The Richardson House is gone. The National Park Service (NPS) recently removed the structure that once sat atop Willis Hill. This post-Civil War structure has had a varied history. It was originally constructed sometime between 1882 and 1889 by Colonel Charles Richardson. During the Battles of Fredericksburg both December 13, 1862 and May 3, 1863, this was the site of Squires Battery, officially titled the 1st Company of the Washington Artillery from Louisiana. According to C. Geier, et al, in their Cultural Resource Assessment of the Willis Parcel conducted for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in 2002, “the most direct impact to the 18th and 19th century site remains was attributed to the Charles Richardson period of occupation and the construction of his new home. Landscaping associated with Richardson’s efforts to convert the battlefield altered the tract into a socially presentable residence for his family. This included the substantive removal of the military shelter trenches, enclosure and burial of the artillery lunettes, and conversion of the area enclosing the 18th and 19th century domestic remains into a well landscaped yard area showing no evidence of the earlier structures.”
Above are two views of Willis Hill, showing the location of the Richardson House prior to its recent removal. The house is noted with a red circle in both. It sat upon the ridge commonly called Marye’s Heights. Squire’s Battery position is immediately in front of and to the right of the structure, in what was then its front yard adjacent to the downhill slope.
Naming of Willis Hill:
Willis Hill was first settled by Colonel Henry Willis. Willis, a member of the House of Burgesses, helped establish the city of Fredericksburg when the Colonial Act of 1728 appointed him a trustee of the city. Henry Willis is sometimes referred to as the Father of Fredericksburg. His son, Lewis Willis (and also the son of George Washington’s aunt) grew up on Willis Hill and often entertained Washington there. Lewis Willis shared Washington’s politics and served as a lieutenant colonel of the 10th Virginia Regiment in the Revolutionary War. The Willis house burned in 1825 under the ownership of Byrd C. Willis, who promptly sold the property and moved to Florida. John S. Wellford purchased the property, passing it to John W. Mitchell by 1856. In hope of finding a buyer, Mitchell created terraces on the slope of the hill facing the city. When no buyer was forthcoming, he also constructed two brick structures, one a home with two chimneys and a smaller dependency, possibly a cook house, with one chimney. Both structures were located adjacent to the slope with what must have been a remarkable view of the shallow valley between the hill and the City of Fredericksburg. The Civil War battles were hard on these two structures, especially the second battle in May 1863.
The two buildings constructed by Mitchell may be seen in this 1864 photograph, attributed to Brady. The dependency structure with one chimney is in the right foreground. The main house with two chimneys is found on the right middle surrounded by horses. It is the larger building and was located in what is now the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. The smaller is presumed to have been located in line with the Confederate artillery defensive works of Squires battery and therefore to the right of the Richardson House.
Mitchell in turn, sold the property to Douglas H. Gordon in 1860. At the time of the battle, Willis Hill contained the two brick structures and the Willis-Welford family cemetery, a private family cemetery. Today, the cemetery contains thirty-five stones with the earliest dating from 1756. Sometimes, Civil War chroniclers referred to Willis Hill as Cemetery Hill.
Post-Civil War ownership of Willis Hill:
In 1877, Douglas Gordon transferred the property to Helen B. Lane. Lane and her husband, John, were living at Brompton, the prior home of the Marye’s from whom Marye’s Heights get their name. Brompton was located just north of Willis Hill. In 1882, Mrs. Lane’s trustees conveyed the 11.5 acres to Colonel Charles Richardson. The tax records of 1889 indicated that $2,250.50 worth of improvements were made to the property. These appear to indicate the value of the improvements which Richardson made to the property. By 1886 Richardson had serious problems repaying the loan used to acquire the property. In 1897, the property was auctioned to pay the debt. Willis Hill went through a number of short term owners, none of which made significant improvements. In 1948, the then owner, W.C. Spratt, conveyed the property to the Congregation of the Daughters of Wisdom, Inc. who owned the property until it was transferred to the National Park Service. This latter transfer was greatly assisted by the Civil War Trust and the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust. In December 1948 the first of a series of school buildings would be opened for what became the Montfort Academy. This school served the Fredericksburg community for almost 50 years. Following the acquisition of the property, the NPS gradually removed the modern, post-Civil War era improvements, the last of which was the Richardson house itself.
Below are a number of photographs I took of the property in conjunction with a study of Confederate artillery. This study, when completed, will be published here.
Source: C. Geier, K. Sancomb, W.C. Sherwood, Cultural Resource Assessment of the Willis Parcel, Volume III, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA, 2002, conducted for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.