The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
STORM WOUNDS CIVIL WAR SURVIVOR
BY JONAS BEALS
Last Friday’s high-powered thunderstorm did more than take out power lines and peel back shed roofs.
It tore history limb from limb at Chatham Manor in southern Stafford County.
There are four surviving “witness trees” at the historic National Park property that served as a Union Army headquarters during the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. One of them, a locust, was partially felled by high winds last weekend.
John Hennessy, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park’s chief historian, said that the wound was not immediately fatal, but likely marks the beginning of the tree’s ultimate demise.
All four trees—two locusts and two catalpas—were present at the time of the Civil War, surviving the onslaught of artillery and the busy axes of soldiers. In an anthropomorphic way, they saw historic events firsthand yet survived far longer than any human could. Hence, the “witness” designation.
Hennessy said there are only about 10 witness trees remaining in the entire 7,000-acre park.
“It was here,” he said of the locust. “It does possess life. That distinguishes it from the buildings and the earthworks. It’s something you can come and touch—a tangible connection where there are very few tangible connections left. It can be a powerful connector.”
Of the four trees at Chatham, its catalpas are perhaps the most famous, as they are likely the trees mentioned by Walt Whitman in his wartime book “The Wound Dresser.”
Whitman worked as a Union Army nurse at Chatham in 1862, and described “a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc” and “several dead bodies” piled at the base of a tree about 10 yards from the front door of the house. The ancient catalpas fit that description, but the locusts do not.
Still, a potentially fatal wound to any 150-year-old tree is a heavy blow, particularly when they “tree-witnessed” such momentous events in our region’s and nation’s history.
“I tend not to be terribly sentimental about things like that,” Hennessy said. “It’s inevitable.”
But the connection to Civil War history is hard to ignore. It’s entirely possible that Abraham Lincoln once walked beneath their branches.
“They provided some shade for some pretty famous people over the years,” Hennessy said.
Park blog: bit.ly/chathamtree
Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036