry Harrison often visited Chatham, as later did Washington Irving. Irving visited twice while doing research for his multi-volume biography of George Washington, for whom he was named.
Hannah survived her last husband by nearly two decades, as did her disabled daughter Janet. The wealthy widow attempted to provide for her daughter's care, as well as free her household's administrator, Charles, and 92 other slaves in her will. However, the Virginia Constitution of 1851 (and earlier Virginia laws) required manumitted slaves to leave the state within a year, and so (as had none other than late U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall for a single slave), Hannah gave her each of slaves (other than Charles, who was freed outright) the choice of remaining enslaved in Virginia (but choosing their mistresses/masters) or manumission and a small stake to enable them to support themselves in another state or country. Her estate other than the slaves was valued at $15,000 to $20,000, so they could be provided for. However, her executor (presumably emboldened by Betty and her husband) sought court instruction as to their duties. While the local Stafford court thought the slaves should be freed, the Virginia Supreme Court disagreed. In Williamson v. Coalter, 14 Gratton 394 (1858), a majority of three justices refused to uphold Hannah's testamentary wishes, although she had revised the will shortly before she died in order to circumvent another recent decision refusing to uphold manumissions (Bailey v. Poindexter's executor). Her neighbor Justice Richard C.L. Moncure dissented vehemently, joined by Justice Samuels, who died shortly thereafter. Lacy bought Chatham for about $35,000 but ultimately sold it in 1872 to a Pennsylvania banker for $23,900.
Fitzhugh had owned upwards of 100 slaves as well as about 49,000 acres of land (including roughly 6000 at Chatham), with anywhere from 60 to 90 being used at Chatham, depending on the season. Most worked as field hands or house servants, but he also employed skilled tradesmen such as millers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. Little physical evidence remains to show where slaves lived; until recently, most knowledge of slaves at Chatham was from written records.
In January 1805, a number of Chatham slaves rebelled after an overseer ordered slaves back to work at what they considered was too soon after the Christmas holidays. The slaves overpowered and whipped their overseer and four others who tried to force them back to work. An armed posse put down the rebellion and punished those involved. One black man was executed, two died while trying to escape, and two others were deported, perhaps to a slave colony in the Caribbean, or to Louisiana.
William Churchill gave Chatham as a wedding present for his widowed daughter Hannah and the three-time widowed Judge John Coalter. Coalter died in 1838, so Chatham passed to his wife Hannah, who did not remarry (married women at the time could only hold property through their husbands). Hannah Coalter owned 51 slaves in the 1850 census, and, as an anti-slavery Methodist unlike her late husband, tried to free slaves through her will upon her death in 1857. Hannah's will provided that her slaves would have the choice of being freed and migrating to a free state like Ohio, or to Liberia, with passage paid for, or of remaining as slaves with any of her (Coulter's) family members they might choose.
However, Hannah's much younger half-sister Betty had in 1848 married J. Horace Lacy, a prosperous businessman and slaveowner at Ellwood Plantation further to the south in the Wilderness area of Spotyslvania County. Lacy convinced the will's executors to seek court direction. The Stafford court upheld the manumissions, but the Virginia Court of Appeals (the name at the time of the Virginia Supreme Court) in a 3 to 2 decision overturned the 92 conditional manumissions (only upholding Charles' outright manumission). The court denied Coalter's slaves any chance of freedom by ruling that the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court had declared that slaves were property, and not persons with choice.
Ellen Mitchell, an enslaved laundress at "Chatham", had known of and counted on Mrs. Coalter's promise of manumission. When Lacy's court case took her freedom away, Mitchell, irate, loudly proclaimed how unfair this denial was, particularly as she feared being sent to a plantation in Monroe, Louisiana. To be rid of her (and the problem she represented), Lacy sold her to a slave trader, James Aler, in Fredericksburg. Aler, active in his church and unsure what to do with Mitchell, allowed her a 90-day pass to leave Fredericksburg in early 1860 on a tour during which she and one of her sons attempted to raise money to buy their freedom for $1000. She gave speeches to church and political groups in Washington City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, raising enough money to return to Fredericksburg and buy not only her own freedom, but also that of her children. Lacy, impressed, also freed Mitchell's mother. The Mitchell family moved to Cincinnati in the free (i.e. slavery-prohibited) state of Ohio. In the 1860 census, Ellen Mitchell was listed as running a laundry business. Today, some of her descendants still live in that area of Ohio.
The 1860 census indicated that Lacy owned 39 slaves at Chatham and another 49 at his Ellwood plantation, as well as some slaves which he rented out. An outspoken proponent of slavery, Lacy joined the Confederate Army and rose to the rank of major; his brother Beverly Tucker Lacy (a Presbyterian minister) was the chaplain for General Stonewall Jackson, whose amputated arm was buried at Ellwood Plantation near Hannah Coalter's grave. At least two former slaves at Chatham served in the U.S. Colored Troops and survived the war, Charles Sprout and Andrew Weaver, and one may have served as a Confederate scout. Thus, slavery at Chatham ended in 1865 as a result of the Civil War, upon the passage of the constitutional amendment abolishing the institution.
National Park Service historians and others continue research, seeking to locate the former slave quarters.[ As discussed below, the property was extensively damaged during the Civil War. An 1862 sketch by a Unionist New Jersey soldier during the Civil War shows some buildings at the Chatham site that were long gone by the time historians began speculating that most slave dwellings were likely to be in the "rear", or the field-side area of the estate. This area had been cultivated since the slave days and in the 20th century new structures were built there. The recently discovered sketch shows structures to the south side of the manor house, in an area across a ravine away from the central area of the property. Re-examination of old photographs shows the faint rooflines of structures in that area, which may indicate the location of heretofore unconfirmed slave dwellings.