“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.

The Civil War at the ‘Old Washington Farm’

Editor’s Note: Lives & Legacies continues to remember the Civil War as that conflict’s 150th anniversary concludes this April and May.  During the Civil War, the homes of George Washington and Fielding Lewis – both indispensable to securing American freedom in the Revolution — served as campsite and hospital in a bloody struggle over the definition of that same freedom.  This brief overview of Ferry Farm’s Civil War history is adapted from Report on the Excavation of the Washington Farm: The 2006 and 2007 Field Seasons by Dave Muraca, Paul Nasca and Phil Levy, Site No. 44ST-174, Department of Archaeology, George Washington Foundation, 2010, pg. 27-32.

On two separate campaigns in 1862, Union forces occupied the north bank of the Rappahannock River, including Ferry Farm, in an attempt to take control of Confederate Fredericksburg. The military objective of each campaign was the same; however, the circumstances under which the two were executed differed greatly.  The first occupation employed the Union Army’s strategy of ‘peaceful’ occupation while the second employed ‘hard war,’ resulting in a major impact on the social and physical landscape of the area.

In late April 1862, the Army of the Rappahannock, under the command of Major General Irvin McDowell, advanced south from Warrenton, Virginia. His military objective was to take control of Fredericksburg. This move was intended to help protect Washington, D.C., located 50 miles to the north, while the main body of the Union Army pushed toward Richmond on the James and York River peninsula. McDowell’s forward cavalry encountered, and quickly defeated, the Confederate forces defending Fredericksburg. In retreat, the Confederates burned the two foot-traffic bridges spanning the Rappahannock, as well as a vital railroad bridge. The Mayor of Fredericksburg surrendered the city to the Union Army.

The occupying Federals quickly established their encampments on the north side of the Rappahannock, including the land at Ferry Farm, and set about the task of erecting two floating bridges across the river and constructing a new railroad bridge.

Union Army wagons cross the Rappahannock River on a floating pontoon bridge at Ferry Farm. This photograph was taken from the present-day City Dock on the Fredericksburg side of the river looking across to Ferry Farm.

The Union soldiers encamped at Ferry Farm were the muscle that enforced the occupation of Fredericksburg. Their officers ordered them to respect people and property, and the men – for the most part – followed their command. Still, local residents, like the overseer living at Ferry Farm, complained bitterly to Federal authorities about barnyards raided for livestock, hay stolen for bedding, and fences dismantled for firewood.

Federal regiments hailing from New York, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts passed the spring and summer at Ferry Farm performing drills pulling guard duty, and rebuilding the structures their fellow troops sometimes damaged. When off duty, the men had time to improve their camp, wash their clothes, write letters home, play games, and even go into town to shop and see the sights.

In August, newly-appointed Union General John Pope recalled Fredericksburg’s occupiers to defend Washington. Departing Union soldiers destroyed their pontoon bridges, the railroad bridge they had just finished rebuilding, and other new structures they feared would benefit the Confederates.  Apart from the superficial harm caused by their three-month encampment, they left behind a landscape largely intact with Ferry Farm’s buildings still standing.

Four months later, Union General Ambrose Burnside brought the largest number of Federal troops ever amassed to the north bank of the Rappahannock. His plan was to cross the river and march victoriously on to Richmond. But he delayed his army’s crossing waiting for pontoon boats. This gave General Robert E. Lee time to fully entrench his Army of Northern Virginia on the opposite side of the river. Burnside’s delay set the stage for a fierce battle, which devastated Fredericksburg and ended in a staggering Union defeat. Badly mauled, the Federals withdrew, pulled up their pontoon bridges, and hunkered down for the winter, turning Ferry Farm into part of their defensive front line.

Although the Washington family’s house had disappeared by 1830, our excavations of its location have revealed not only the Washington’s cellar but also a Civil War-era trench passing within inches of the cellar.

The massive Union Army that arrived for battle in November was far different from the modest occupying force that had spent the summer here. Battle-hardened and irritated by a string of defeats, these soldiers cared little for local concerns about property. Burnside’s men did not hesitate to take whatever they wanted, including trees, fences, livestock, and homes. Anything useful was commandeered, stripped clean, or torn down over the ensuing months to sustain the winter camp – including Ferry Farm’s buildings.

William F. Draper, of the 36th Massachusetts Infantry, recalls his experience at Ferry Farm in late-November, 1862. “Our picket duty here was especially interesting from the associations connected with the spot where that duty was performed. The part of the line that it usually fell to my lot to hold was on the old Washington Farm, where General Washington passed most of his earlier years, and where he cut the cherry tree with his little hatchet but could not tell a lie.

Inkwell dating from the Civil War excavated at Ferry Farm.

Military action was renewed in the spring of 1863, culminating at the Battle of Chancellorsville. During this engagement, Ferry Farm was again the location of a pontoon bridge, and the Federal guns overlooking it roared back to life. At Chancellorsville, the Union Army would yet again sustain a crippling defeat; however, Fredericksburg would ultimately come under Federal control. In May 1864, the last of the military pontoon bridges to span the Rappahannock at Ferry Farm was in place, and would remain in this location following the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse.

After the war, attempts to restore peace and prosperity started with Ferry Farm’s first post-war occupants, the Carson family. They filled in trenches, cleaned up debris, and built a new farmstead that stood into the twentieth century.