Witness to the Battle of Chancellorsville
From the viewpoint of 16-year-old Susan Margaret Chancellor, one of the inhabitants of the Chancellor House, the war brought some excitement to her quiet life in rural Virginia. During the winter of 1862–1863, Confederate soldiers on outpost duty supplied Susan and her family with welcome entertainment.
From Susan Chancellor’s diary:
Chancellorsville was not a village but a large country home. It was built for my grandmother, Ann Lyon Pound. My grandmother’s second husband was George Chancellor of Chancellorsville. It was after his death that the large Chancellorsville house was built to be used as an inn, for the Plank Road ran through the estate.
My mother [Fanny Longworth Pound] married Sanford Chancellor, a younger brother of her stepfather. My father’s home was at Forest Hall, near United States Ford [on the Rappahannock River]. He had a bark mill on the canal which ran by the side of the Rappahannock up from Fredericksburg, and I remember the canal boats which used to come up with groceries, dry goods…and carry down the bark and farm produce.
After my grandmother’s death, which occurred on December 31, 1860, Chancellorsville was sold and passed out of the family. My father died at the very beginning of the war, and my mother bought back Chancellorsville and moved there with her six unmarried daughters and one son.
My first recollection of the war is of the Confederate pickets. They were stationed near us and came in and got their meals from Mother. We had plenty of servants then, and Mother was a good provider, so they thought themselves in clover.
I remember one Sunday a drove of sheep came down the road, and one of the soldiers said, “Sue, wouldn’t you like to have a pet?” I, of course, was delighted to think of such a thing, so he went out and brought me a beautiful white lamb. The soldier’s name was Thomas Lamar Stark, from Columbia, South Carolina – so I named the lamb ‘Lamar.’ When the Confederates went away and the Yankees came, I brought the lamb into the house every night to keep it from being killed.
When the enemy made their raids they were different. My sisters were very cold and distant to them. My mother had her whole crop of corn shelled and put under beds in the bedrooms of the house, and all of her stock of meat was hidden under the stone steps at the front door. There were several of these steps and the top one was lifted, the whole stock of hams, shoulders and middling packed in the space underneath, and the top stone replaced.
On the whole, however, the Yankees were kind and polite to us, but I can never forget how they used to come in a sweeping gallop up the big road with swords and sabers clashing, and how I would run and hide and pray. I reckon I prayed more and harder than ever in my life, before or since.
After the Battle of Fredericksburg [December 1862], the two armies went into winter quarters—the Northern troops on the Washington side of the Rappahannock, and our men on the Richmond side.
General [Carnot] Posey and General [William] Mahone had their troops near us, guarding some of the river fords, and they were at our house a great deal. General Mahone was a little man, but was just as brave and gallant as one could be. General [Lafayette] McLaws and General [Richard] Anderson used to come, and General [J.E.B.] Stuart, too. We all loved General Stuart; he was so nice and always had a pleasant word for everyone. We had refugees from Fredericksburg in the house, too.
There were in the house my mother, her six daughters and half-grown son, Miss Kate Forbes and her Mammy, old Aunt Nancy, and a little colored girl whose mother had left her when she ran away to the Yankees. Miss Kate (whose parents had returned to Fredericksburg) put on all the clothes she could, as did we all, and my sisters took spoons and forks and pieces of the silver tea service and fastened them securely in their hoop skirts.
On April 30, 1863, just before the Battle of Chancellorsville, Chancellor wrote:
Presently, the Yankees began to come and they said that Chancellorsville was to be General [Joseph] Hooker’s headquarters and that we must all go into one room in the back of the house and stay, sleeping on pallets on the floor. They took all of our comfortable rooms for themselves. General Hooker did not come until the next day.
We never sat down to another meal in that house, but they brought food to us where we were. If we attempted to go out, we were ordered back. We heard cannon fire, but did not know where it was. We were joined by one and another of our neighbors who fled or were brought to the Chancellorsville house for refuge, until there were sixteen women and children in that room.
We got through Thursday and Friday as best we could, but on Saturday, the second day of May, the firing was much nearer, and General Hooker ordered that we be taken to the basement.
The house was full of the wounded. They had taken our sitting room as an operating room, and our piano served as an amputating table. One of the surgeons came to my mother and said, “There are two wounded Rebels here, and if you like you can attend to them,” and she did.
On May 3rd Susan wrote:
Early in the morning they came for us to go to the cellar, and in passing through the upper porch I saw the chairs riddled with bullets and the shattered columns which had fallen and injured General Hooker. Oh, the horror of that day! There were piles of legs and arms outside of the sitting room window and rows and rows of dead bodies covered with canvas. The fighting was awful, and the frightened men crowded into the basement for protection from the deadly fire of the Confederates, but an officer came and ordered them out, commanding them not to intrude upon the terror-stricken women.
There was water in the basement over our shoe tops, so one of the surgeons brought my mother down a bottle of whiskey and told her that she must take some and so must we all. It was late that afternoon that the terrible time came. Oh! Such cannonading on all sides, such shrieks and groans, such commotion of all kinds! We thought that we were frightened before, but this was far beyond everything, and it kept up until long after dark.
Upstairs they were bringing in the wounded, and we could hear their screams of pain. This was Jackson’s flank movement, but we did not know it then. Again we spent the night, sixteen of us, in that one room. It was the last night in the old home.
Presently the same officer came down the steps and bade us come out at once. “For, Madam,” he said, “the house is on fire, but I will see that you are protected and carried to a place of safety.” This was General Joseph Dickinson, but we did not know it at the time.
Cannons were bombing in every direction, and missiles of death were flying as this terrified band of women and children came stumbling out of the cellar. If anybody thinks that a battle is an orderly attack of rows of men, I can tell him differently, for I have been there.
The sight that met our eyes as we came out of the dim light of the basement room beggars description. The woods around the house were a sheet of fire, the air was filled with shot and shell; horses were running, rearing and screaming; the men were amass with confusion, moaning, cursing and praying. The were bringing the wounded out of the house, for it was on fire in several places.
Slowly we picked our way over the bleeding bodies of the dead and wounded—General Dickinson riding ahead, mother with her hand on his knee, I clinging close to her, and the others following behind. At our last look, our old home was completely enveloped in flames. Mother, a widow with six dependent daughters, and her all was destroyed.
We took the road toward United States Ford [on the Rappahannock River], which was held by the enemy, and after a while we got out of sight of the battle. After walking about half a mile, my sister, who had been ill, had a hemorrhage from her lungs. General Dickinson stopped a soldier on horseback, made him get down, and put my sister on the horse.
Presently we met an officer, who wheeled on his horse upon recognizing our leader and demanded with an oath, “General Dickinson, why are you not at your post of duty?” I will never forget General Dickinson’s reply. He drew himself up proudly and said, “If here is not my post of duty, looking after the safety of these helpless women and children, then I don’t know what you call duty.”
After walking three miles, we reached the ford where the Yankees had crossed on a pontoon bridge four days before. Here at the old LaRoque house, General Dickinson left us in the care of a New Jersey chaplain, and went to see about getting us across the river. We all stayed on the porch waiting, not knowing what would happen next. Presently General Dickinson returned, and went with us to the bridge, where he bade us goodbye. A nobler, braver, kindlier gentleman never lived.
The chaplain went with us across the bridge. When we reached the other side, the chaplain got a horse from somewhere, put my sister on it, and took us to the top of the hill. We stayed there for some time. After a while an ambulance drove up, sent by General Dickinson. My sick sister was put into it, along with Mother, Miss Kate, my little brother, and myself.
We finally came to the house of Mr. John Hunt in Stafford County. This was in the Federal lines, and here we were kept under guard for ten days. Sister got better; we had good food, and our guards were very kind to us.
When the order came for our release, we were put into an ambulance and carried back to United States Ford, where we were met by my sister, Mrs. Charters. At her home, we found ‘Mammy’ Nancy and the little colored girl, and there we learned the particulars of our glorious victory, and the sad news of the death of our beloved Stonewall Jackson [who was mortally wounded in the battle].
Susan continued her story:
The following fall, we went to Charlottesville, [Virginia], where I was put in school. Two of my sisters got positions in the valley as teachers, and mother was made matron first of Midway, afterwards of the Delevan Hospital. There we stayed until the close of the war. Just about that time a cousin, Mr. Lorman of Baltimore, died and left my mother some money, so we fared pretty well.
I cannot close this paper without commenting on the enduring friendship which sprung up between my mother and General Dickinson. They corresponded, and as he was deeply interested in verifying the war history of this section, he several times visited the battlefields, never without coming to see her. He attended her funeral (her death occurred in July 1892), thus testifying to the respect and affection he felt for her.
In 1876, a party of us boarded the train in Fredericksburg on our way to the Centennial. The name Chancellor caught the ear of a distinguished looking gentleman seated nearby, and presently he came up, asking if we were the Chancellors of Chancellorsville. When he found that we were, he said, ‘and I am General Hooker.’ Of course we were surprised, but we invited him to join our party. He shared our plentiful luncheon and we had a very pleasant day.
I married my cousin, Vespesian Chancellor, and have preserved the name. Many on both sides have passed away, and the years have dimmed my memory for incidents and occurrences, yet the horrible impression of those days of agony and conflict is still vivid, and I can close my eyes and see again the blazing woods, the flaming house, the flying shot and shell, and the terror-stricken women and children pushing their way over the dead and wounded, led by that courageous and chivalrous General Dickinson.
Susan Margaret Chancellor lived in Fredericksburg until 1935. She is buried in the family cemetery within sight of the ruins of Chancellorsville.