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Historical Context


Reading 1
Reading 2



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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Chatham as Hospital

In the aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg, hundreds of wounded Union soldiers poured back across the icy Rappahannock River to receive medical attention in tents and buildings. Chatham served as one of many hospitals where overworked surgeons and volunteers attended to what seemed like endless streams of injured soldiers. Clara Barton and Walt Whitman were two of the volunteers to come to Chatham. Of what she witnessed in the field hospital at Chatham, Barton wrote, " were crowded into the Lacy House which contained but twelve rooms. They covered every foot of the floors and porticos and even lay on the stair landings!"

Barton, who later founded the American Red Cross, was eager to get to Fredericksburg before the battle. She had already experienced the horrors of the makeshift hospitals on the battlefield at Antietam in September of 1862, and she knew how much her help was needed. She quickly organized a routine for the treatment of the wounded at Chatham, as well as for those wounded who were taken to houses and churches in the town. In one letter home she described being hindered in her movements inside Chatham by her long skirts, which became heavy as they were soaked with blood.

The poet Walt Whitman came to Chatham searching for his brother who had been reported severely wounded during the battle. Relieved to find his brother had suffered only slight wounds, Whitman decided to remain to help those soldiers more seriously injured. He recorded many of his observations in diaries, letters, and books:

[I] spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion on the banks of the Rappahannock, immediately opposite Fredericksburg. It is used as a hospital since the battle, and seems to have received only the worst cases. Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc.--about a load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its own brown woolen blanket.1

Many of the wounded were eventually transported north to Washington, D.C., to recuperate in that city’s hospitals. Whitman also journeyed there and continued to nurse soldiers. Sadly, however, some soldiers never left Chatham. They succumbed to their injuries and were laid to rest in the trampled gardens around the old house. Many other houses and buildings closer to the fighting at Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House were used as field hospitals by the armies. Chatham no longer sheltered the suffering casualties.

When the Fredericksburg National Cemetery was established following the Civil War, Union soldiers were moved there from original burial sites on the battlefields and nearby field hospitals. Burial details disinterred nearly 100 soldiers from the grounds surrounding Chatham and reburied them alongside 15,000 other soldiers in the cemetery. The National Cemetery is now a part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Questions for Reading 3

1. Why do you think Chatham was used as a hospital?

2. What happened to the bodies of the soldiers who died of their injuries at Chatham?

3. Why would the army surgeons have welcomed help from civilians like Clara Barton and Walt Whitman to attend to the wounded?

4. What purpose does the American Red Cross serve today? Do you think Clara Barton's experiences in the Civil War influenced the founding of the American Red Cross? Why?

Reading 3 is excerpted from Ronald W. Johnson, "Chatham Preliminary Historic Resource Study," National Park Service, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, 1982.

1Richard M. Buck, ed., Walt Whitman, The Wound Dresser: Letters Written to His Mother from Hospitals in Washington During the Civil War (New York: Bodley Press, 1949), 22-23.


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