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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Reverend Melzi Sanford Chancellor

Melzi Chancellor, at left, with his brothers

     Although I can no longer remember the source, I once read that his unusual first name was the idea of his mother. Shortly before his birth, she read a book whose main character was named "Melzi." There was something euphoniously exotic about that name to her, and she gave it to her first child by her second husband.
     Melzi Sanford Chancellor was born at Fairview farm in western Spotsylvania County on June 29, 1815. At that time, a grand house was being built on the Orange Turnpike (modern Route 3) at its intersection with Old Plank and River Roads. This house, built on an 854-acre tract owned by Melzi's wealthy step-uncle, William Lorman of Baltimore, was a wedding gift for his parents, George and Ann Lyon Pound Chancellor. (For a brief history of the Lorman-Chancellor connection, click here). This place is known to history as Chancellorsville, and it served for many years as a tavern, inn and post office as well as home to the Chancellors.

Chancellorsville (Library of Congress)

     By the time he was 19 years old, Melzi was working for William Lorman in Baltimore.  While there, young Melzi made a profession of his religion and was soon thereafter ordained as a minister at Wilderness Baptist Church. During his long career, Reverend Chancellor served at a number of area churches, including Wilderness, Piney Branch, Mine Road, Salem, Goshen, Craig's, Ely's Ford and New Hope.
     In addition to his work as a Baptist minister, Melzi was also the first postmaster appointed for Chancellorsville after his father's death in 1836. He was elected to several terms as a deputy commissioner of revenue in Spotsylvania. In a political advertisement written in 1852, Melzi subtly reminded voters that he had a large family to care for and needed the money:

Fredericksburg News, March 12, 1852

Reverend Chancellor was also a farmer and the owner of 7 slaves, according to the 1860 census.
     On November 24, 1837, 22-year-old Melzi Chancellor married his first wife, Lucy Fox Frazer, in Baltimore. [1] They had 10 children together, born over a period of 21 years, 1838-1859.
     In 1857, Melzi bought Dowdall's Tavern, located on the Orange Turnpike opposite Wilderness Church, as a home for his family.

Dowdall's Tavern (Library of Congress)

     Former Union soldier Robert Knox Sneden created hundreds of maps and other images from the Civil War, most of which are now at the Virginia Historical Society. Included is this depiction of Dowdall's Tavern:

Dowdall's Tavern (Virginia Historical Society)

     Like all the Chancellors of Spotsylvania County, Melzi was a southern patriot and a devoted adherent to the Confederacy. Three of his sons enlisted in the Confederate service during the Civil War. Vespasian, the oldest, served for a time in the 30th Virginia Infantry, and later fought with the 9th Virginia Cavalry. His brothers, George Edward and Thomas Frazer, also rode with the 9th cavalry.

Western Spotsylvania County, 1863

     The map detail above shows the locations of Fairview, Chancellorsville, Melzi's house at Dowdall's Tavern and Wilderness Church just west across the Orange Turnpike.
Wilderness Church (Library of Congress)

     By April 30, 1863, a large Federal army commanded by General Joseph Hooker had concentrated at Chancellorsville. The Union line extended west toward Wilderness Church. This sector was occupied by the XI Corps, commanded by Major General Oliver O. Howard. Howard established his headquarters at Melzi's home. Unfortunately for him and his men, no provision was made to protect his exposed right flank.
     One of Howard's division commanders, General John White Geary (who was elected governor of Pennsylvania after the war), had a confrontation with Reverend Chancellor "for a supposed indignity offered him." Geary ordered Melzi's arrest. Union General Henry Slocum interceded on Melzi's behalf and effected his release. In 1862, Melzi's brother Lorman had his own encounter with then Colonel Geary, which can be read here.
     On May 2, troops commanded by General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson executed a long march to reach Howard's vulnerable right flank. Late that afternoon, they fell upon these unsuspecting soldiers, who were too shocked to offer much resistance and they began retreating east toward Hooker's defenses at Chancellorsville. Some came running up to Melzi's house, and they pleaded with him to give them a place to hide. "He directed them to a cellar, over which was a trap door. When they were all in, he shut the door down, and the Confederate troops came up in a short time and captured thirty of them." (The Free Lance, February 22, 1895)
     Late that night, General Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men while reconnoitering the area in preparation for a renewed attack. He was carried out of the woods and placed in an ambulance and taken first to Dowdall's Tavern, where he was met by his surgeon, Dr. McGuire. From there he was taken to the hospital set up near Wilderness Run, where his left arm was amputated.
     The following year, Melzi was arrested by Federal authorities again. This time he spent six months imprisoned as a citizen-hostage at Fort Delaware.

Fort Delaware (Library of Congress)

     After his release, Melzi resumed his ministerial duties. Dowdall's Tavern burned in 1869. Melzi built another home for his family behind Wilderness Church. This place was called Chancellor's Retreat and can be seen in the two photographs below:

Wilderness Church and Chancellor's Retreat, 1882 (CRHC)

Chancellor's Retreat at right, Orange Turnpike in foreground, 1884 (National Park Service)

     Alexander Lorman, for whose father Melzi worked as a young man, died in 1872. The wealthy Mr. Lorman left a generous legacy for his Chancellor kinsman, and Melzi was among those who benefited. He received a life estate in an inheritance of $50,000, a portion of which he shared with the churches in his charge.

Obituary of Lucy Chancellor (CRHC)

     By the early 1880s, Melzi retired from the ministry, and he and Lucy moved to Fredericksburg, where they lived at 406 George Street. Lucy died there on September 3, 1884. Her obituary from The Fredericksburg Star, above, comes from the collection of George Harrison Sanford King's papers at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.
     On October 19, 1886, Melzi married Bettie W. Caldwell in a ceremony held at the E Street Baptist Church in Washington, DC. Bettie had been born and raised in Fredericksburg, where she taught school for many years. She later taught some of Melzi and Lucy's children. Bettie's sister, Mary, kept a diary of events in Fredericksburg during the Civil War. National Park Service historian John Hennessy wrote an interesting article about Mary which can be read here.

Chancellor-Caldwell marriage license (Ancestry)

     Reverend Melzi Chancellor died at home on February 20, 1895. He is buried with his family at the Chancellorsville cemetery.

The Free Lance, February 22, 1895

     Bettie Chancellor outlived her husband by 16 years. She is buried in the Fredericksburg Cemetery.

The Daily Star, March 30, 1911

[1] Lucy Frazer's brother and sister are worth noting here. John Thomas Frazer married Melzi's cousin, Mary Elizabeth Chancellor. Lucy's sister, Mary Elizabeth Frazer, was the second wife of Thomas Coleman Chandler. Thomas and Mary owned a large farm in Caroline County where, in May 1863, General Stonewall Jackson was brought after the amputation of his arm. He died in a building used as the Chandler's office on May 10. Thomas Chandler's first wife, Clementina Alsop, was fortunate to be the daughter of Samuel Alsop, Jr., who built Oakley for them as a wedding present in 1826.


Reverend Melzi Chancellor and family, April 1866 (American Antiquarian Society)

     Since I originally published this article, I have come across two photographs in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society. I have written a subsequent piece on my analysis of those two photogaphs, which can be read at :The Chancellors Revealed


  1. Very interesting. I grew up on Hazel Grove farm in Chancellorsville. We had good friends, Ralph and Mary Leister, who owned Dowdall's Tavern. I have been in the cellar you spoke of in your article. I also recognize the photographs of Wilderness Church and Chancellor's house behind the church so vividly.

  2. Mary Leisters was my grandmother's sister. I use to hunt on the property during the early 80s with my Dad. Great memories.