“They gave me grog…and put me to sleep with opium pills”: Kenmore as a Civil War Hospital

Kenmore sometime before the end of 1862.  The wooden structure to the mansion's left is the kitchen, which would be destoryed during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Historic Kenmore sometime before the end of 1862. The wooden structure to the mansion’s left is the kitchen, which would be destroyed during the Battle of Fredericksburg.  An enslaved woman can be seen standing at the corner of the kitchen while an enslaved man is visible under the tree at the far left.

As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War draws to a close, we are remembering the war at Kenmore, and its aftermath.  Although Kenmore is best known as a house of the colonial period, it had quite a history during the Civil War.  Visitors to Kenmore have long heard that the house survived bombardment during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862.  At least 11 cannon balls hit the house, with at least one penetrating the interior, damaging the famous plasterwork ceiling in the Drawing Room.  While that battle was intense and destructive, the true lasting effects of the war on Kenmore came later, when the house was used as a Union field hospital during the early stages of the Overland Campaign.

Cannon ball hole in Kenmore's roof.

Cannon ball hole in Kenmore’s roof.

In May of 1864, Union and Confederate forces clashed at The Wilderness just west of Fredericksburg, with further hostilities throughout the month at nearby Spotsylvania Courthouse.  The wounded from these battles were evacuated from the front lines to Fredericksburg.  The city was soon overwhelmed with soldiers in dire circumstances, needing far more medical attention and resources than were available.

A memoir of experiences during the war written by Amos Rood, an officer in the 7th Wisconsin Infantry who was wounded at Spotsylvania, gives a vivid account of the situation in Fredericksburg and at Kenmore specifically (a transcription of the memoir is in the Kenmore manuscript collection).  Rood writes, “…where to put the thousands who were being brot [sic] in! City already full: every house, barn, shop, factory, shed: all overcrowded and thousands laying on the sidewalks and gardens and fields!”[1] Rood was in a wagon which had been left on a crowded street in the city, but a chaplain who he knew happened by and helped him find shelter at Kenmore.  He describes the scene upon his arrival, “…took me out of the rig and had me carried into Kenmore house and (no room on the ground floor so they toted me up one flight and laid my cot down on the floor by the bannister or balustrade) so I could see people (Drs & c.) coming up and going down…Surgeons noticed me…They gave me grog…and put me to sleep with opium pills.”

The second floor landing where Rood was treated for his wounds.

The second floor landing where Rood was given medical treatment.

Rood would stay at Kenmore, in increasingly dire circumstances, from May 14th through the 17th.  Although he describes a serious leg wound that was obviously infected, he was given no medical treatment other than doses of opium and liquor.  The fact that a man in such a condition did not rate top billing for treatment perhaps speaks to the situation of the other soldiers being brought into Kenmore by the hundreds every day.  It has long been believed that Kenmore’s glorious dining room was used as the surgery, as evidenced by the fact that all of its original floorboards had to be ripped up and replaced after the war.  War era graffiti left on the rafters of the attic attest to the fact that wounded soldiers were crammed into every available space in the house.  Eventually, more than a hundred bodies and at least one horse were buried on Kenmore’s grounds, mostly in hastily dug shallow graves.

In 1868, the removal of soldiers’ remains from temporary graves all over the city began, when a national cemetery was established in Fredericksburg.  Eventually more than 13,000 remains were re-interred.  The process took decades.  In fact, the last known grave of a soldier buried at Kenmore was discovered in December, 1929, when the Kenmore Association began excavations to rebuild the kitchen dependency.  An article in the Free Lance-Star on December 5th said, “The finding of soldier’s [sic] remains in Fredericksburg and its environments is not unusual and often workmen engaged in digging ditches…or in excavating for new building projects, come across all that is left of a once youthful soldier.”[2] The ladies of Kenmore made arrangements with the American Legion to have the remains re-interred with full military honors on the 66th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13th. An account of the ceremony reads, “…the cortege left ‘Kenmore’.  The body had been placed in a new casket and this draped with a large United States flag, which often floated from the ‘Kenmore’ flagstaff.”[3]

Fredericksburg National Cemetery

Gravestones at Fredericksburg National Cemetery

With that last re-interrment, the war finally came to an end for Kenmore.  150 years later, we still remember its lasting effects.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Rood, Amos. Memoirs of the War. Trans. Steven L. Acker.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection.

[2] “Remains of Union Soldier are Found.” The Free Lance-Star [Fredericksburg, VA] 5 December, 1929: Kenmore Manuscript Collection.

[3] “Unknown Soldier Buried in Kenmore.” The Chattanooga Times 12  January , 1930: Kenmore Manuscript Collection.