A Tale of Two Presidents and One City

"Fredericksburg; may it increase and its commerce flourish." --Toast by George Washington, 1784

Fredericksburg-area residents and visitors have the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Washington and Lincoln. Both presidents were entertained lavishly across the river at Chatham estate, but under very different circumstances.

To Washington, this small town of Fredericksburg was his childhood home, populated by many friends and relatives. His sojourns here are noted in his diary with a pleasant familiarity. Lincoln's view of Fredericksburg could hardly be of greater contrast, for Fredericksburg was a Union-occupied town, and although the president was certainly welcomed by his own men, he was not welcomed by Confederate townspeople. In the chill of that December, Fredericksburg would become the site of one of the Union's worst defeats.

For Washington, A Quiet Town

Over a hundred years before Lincoln's visit, Washington came to the frontier port of Fredericksburg as a young boy to live on his family's farm by the Rappahannock River. This estate, known as the Ferry Farm, was inherited by him after his father's death. He along with some young relatives attended a school conducted by the Reverend Marye in Fredericksburg during the 1740s.

Some little time after his half-brother's death, he moved his residence to Mount Vernon, located within easy traveling distance of Fredericksburg. Washington spent a lot of time at his new property, improving the buildings and experimenting with agricultural techniques. Yet his Fredericksburg connections persisted. In 1752, Washington became a Mason at the Fredericksburg lodge. Today the Masonic Museum (803 Princess Anne Street) is home to a number of Washington artifacts including a painting of Washington by Gilbert Stuart, a minute book marking his initiation and even a lock of his hair.

A few years before his initiation, Betty, Washington's only sister, married Colonel Fielding Lewis who owned property in town as well as a store. Lewis' store (1200 Caroline Street) is still standing directly across the street from the library headquarters building (1201 Caroline Street) and is now undergoing renovation under the direction of the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

As the years passed, Fielding Lewis and George Washington enjoyed a close friendship. Both held seats in the House of Burgesses, and Lewis' mansion was conveniently located en route to Williamsburg-- at that time a four-day trip. Washington often noted in his diary that he would dine at Colonel Lewis' and afterwards stay with his mother across the river at their farm.

The site of Lewis' first house can also be viewed from the library headquarters building. Fielding Lewis sold this first house in 1776 to further the construction of the mansion that became known in later decades as Kenmore. This first house of Lewis' was burned during the fire of 1807, and its replacement was built in 1817. Lewis' house was notable for the falling gardens that sloped down towards Caroline Street, the outlines of which are still visible. That structure (1201 Princess Anne Street), built in 1817, is now known as the Wheelers' house and is a private residence. Its design follows much the same lines as Fielding Lewis' original mansion. 

Washington's mother, Mary, continued to live at Ferry Farm until 1772 when he at last persuaded her to move into town. Mrs. Washington lived in a small cottage at 1200 Charles Street near her daughter, Betty, and younger son, Charles.  Charles sometimes entertained his brother at his house at 1306 Caroline Street which is now known as the Rising Sun Tavern and may be toured.

During the years of his presidency, Washington returned to Fredericksburg where parties were held in his honor. Washington was a frequent guest of William Fitzhugh who had built the fine mansion Chatham. Chatham is visible across the river from the rear parking lot of the downtown library and may be visited as it is now a National Park Service property. Fitzhugh was known for his love of horse racing and his extravagant entertainments. Entertaining on such a lavish scale had its costs, and in 1806 the property passed out of the hands of the Fitzhugh family.

A Crossroads in the Civil War

Lincoln's time in Fredericksburg was determined by its military nature to be brief and mainly concerned with the functioning of his army. At the commencement of the Civil War, Chatham was owned by J. Horace Lacey who served as a major in the Confederacy. Chatham was occupied by Union forces and served as a headquarters during the Civil War. Walt Whitman visited there, seeking his wounded brother. The house was used as a hospital during the heaviest fighting and Clara Barton was among those who nursed the wounded. But before the worst of the fighting began, the hospital was a strategically positioned military command post.

On the morning of Friday, May 23, 1862, Abraham Lincoln arrived by train and met with Brigade Commander Marsena Rudolph Patrick, acting military governor of the town at his headquarters in the Farmer's Bank of Fredericksburg. The Farmer's Bank is now the downtown office of the PNC Bank at 900 Princess Anne Street and housed a small museum. Lincoln's mode of transport was a carriage pulled by four gray horses and owned by corps commander Irvin McDowell.

Later in the afternoon, Lincoln reviewed the federal troops at Stafford and attended a reception at Chatham. There was much pageantry, and Lincoln seemed very much at ease, joking with the soldiers. He gave orders to wait a few days before beginning the push to Richmond. This proved to be a pivotal decision and one that might have extended the conflict.

The material for this article was drawn largely from these sources, both of which are available in the library:

Chatham: The Life of a House by Ralph Happel.

George Washington's Relations and Relationships in Fredericksburg, Virginia by Paula Felder.

Places to See

Chatham Manor
A National Park Service property. William Fitzhugh entertained Washington here. The estate was later occupied by Union forces; Abraham Lincoln visited them in 1862.

Kenmore and Ferry Farm
George Washington's Fredericksburg Foundation administers these two properties. Ferry Farm was Washington's boyhood home, and Kenmore was the home of Washington's sister, Betty.

The Mary Washington House
Mary Washington's last home is located halfway between the Headquarters library and Kenmore. The property is administered by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA).

The Masonic Museum
Washington was initiated into the Freemasons at Fredericksburg. The museum has quite a number of Washington artifacts including a portrait by renowned artist Gilbert Stuart.

Is This the Most Important Civil War-era Building in the Fredericksburg Region? (Former National Bank of Fredericksburg building)

The Rising Sun Tavern
This home of Washington's brother, Charles, is open to the public as a living history tavern and is also owned by the APVA.

The Virginiana Room of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library
Research room is open to the public and focuses mainly on regional history. 

In the Library

Please note that the library owns more books on George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, many of which are located in the Virginiana Room of the Headquarters Library. Our materials list, CRRL History: The Many Facets of George Washington, is a good entry point for adults who want to delve further into his life. Our homework helper, Getting to Know Abraham Lincoln, has excellent choices for younger readers.