Lost From the Landscape: Battlefield Homes
"Ruins of the Phillips House" (Library of Congress)
A current thread in Civil War scholarship debates the destructiveness of the conflict. Some historians cite numerous examples of ruins-filled cities like Fredericksburg, Atlanta, Charleston, and Columbia, and war-damaged regions like the Shenandoah Valley to argue its cataclysmic nature. Others contend that with the advances in war-waging technology and the enmity that usually accompanies civil wars, the amount of destruction visited on America’s landscape could have been much worse when compared to other period conflicts. Regardless of the destructiveness endured by any particular area, it is difficult to argue that for those who lost homes, buildings, and businesses due to the unhappy circumstance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it was a life altering experience.
The battlefields that the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust works to preserve certainly witnessed their fair share of material damage during the war years. Many notable houses and buildings referred to in primary source accounts and in the histories written since those momentous events occurred no longer remain on the landscape as visual landmarks to modern battlefield visitors. Other structures vanished in the years and decades following the war due to accidents, neglect, or relocation.
In this history email we will examine several area structures that once stood on historic and hallowed ground. They bore silent witness to the terrible nature of Civil War combat, but unfortunately no longer exist in their wartime form or place.
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The Battle of Fredericksburg: Mannsfield (The Bernard House)
Mannsfield as depicted by sketch artist Theodore R. Davis in the January 10, 1863, issue of Harper's Weekly.
Mannsfield, the Arthur Bernard home, a notable landmark on the southern end of the Fredericksburg battlefield, was constructed in the mid-1760s. Situated south of the lower pontoon bridge crossing site along the Rappahannock River, and near the “Slaughter Pen Farm” portion of the battlefield, Federal troops deployed into battle within eyesight of the mansion and fought across its expansive 1,800-acre grounds that were bisected by both the Bowling Green Road and the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad. Before the war, the Mannsfield complex included numerous outbuildings that housed and supported the work of the 77 enslaved individuals listed in the 1860 census.
During the fighting, the homes of many of the Mannsfield enslaved population, which were located on high ground west of the railroad tracks, were destroyed. Capt. Greenlee Davidson chose that location as the place for his Confederate artillery battery. Davidson's cannoneers drew counter battery fire from Federal artillery that pummeled the rise along with these three two-room cabins.
Mannsfield’s stone grandeur received comment in the letters, diaries, and memoirs of soldiers and officers who fought on that end of the Fredericksburg battlefield. Maj. Rufus Dawes (6th Wisconsin Inf.) remembered that on the evening of December 12, 1862, “We reached a stone house, known as ‘Barnards’ about dark. We bivouacked for the night in the grounds around this house.” Surgeon George T. Stevens (77th New York Inf.) wrote, “A fine stone mansion of large dimensions, situated on the south bank of the river, and a little below the bridge, was taken by the surgeons of our Second division for a hospital. The position was exposed to rebel fire but was the best that could be found.” Stevens also mentioned that Gen. George Bayard, who was in command of the cavalry for the Left Grand Division, was mortally wounded there, and “Others, some of whom had been previously wounded, received fatal shots at the very doors of this house.”
An Historical American Building Survey conjectural restoration drawing of Mannsfield shows it as a stately manor. (Library of Congress).
Incredibly, Mannsfield survived the Battle of Fredericksburg. It was through an accidental fire by its Confederate occupants in 1863, that it burned. For years the stone ruins of the main house and its north and south paired dependencies remained on the grounds. In the 1920s, local artist Gari Melchers, purchased some of the salvageable ruins for construction materials for his studio in Falmouth. Today, only the family cemetery remains at Mannsfield.
A fantastic Mysteries and Conundrums blog post by John Hennessy about archaeology at Mannsfield in the 1930s is available here.
The Battle of Chancellorsville:
Chancellorsville (The Chancellor House)
The Chancellor House (Library of Congress)
Built in 1816 by George Chancellor, the Chancellor House, once the dominating feature of the Chancellorsville crossroads, was a heap of brick ruins by the end of the famous 1863 battle. Originally intended as a tavern stop, the Chancellor House also served several additional purposes during its prewar life, including a post office and school.
Owned by Samuel Guy in 1860, his family resided there until the beginning of the Civil War when the previous owner repossessed it and then leased it to Frances Chancellor, who lived there at the time of the battle with her family. Frances Chancellor was the sister-in-law of George Chancellor.
During the Battle of Chancellorsville, the house became the headquarters for Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, then commanding the Army of the Potomac. On May 3, Hooker was injured when a Confederate artillery projectile struck one of the house’s second story pillars throwing part of it against him and knocking him senseless for a short time. Not long after Hooker’s injury, and as the Chancellor family was fleeing the structure’s protective basement, the house caught fire and burned to ruins.
The Chancellor House ruins. (Library of Congress)
Being in the midst of the fighting, the Chancellor House received comments from soldiers and civilians who observed it before, during, and after the historic battle. Lt. D. Augustus Dickert (3rd South Carolina Inf.) noted that, "A perfect sea of fire was in our faces from the many cannon parked around the Chancellor House and graping in all directions but the rear." Susan Chancellor, a girl at time remembered that, “The fighting was awful, and the frightened (Yankees) crowded into the basement for protection from the deadly fire of the Confederates, but an officer came and ordered them out. . . .”
About a decade after the battle, construction of a new house began on the site. Smaller than the battled damaged house, it soon succumbed to neglect, and in 1927, it like the 1816 house, ended up a victim of fire.
Remnants of the brick foundation and some stone steps are all that is visible at the site today. Numerous National Park Service interpretive panels help visitors understand this structure’s history, its free and enslaved inhabitants, and its central role in the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Present-day Chancellor House foundation and ruins. (Tim Talbott, 2023)
The Battle of the Wilderness: The Higgerson House
The Higgerson House as it appeared in the early 20th Century.
Not all of the Wilderness was wilderness. Among the dense woods were several small farm clearings and a network of dirt roads. One of those farms in the Orange County portion of the Wilderness belonged to the Higgersons, a family of six in 1860. Two enslaved individuals also lived on the Higgerson’s farm.
Benjamin and Parmelia Higgerson raised their four children here in a small one and a half story frame building. Benjamin, 50 years old in 1860, died in 1862, leaving Parmeila a widow. James, an adult son of Benjamin’s from a former marriage, who served in the 9th Virginia Cavalry, died from smallpox a couple of days before Christmas 1862.
As was the case with a number of other central Virginia civilians, Parmelia Higgerson was present when her house ended up caught between the lines of the contending armies. On May 5, Confederate brigades under Junius Daniel and John Brown Gordon, and Federals in Roy Stone’s brigade of Pennsylvanians from James Wadsworth’s division slammed into each other at the Higgerson farm. John Nesbit (149th Pennsylvania, Stone's Brigade) recalled that they "marched down toward the rebel lines . . . passed a small cabin . . . with a picket fence enclosing the house and garden." Nesbit noted that his company "moved right over the fence and garden, smashing the fences and trampling the garden stuff under their feet." As Parmelia saw the Federal soldiers damage her property she castigated them that they would soon be going the other direction. It was not long before her prophecy came true.
Few soldiers’ accounts noting the Higgerson house survive. However, another comes from Thomas Fair of Co. A, 121st Pennsylvania (Stone’s Brigade). He remembered “crossing a small field, containing a small hut and tobacco barn built of logs . . . .” One possible reason the Higgerson House elicited so few references was its common appearance. Lacking in size and grandeur in comparison to those like Mannsfield or the Chancellor House, homes like the Higgerson’s were familiar sites to soldiers. Another reason for the lack of comment in the historical record may be due to the house apparently receiving little damage (outside the fence and garden trampling) during the battle. It was not involved in an attention-getting fire, nor did it have its roof, siding, or frame shattered by shot and shell like many other battlefield houses.
The Higgerson House survived the maelstrom of the Wilderness, but as with so many other period buildings that eventually became victims of time and circumstance, it was nothing more than a heap of rubble by the 1940s.
All that remains of the Higgerson House is some stone debris from the chimney. (Tim Talbott, 2022)
The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House: The Spindle House
Located along Brock Road, the Spindle Farm (misspelled "Spindler here) was caught between the Union and Confederate lines at Spotsylvania Court House. (Library of Congress)
Literally caught between the Union and Confederate lines in the early phase of the fighting at Spotsylvania Court House, the chances of the Spindle House surviving the battle undamaged were slim from the first shots.
At the time of the battle, Sarah Buckner Spindle lived there. She was the second wife of Benjamin Spindle, who purchased over 300 acres from its previous owner, his first father-in-law. Benjamin Spindle died in early 1860, leaving the house and 50 acres to Sarah, and even more land to their two children. That year’s census also lists three other adults and two children in the household. Nineteen enslaved individuals worked on the farm, but it is unknown how many, if any, remained by the 1864 battle.
Benjamin Spindle’s estate inventory notes that the Spindle House was a two-story frame structure with exterior chimneys at each end, an architectural style common to the area. The kitchen was located in a separate outbuilding. A few other outbuildings, including dwellings for the enslaved, also probably populated the farm.
As the fighting died out in the Wilderness, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant decided to continue the Army of the Potomac’s movement south, a race ensued for the important crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House. Barely arriving first on May 8, 1864, Gen. J.E.B Stuart's cavalry and Gen. Richard H. Anderson's infantry worked quickly to throw up a line of earthworks just a stone’s throw south of the Spindle House. The Army of the Potomac’s Fifth Corps arrived on their heels, making several assaults across the Spindle farm, mistakenly called Laurel Hill.
During the fighting on May 8, Federal sharpshooters occupied the house, with Sarah Spindle still in it. The Confederates, determined not to allow their foes to use the structure to advantage, sent artillery shells into it, which caught it on fire.
Pvt. John Coxe (2nd South Carolina Inf.) remembered, "Then Stuart ordered the artillery to burn the buildings, and the very first incendiary shell from the brass cannon fired the main building. A woman bareheaded, her long hair streaming behind, ran out of the big house and across the field to the left [west] between the two fighting armies and reached shelter in the woods on the Po River." Apparently, the damaged house was never rebuilt.
Archaeological studies at the site in the late 1990s and early 2000s revealed the location of the house and a number of artifacts. Today the former Spindle Farm site is part of the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park. A trail system and interpretive signs help visitors understand its fascinating history.
The Spindle House one stood in this field. (Tim Talbott, 2022)
Sources and Suggested Reading
Cora Brien and Clarence R. Grier. “Third Time’s the Charm: Historical Archaeology and the Sarah Spindle House on the Battlefield of Spotsylvania Court House,” in Fredericksburg History and Biography, Vol. IV, 2005. Noel G. Harrison. Chancellorsville Battlefield Sites. H. E. Howard, Inc., 1990. Noel G. Harrison. Fredericksburg Civil War Sites: Volume Two, December 1862-April 1865. H. E. Howard, Inc., 1995. Christopher Mackowski and Kris White. "A Wilderness of Woe," in Blue and Gray Magazine. Blue and Gray Enterprises, Inc., 2017.
Fredericksburg damage. (Library of Congress)
"A great many houses are burned down. The rest of the buildings on our lot suffered considerably from the firing both from our side & from the Yankees. From Brannan's House to the Bank Corner the houses are burned down on the opposite side."
Fredericksburg native, Lt. Robert Taylor Knox, 30th VA Inf., after the Battle of Fredericksburg.
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Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.