The Cultural Landscape at Chatham Manor at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park
This video is the first in a series of cultural landscape videos produced by the National Park Service (NPS) Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation (OCLP). The video is made possible by financial support from the NPS National Center for Preservation Technology and Training and through the efforts of Vanessa Hartsuiker, a digital media production intern with OCLP in partnership with the National Council for Preservation Education.
To view more videos in the series click here.
Chris Beagan: The country around us here still looks pretty, although the lively variegated landscape of spring has given place to the more softer and richer ones of summer. The rapid changes on the face of nature serve to remind us forcibly of the flight of time and of the changes which a few fleeting months may make in the lives, thoughts, and prospects of mankind. That’s a good one.
So, a cultural landscape report is the document that the National Park Service uses to manage its historic landscapes, and in a Cultural Landscape Report we document the history of the landscape; we document its existing condition; and then we compare those two pieces of information through a process of analysis and evaluation to make some recommendations about improvements to the landscape.
John Hennessey: I think oftentimes CLRs confirm, or kind of formalize, what the park already knows, the work of decades of our predecessors here, but this CLR for Chatham told us things we didn’t know. Reading it was like, holy cow, we didn’t know that!
Chris Beagan: Chatham is both the name of a house and also the name of the estate that that house is on. It was built by a man named William Fitzhugh, beginning in 1768.
Eric Mink: What we have here is all the layers of history, which are present from the 1700s up through the last private owners, the Pratts, who lived here, and when you visit Chatham, you see 200 years of history.
John Hennessey: You know, it is this place that is built upon the labor of enslaved people, literally probably built by them, certainly sustained by them. The business here was an income-producing place as all plantations in there original form were intended to be. It was built on the backs of enslaved people, and then during Civil War, of course, it was disrupted, damaged; the place was transformed.
Kirsten Talken-Spaulding: One of the things about National Park units, with over 400 of them across the nation, each one has to be unique in of itself, so when you’re thinking about Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, everybody always thinks about the Civil War first. When you come to Chatham, you stand on the grounds, you see the gorgeous gardens that are here overlooking the City of Fredericksburg and you go, Civil War? Then you begin to learn a little bit more about the history of Chatham.
Leslie Bird: I think my favorite historical fact about Chatham is the story about Walt Whitman coming to Chatham, looking for his brother during the Battle of Fredericksburg, or maybe it’s just after the Battle of Fredericksburg and he wrote of the carnage that he saw outside the window where the surgeries were being performed, and the arms and legs that had been amputated, he said that they would fill up a horse cart, and that was right under the catalpa trees that are still out front and are very interesting in their own right to look at.
Eliot Foulds: The most significant changes that happened to the property were the complete devastation of the property during the Civil War. Where your trees were cut down, the grounds were just beaten into a muddy pulp by the boots and wheels, and the animals belonging to the Union forces there. It became a big, sprawling encampment of the Union forces, and many of the local people described how the Union occupation of the grounds had really spoiled what had been a very beautiful place.
Chris Beagan: What’s special about the Chatham landscape is its diversity. On the river side of the house you have these earthen terraces that are these enormous earthmoving projects that kind of descend in slopes down towards the river, and in the broader landscape you have agricultural fields, which are beautiful in their own sense. You have this great natural topography to the site, with ravines that flank either side of the house and also the house itself, which basically sits on a plateau overlooking the Rappahannock River and the City of Fredericksburg below. And then on the land side of the house, at one time, you had a u-shaped access drive that brought visitors up to the door to the house. And today you have a 1.2-acre walled garden, which was designed by, historically, one of the most important women garden designers (Ellen Shipman) in our country.
Kirsten Talken-Spaulding: And through the work of not really just the National Park Service, but through a myriad of groups, especially the Friends of Chatham, and the volunteer gardeners that are here, we have an amazing spot that people can come to and see some of the grandeur of old and see themselves in the beauty that is today.
Nancy Fahy: I care about Chatham because it truly is a reflection of the American experience. All of those layers of history really do matter. We can learn from the past; we can learn from the way people have treated this landscape, good and bad; and we can learn to take care of it, and to preserve it, and to make it better, so that everybody can enjoy it.
Kirsten Talken-Spaulding: It’s unusual for anyone not to find something here on the landscape, in the house, in the stories, in the history of this area that they can’t relate to in some way — that they can’t feel connected to. So, I think, I would challenge anyone to come to Chatham and find themselves here at Chatham Manor.
Chris Beagan is an Historical Landscape Architect with the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation. He is also co-author of the Chatham Manor Cultural Landscape Report.
John Hennessey is the Chief Historian and Chief of Interpretation at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
Eric Mink is an Historian and Cultural Resource Specialist at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
Kirsten Talken-Spaulding is the Superintendent at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
Leslie Bird is a former Landscape Preservation Specialist, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
Eliot Foulds is an Historical Landscape Architect with the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation. He is also co-author of the Chatham Manor Cultural Landscape Report.
Nancy Fahy is the Projects Chair of the Friends of Chatham.