Clara Barton first visited Chatham (known as the Lacy House during the war) in early August, 1862. She brought with her food and hospital supplies that she had collected to help "her boys" who were camped in the vicinity of the house.
Barton returned to Chatham during the Fredericksburg Campaign in December, 1862. She again brought supplies and was assigned a room in the house where she wrote a letter, see below, to her cousin Elvira. From the second floor, she watched the building of the pontoon bridges and bombardment of the city on December 11th. As wounded men were brought into the house, she comforted soldiers from both sides. Later in the day, a physician requested her help in the city. As she stepped off the pontoon bridge, an officer offered her his hand. A shell passed under their arms, tearing away part of her skirt and his coattail. Soon afterwards, Clara saw the dead body of this officer. She set up a soup kitchen in town. She spent much of the next day at the Lacy House which had become a hospital for the Union 2nd Corps. Since the doctors were too busy to keep medical records during battle, she wrote in her diary the names of the men who died at Chatham and where they were buried.
The heaviest fighting of the battle occurred on the 13th. Her diary is one of only two sources that mention a shot striking the Lacy House. She watched in horror from the doorway as a fragment from an exploding shell severed a soldier's artery. She applied a tourniquet that saved the man's life. Despite the critical need for help at Chatham, she thought she could be of more help across the river. Arriving in town, the Union provost marshall, who thought she was a civilian, volunteered to escort her to safety. Looking at the thousands of Union soldiers around her, she politely turned down the offer saying that she was the best protected woman in the world. When a shell struck the door of the room she was in, "she did not flinch, but continued her duties" of assisting the doctors.
Returning to Chatham where she spent the next two weeks, she saw "hundreds of the worst wounded men I have ever seen." The wounded occupied every room of the house and "covered every foot of the floors and porticos." She recorded that they lay on the stair landings and a man "thought himself rich" if he laid under a table where he would not be stepped on. She noticed five men stuffed onto four shelves of a cupboard. Still the 12,000 square-foot building did not contain enough space to hold all the wounded of the 2nd Corps. Many were placed on blankets in the muddy yard where they shivered in the cold December air as they waited for someone inside to die creating a space for them. Clara set up a soup kitchen in a tent in the yard to help these wounded soldiers.
One and a half years later, Fredericksburg again became filled with wounded from the battles of Wilderness and Spotsylvania. Barton rushed south from Washington and as she passed the large brick mansion she remembered the horrors she had seen there in 1862. Of the immense amount of death and destruction she saw during her life time, Clara Barton never forgot what she witnessed at Chatham. Likewise, the survivors would not forget Barton's kindness and service often under dangerous conditions.
Clara Barton Letter
The following letter, copied from the original in the Library of Congress, is on display at Chatham:
Head Quarters 2nd Div.
9th Army Corps-Army of the Potomac
Camp near Falmouth, Va.
December 12th, 1862 - 2 o'clock A.M.
My dear Cousin Vira:
Five minutes time with you; and God only knows what those five minutes might be worth to the many-doomed thousands sleeping around me.
It is the night before a battle. The enemy, Fredericksburg, and its mighty entrenchments lie before us, the river between - at tomorrow's dawn our troops will assay to cross, and the guns of the enemy will sweep those frail bridges at every breath.
The moon is shining through the soft haze with a brightness almost prophetic. For the last half hour I have stood alone in the awful stillness of its glimmering light gazing upon the strange sad scene around me striving to say, "Thy will Oh God be done."
The camp fires blaze with unwanted brightness, the sentry's tread is still but quick - the acres of little shelter tents are dark and still as death, no wonder for us as I gazed sorrowfully upon them. I thought I could almost hear the slow flap of the grim messenger's wings, as one by one he sought and selected his victims for the morning. Sleep weary one, sleep and rest for tomorrow toil. Oh! Sleep and visit in dreams once more the loved ones nestling at home. They may yet live to dream of you, cold lifeless and bloody, but this dream soldier is thy last, paint it brightly, dream it well. Oh northern mothers wives and sisters, all unconscious of the hour, would to Heaven that I could bear for you the concentrated woe which is so soon to follow, would that Christ would teach my soul a prayer that would plead to the Father for grace sufficient for you, God pity and strengthen you every one.
Mine are not the only waking hours, the light yet burns brightly in our kind hearted General's tent where he pens what may be a last farewell to his wife and children and thinks sadly of his fated men.
Already the roll of the moving artillery is sounded in my ears. The battle draws near and I must catch one hour's sleep for tomorrow's labor.
Good night near cousin and Heaven grant you strength for your more peaceful and less terrible, but not less weary days than mine.