Chatham Manor plantation is a beautiful Georgian-style home completed in 1771 by William Fitzhugh. It is one of the stops on the Trail to Freedom in Fredericksburg and has been a farm since its inception. Chatham has housed many heads of state. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had both slept in this home. Abraham Lincoln met with his Union Troops within its walls as well. Through all of it stood the hardy catalpa trees planted ten feet in front of the house. They still stand there today.
Catalpa Trees are striking at first glance. They have white showy flowers and big heart shaped leaves. Their trunks and branches twist, making them hard to look away. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, the catalpa trees grow fast, yielding up to 24” a year.
Walt Whitman once Wrote of the Catalpa Trees as he tended to the wounded in Chatham manor during the Civil War. “At the foot of a tree, immediately in front, a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening–in the garden near, a row of graves.”- Wound Dresser Walt Whitman.
These Trees are still living witness to those days. They are still flowering and bearing fruit. But unfortunately, they are nearing the end of their life. “People slow down before they die,” writes Park Ranger John Hennessey. “Trees –especially catalpas- lean”
The root structure of the northernmost tree is mostly gone, and it is falling toward its twin tree. If it falls, it will take its brother with it. “A few years back one of the catalpa trees in Ellwood fell over dead,” says seasonal Park Ranger Randy Washburn. “If it didn’t have the metal supports they would be gone.”
The witness catalpas come to full bloom in early summer.