Sue Chancellor

Color sketch of Chancellorsville house
The Civil War transformed the quiet country intersection of Chancellorsville into a scene of horror

Virginia Historical Society

Born in 1847, Susan Margaret Chancellor was only fourteen years old when war descended on her family. Sue and her six siblings lived twelve miles west of Fredericksburg in a large and popular tavern along the Orange Turnpike. Her mother Francis, widowed in 1860, opened her home to refugees from Fredericksburg after the battle and occupation in 1862. Confederate soldiers and officers were frequent visitors to the tavern throughout the winter and spring of 1863, and many befriended the young Chancellors. One South Carolinian soldier presented Sue with a lamb, which she dubbed "Lamar". Famed cavalry officer, J.E.B. Stuart presented Sue's sister, Fannie, with a small gold dollar, which is still on display in the Chancellorsville Visitor Center.

In late April 1863, the Union Army arrived at Chancellorsville, intending to use the Orange Turnpike and other roads to march on Fredericksburg and attack the Confederates. The Confederate Army in turn marched west intending to trap Union forces in the tangled woods of the Wilderness, sparking one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Union commander Joseph Hooker occupied the tavern, while the family and guests were kept in a back room under guard. Sue wrote a vivid account of the families' terrifying ordeal, as battle raged all around their home. "We never sat down to a meal again in that house, but they brought food to us in our room."

As the battle progressed the tavern was converted to a field hospital and packed with wounded men. Desperate for space, soldiers moved the Chancellor family to the cellar of the house where they could be kept in relative safety. During the brief move, Sue caught a glimpse of the terrors of battle raging around her. "O the horror of that day! The piles of legs and arms outside the sitting room window and the rows and rows of dead bodies covered with canvas!"

The battle culminated on May 3rd, 1863, with the worst of the fighting centered around Chancellorsville. Confederate guns stationed at Hazel Grove blasted the tavern, trying to dislodge the Union soldiers from their position around the building. The ferocity of the artillery barrage ignited the building and surrounding woods, forcing the evacuation of the family from the cellar. With only a few valuables, the Chancellors fled their burning home. "Slowly we picked out way over the bleeding bodies of the dead and wounded…at the last look our old home was completely enveloped in flame." The Chancellors were taken across the Rappahannock River to a nearby plantation. They were kept under guard for ten days, and finally released after both armies retired from the field. The family eventually made their way to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they lived for the duration of the war.

Sue survived the war and married her cousin, Capt. Vespasian Chancellor, a former cavalry scout for J.E.B. Stuart. The tavern was rebuilt but sadly, burned down again in 1927. Before her death in 1935, Sue published her account of the battle in the Confederate Veteran magazine, which remains one of the most important sources used to interpret the site today. Sue never forgot the horrors she witnessed during the battle, which remained fresh in her memory throughout her life. "The horrible impression of those days of agony and conflict is still vivid, and I can see the blazing woods, the house in flames, the flying shot and shell, and the terror-stricken women and children pushing their way over the dead and wounded."

Text by Maureen Lavelle

Last updated: July 16, 2016

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