The Unfortunate Souls of Chatham Manor

In over 250 years, Chatham Manor has seen its share of tragedy on both a personal and national scale. Could that be why so many visitors have left with hair-raising tales to tell?

Chatham Manor rises above the Rappahannock River overlooking Fredericksburg, Virginia, where it has stood since 1771.

It is the only private residence to be visited by at least four U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Several years before the United States even existed as a country, a 28-year-old Virginia planter named William Fitzhugh began construction on this redbrick, Georgian style mansion on Stafford Heights.

It was the centerpiece of a sprawling estate that included an orchard, mill, and racetrack. Nearly 100 slaves tended the grounds, as well as Fitzhugh’s prized horses.

William Fitzhugh was a close friend of George Washington, so he naturally supported the Patriot cause during the Revolutionary War.

It was during this time period that Chatham Manor acquired its most famous legend—that of a lady dressed in white who strolls up an old carriage trail on the anniversary of her death.

No one knows who this mysterious woman was, but storytellers agree she was the daughter of an Englishman visiting Chatham prior to the Revolutionary War.

The young woman had fallen in love with a man of lowly stature in England, so her father whisked her away to America where he could find a more suitable suitor.

The pair were staying at Chatham Manor when, unfortunately for him, his daughter’s suitor caught up with them.

The young woman and her suitor came up with a plan to meet under cover of darkness. She would climb a rope ladder from an upstairs window into his loving arms.

Somehow their plan got out—perhaps spread by gossiping servants—and instead of falling into the arms of her lover, she landed into the arms of George Washington, who was a guest there as well!

The man and his daughter returned to England, but she never forgot her suitor or their ill-fated elopement at Chatham Manor.

It is said that her ghost returns every seven years on June 29th.

On that warm summer night, eyewitnesses since the early nineteenth century have seen the glowing apparition of a woman in white walk the grounds, searching for her lost love.

How many of those unfortunate souls still wander the garden and gaze wearily out over the Rappahannock River, where so many of their comrades died?

During the American Civil War, Chatham’s owner was J. Horace Lacy, a Confederate staff officer in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

When the Union Army placed artillery batteries on Stafford Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg and used Chatham as a headquarters, Lacy reportedly gave Lee permission to fire on his house, but Lee declined, not wanting to damage the majestic home.

The Battle of Fredericksburg was among the bloodiest of the war, and Chatham’s rooms became filled with maimed and mutilated soldiers.

Bodies piled up in the yard, and over 130 were buried under the front lawn, though all but a handful were later reinterred elsewhere.

How many of those unfortunate souls still wander the garden and gaze wearily out over the Rappahannock River, where so many of their comrades died?

Today, the National Park Service owns and maintains Chatham Manor. Its grounds are open to the public, where you can walk among the gardens and its Greco-Roman statuary.

Twin southern catalpa trees stand definitely in the yard, their twisted and knotted trucks supported by iron rods.

They have stood there since before the Civil War, but perhaps, for not much longer. Standing under their branches on a crisp, mid-December day, can you not hear the groans of the wounded and dying?