The Civil War at Kenmore

General Robert E. Lee
Gen. Robert E. Lee
General Ambrose Burnside
Gen. Ambrose Burnside

December 1862 unfolded in a deadly drama around Kenmore. Federal forces crossed the Rappahannock River on their march to Richmond, but found the road blocked by a well-fortified Confederate army. The Army of Northern Virginia, under General Lee, repulsed General Burnside's Army of the Potomac in battle on December 13. There were nearly 18,000 casualties that day—half within sight of Kenmore.

Pencil drawing of KenmoreIn 1862, Kenmore was no stranger to war. Completed in 1775, the house was built for Fielding Lewis and his wife Betty Washington Lewis, sister of George Washington. A merchant and planter, Lewis sacrificed his health and wealth to the fight for American independence by underwriting the cost of the Fredericksburg Gunnery.

In 1797, the Lewis family sold the property. During the next 125 years, Fielding Lewis' 1,300-acre plantation was divided and sold until less than a city block surrounded the house.

The Battle of Fredericksburg

In the predawn hours of December 11, 1862, Federal engineers prepared pontoon bridges on the Rappahannock River to cross their army into the town of Fredericksburg. Confederate infantry, hidden in houses along the riverbank, opened fire to halt bridge construction. Covering fire from Federal muskets was ineffective against the concealed army.

Fredericksburg from above the sunken road
Painting by Sidney King,
courtesy of the National Park Service
At mid-morning the Federals concentrated 36 field guns against the Southern marksmen. Undaunted, the Confederates continued to fire on the engineers. Union gunners unleashed a bombardment of 150 guns for two and a half hours, firing up to sixty shells each minute. It was probably during this massive cannonade that the first shells struck Kenmore.

A Pennsylvania officer described firing into town across the river: "The battery was in position on a commanding eminence, . . . We fired principally spherical case, at a distance of 1,200 yards. We fired several rounds at long range, which failed to explode. "

One such long range round may be the Bormann-fused common shell found beneath Kenmore's attic floor in 1989. Had this fuse not failed, the house might have caught fire and been destroyed.

Drawing of cannonA cannonball, found inside during 1930s restoration work, had crashed through the roof and lodged beneath the floor of an upstairs chamber. It was placed in a gouge caused by another ball on the east facade of the house. Patches in the roof and interior walls of Kenmore show that several other Federal rounds struck the house. Major J. O. Kerby, visiting battlefields after the war, commented in 1890 that Kenmore "suffered somewhat from the shelling by Burnside's artillery, there being the scars of five solid shots on the wall facing the Federal army."

Before the smoke cleared from the bombardment, Federal regiments ferried across the river and established bridgeheads at the upper and lower ends of town. They expanded this foothold, fighting through yards and up narrow streets into the heart of town. In the 1930s workmen at Kenmore found a ramrod from a Tower Enfield Model 1853 rifle under the floor of the southeast upstairs chamber.

Confederate defenders withdrew that evening, and Federal troops poured into town all the next day, securing Kenmore to guard their right flank. Troops firing a cannonThe targets of Southern gunners were perhaps the Union batteries posted near Kenmore on December 13. Battery C, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery and Battery D, 1st Battalion New York Light Artillery had positioned themselves near the house and fired obliquely across the Union front to support infantrymen to their left.

A Federal officer recalled that his battery was situated "near the center of town, on a little ridge, and on the right of [the Rhode Island battery at Kenmore]. The action began immediately, and lasted until after dark. The fire was directed against the two little breastworks . . . , at the distance of 1,000 to 1,100 yards."

Fredericksburg looting and burningHe reported his guns expended 613 rounds from this location. Confederate Captain Victor Maurin of the Donaldsville [Louisiana] Artillery, remembered that the Union guns "opened so furiously that they succeeded in diverting my fire . . . Their shots were so well directed that I could only occasionally give a round to the infantry whenever an opportunity offered."

The brutal street fighting on December 11 occurred six blocks to the east of Kenmore. When Union infantry crossed the river, the Confederates withdrew to this ridge and then to the heights to the west. Looking east one can see the contours that defined this ridge in 1862, before postwar development obscured its slopes.

Mary Washington's Tomb

Washington's mother, Mary Ball Washington, died of breast cancer on August 25, 1789, and was buried near the rocks on the high bluff she so dearly loved. In 1833, President Andrew Jackson laid the cornerstone of the original monument to Mary Washington, but complications halted the work. By 1862, only the base was complete.

Mary Washington's tombA Confederate soldier camped near Fredericksburg wrote: "George Washington was raised here, but his mother died and was buried [here]. The monument erected to her memory has no inscription upon it, but its pure and sacred marble is polluted with the unhallowed names of Northern villains . . ."

On May 3, 1863, during the second battle of Fredericksburg, a Union column moved north in an attempt to flank the Confederate position opposite. The Federal division commander wrote, " . . . the enemy . . . opened on us with artillery from the hills. This fire was replied to by [a battery] posted . . . near Mrs. Washington's monument, and by [another battery] placed on the plain to the right."

While the Union army was attacking Sunken Road, Union soldiers posted at Mary Washington's tomb and concealed behind the tombstones in the Fredericksburg Cemetery skirmished with Mississippi troops spread out across the valley below. The Confederates urged their artillerists on the heights to shell the Union lairs. "The request to shell the grave of the Mother of the 'Father of His Country' was refused," remembered one Mississippi soldier, but they consented to fire a few shots into the cemetery. Soon a great noise of bursting Mary Washington monumentmarble was heard and double results obtained, as a fragment of marble was as good for killing purposes as a shell. Many a Yank doubtless had this inscription on his tomb, "Killed by a tombstone that broke loose at Fredericksburg."

Dedicated in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland, the present granite obelisk was constructed on the site of the original monument to mark the grave of George Washington's mother. The brick wall encloses the cemetery of the Gordon family, who lived at Kenmore during the Civil War.

The Ladies' Memorial Association of Fredericksburg purchased land adjacent to the Fredericksburg City Cemetery in 1867 as a permanent resting place for the many Confederate soldiers buried in the war-torn countryside. Federal dead were being buried in a National Cemetery on Marye's Heights, above the infamous stone wall on Sunken Road. The Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery, dedicated in 1870, contains the remains of 3,553 Confederates, many of them unknown, from 14 states.

The dead included five generals and a Fredericksburg woman, Lucy Ann Cox, who accompanied her soldier husband into the field, through four years of war, with the 30th Virginia Infantry.

The Battle Ends

Drawing of soldier with rifleDuring the night of December 15 and the predawn hours of the next day, Federal troops withdrew from Fredericksburg, taking with them their pontoon bridges.

Kenmore had not seen the last of the war. In May 1864, the armies clashed twenty miles west in the Wilderness. Thousands of soldiers were brought to Fredericksburg for medical attention, occupying nearly every large building in town, including Kenmore. Many died and were buried wherever there was room to dig a grave.

A Union medical steward wrote: "After the battle of the Wilderness, I was sent with the wounded who were taken from the field hospitals and loaded in ambulances and empty army wagons that had been used to haul supplies . . . I walked and ran all night, keeping up with the train.

We arrived at the Kenmore Mansion about daylight. The wounded were taken out of the vehicles and placed on oilcloth blankets by the fence west of the house. Soon afterwards, it began to rain and we took them in . . . I had my medical supplies in what I suppose was a smoke-house or milk house . . ."

Drawing of Kenmore as a field hospitalMany soldiers died of wounds, or disease, and were buried on the grounds of Kenmore. The remains of 103 Federal soldiers were later disinterred and reburied in the National Cemetery on Marye's Heights. The last soldier was found during reconstruction of the kitchen building in 1929.

A House Besieged

Samuel Gordon purchased the property in 1819, and named it "Kenmore" after the family's ancestral castle, "Kenmuir" in Scotland. The Gordon family made Kenmore their home for over forty years.

Several years after the Civil War, William Key Howard of Baltimore purchased Kenmore. His family lived here from 1881 until 1914. William served in the First Maryland Regiment, CSA, until 1862, when he and Clara moved to Fredericksburg. William then joined the Fourth Virginia Calvary, in which he served until his capture in 1864. His wife Clara was once imprisoned in the Old Capital Prison in Washington, charged with espionage and smuggling medicine to Confederate soldiers.

In 1922 Kenmore was threatened by development. The Kenmore Association was formed to preserve the property. Three years later they had raised enough money to purchase the house and its grounds. In 1996 the Kenmore Association once again joined in a preservation battle with developers, this time to save Ferry Farm, the childhood home of George Washington and his family in Stafford County.

The above is from a Civil War walking-tour brochure developed by the Foundation and available at Kenmore.You may also want to visit the National Park Service website for a Civil War walking tour of Kenmore and the surrounding area.