Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Fitzhugh House

     John Hennessy recently posted about the Fitzhugh House near Fredericksburg on his blog Mysteries and Conundrums.   Sadly the house and grounds are in jeopardy.

      If there is a focal point for the 13th Mass in VA, this is it.       This house was a field hospital (with Dr. Whitney in charge) in the spring of 1863.      Whitney's tent was pitched  right in front of the house.      John S. Fay was operated on by Dr Whitney in the house, and every man and officer of the regiment visited Fay while he was recuperating.

      A shell struck Fay April 30, 1863.       The same shell that shattered his right knee and hand  struck and killed Captain George Bush of Co F, in the side and decapitated Lt. William Cordwell at Fitzhugh Crossing (or Pollocks Mill Crossing) down by the river.  Fay was bundled up and carried to the house on top of the hill by Sgt. Andrew J. Mann and Sgt. Enoch C. Pierce.     I wrote about the incident here.

Fay wrote:

     "Acting hospital Steward S. E. Fuller of my Co took care of me that night.    in the night Col. Leonard came in to see me.       The next day our regiment lay in line of battle in front of the house and nearly all the officers and men came in to see me."

     Also that day, May 1st,  young Sam Webster, the feisty drummer for the regiment, who was assigned to the ambulance train & hospitals  wrote in his diary,
      "Reported at Fitzhugh House, now used as First Corps Hospital.       Went out to the barn and husked corn to get filling for ticks. The boys have contributed about $250.00 to Fay."

   There are several fascinating characters and incidents associated with this event, and this house.

Dr. Allston Whitney, the surgeon of the 13th began service with a dubious reputation, at least in the opinion of some officers and men in the regt.    In slow times he drank, but after the battle of Cedar Mtn, Whitney went to work.

"The steadiness of his hand, the dexterity and precision and decisiveness of his cut and thrusts in the surgical line was the wonder and admiration of all the Doctors in Banks & McDowell's Divisions.       Surgeons turn from their cases to look at him while operating.       From morning until night and from night until morning in his shirt sleeves he worked in blood, volunteering his services, the hardest cases being given to him."      -(letter of priv. John B. Noyes to his father, Aug 25, 1862)

     Sgt. Andrew J. Mann, one of the men who helped save Fay,  was the nephew of Horace Mann, an early prominent advocate of free public education in the United States.   After the war, Andrew got into some serious trouble, (circumstances unknown) and was forced to go west and live under an assumed name.    He is buried at the veterans cemetery in San Fransisco.

   In addition to Dr. Whitney's attentive care, Fay wrote that he was greatly indebted to acting hospital steward S. E. Fuller of Co F, and Chandler Robbins of Co. K.       --   Robbins, (about age 42 at this time) was from Westboro.      He had been a California 49er in the gold rush.  His 1880 obituary in the Westboro Transcript states:

     "He was one of the "forty-niners," going out to California via the Straits of Magellan, on the first ship fitted at Boston for the then new gold regions.      He was connected with the Fremont surveying party there, which was led by the famous path-finder himself and guided by Kit Carson.      In the two years of his absence he had a varied experience, which included surveying, mining and exploring, and few hours captivity among the Indians.    On his return trip, via the Isthmus, the train which carried the proceeds of his labors was robbed, leaving Mr Robbins little but his experience.    His descriptions of what he saw in South America and California furnished many interesting stories for friends at home."

     Mrs. Rebecca Large, of Philadelphia is another memorable character who figures in this story.     Her son, (90th PA) was badly wounded the same day as Fay, and shared a room with him on the lower floor in the front of the house.     When the boy was told the night of May 1st his leg had to be amputated to save his life, he begged the surgeons to await his mother's arrival.

     "The surgeon told him his mother could not come to him, for the War Department had issued strict orders to allow no one not connected with the army to go south of Washington.     The boy replied, "Doctor, you don't know my mother.    She has telegraphed me that she was coming, and she will come."

     Fay continued:
  "In the morning soon after daylight I noticed an ambulance coming up the road.    It drove up to the house and stopped, and to my surprise a woman alighted from it.      She was met at the door by the assistant surgeon, who was on duty at that hour."

     It was Mrs. Large, come to nurse her son.    Dr. Whitney told Fay it was her skilful nursing that saved the boy.

     When the Union army moved north, abandoning Fredericksburg, the Fitzhugh house still had about 35 wounded.     These were men who had not been well enough to be evacuated to Washington.

     The army moved north from Fredericksburg June 14th.  Fay wrote,

    "When the first corps left their camp near our hospital an officer with an ambulance train was sent down to remove us.    There was a heavy thunder-storm that night.  In the darkness and rain he got lost.    When daylight appeared he could see, from the bluffs where he was, the rebel army crossing the river down in front of our hospital about a mile distant.

     The officer became frightened.      He turned his train of empty ambulances northward and started to catch up with the Union army, leaving us to be captured without making any attempt remove us."

     When the staff and patients of the captured hospital were sent to Richmond, Mrs. Large staid with them.      She convinced  Confederate guards to allow her to be interned  at the Libby Prison hospital  with her son, rather than at Castle Thunder, the civilian prison in Richmond.    She continued to care for him and others while she was prisoner.

      John S. Fay and the other patients who survived captivity (several died) were paroled from Libby in mid- July.      Dr. Whitney was not paroled until November.  Fay parted company with the Mrs. Large and her son at Annapolis, Md. July 19.

     Fay recovered from his wounds and was appointed post master of Marlboro, Mass., his home town, by President Andrew Johnson in June, 1865.     He was reappointed by every sitting President from Johnson to Teddy Roosevelt in 1903.      He served as postmaster of Marlboro until his death 1914.     His family has a slip of paper with all the Presidents signatures renewing  the appointment through the years.       Pictured is the Marlboro Post Office at the turn of the last century, a new building then.      I believe the man in front with two canes is Post Master John S. Fay.

      I find it intriguing to attach so many stories to this one place, all documented, in such a brief period of its long history.        I hope the Fitzhugh property is preserved but it seems unlikely at present.  Considering these stories, and its long significant Virginia history, you would think there would be enough interest  from people in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, for someone, or some group of interested parties, to step forward to help save it.