Walking up the stairs of the 1859 home he and his wife own and run as a Fredericksburg bed and breakfast, Robb Almy notes how direct connections with history can be made with even such seemingly ordinary objects as the home’s wooden bannister.
“As you run your hand along it, you think about all the other people who have put their hands on it in the past,” he said.
At Braehead Manor, that list could include such notable figures as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who breakfasted at the brick Greek Revival home on the morning of the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.
Lee is said to have tied his horse, Traveller, to the black walnut tree that still stands on the home’s south lawn today.
Braehead was a prominent landmark on the Confederate front line during both Battles of Fredericksburg, in 1862 and May 1863. In May of 1864, the Union army took control of the home, causing much damage and using it as a hospital.
Signs of the past are still visible at the estate, including bayonet marks and graffiti carved by Union soldiers. The home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the last descendent of the Howison family to own it protected both its exterior and its intricately detailed interior under easement with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
The Almy family painstakingly restored the home to its 19th century grandeur after purchasing it in 2008, initially as a home for their family.
But over time, they felt a pull to make it something more, to open it up in a way that would allow members of the public to make the same enchanting, and at times sobering, connection with the past that had fascinated them with the property to begin with.
Braehead Manor today is an elegant bed and breakfast and venue for weddings and other special events.
Its location tucked away off Lee Drive, the scenic road that runs through the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, gives it a seclusion that makes it, in the words of one TripAdvisor reviewer, “so quiet and peaceful you could actually imagine you were back in the 1800s.”
As Almy points out, though, it’s still just a few minutes’ drive from shops and restaurants in downtown Fredericksburg. And being in the park means visitors can trade the stale experience of a hotel workout room for runs and walks through the preserved battlefields, which also feature popular off-road trails.
Guests at Braehead Manor are taken care of by innkeepers Karen and Warren Bane. Karen Bane says the house makes an impression on visitors from before they even cut their car engines on the newly installed parking area at the inn, which manages to add a modern convenience without overly imposing on the period feel of the estate.
“Before they even get to the house, most of them have their cameras out and are taking pictures,” she said.
Once inside, the eye is drawn to fine maple millwork and original heart pine floors—reportedly stained darker than most to mask the bloodstains that occurred during the building’s use as a hospital.
The Almy family turned to some of Fredericksburg’s best-known craftsmen and experts in historic preservation, decorating and landscaping for their renovation project, and that attention to detail shows. The home is furnished with period pieces, many of which had been passed down through the generations of the home’s original owners, the Howison family.
Braehead was built by John Howison, who ran the estate as a dairy farm that supplied much of the milk for the city of Fredericksburg. Howison completed the home in 1859. He lost his wife in 1861, then sent two sons to war, one of whom was killed at Gettysburg.
By the end of the war, he had lost his business and was severely indebted. His brother, Robert Reid Howison, took over the debt and kept the home in the family. Robert Howison is one of three members of the Howison family for whom the three guest rooms at Braehead are named.
The Graham Stephens Suite is named for the last descendent of the Howison family to live in Braehead, and the Jane Howison Beale Suite is named for a woman who famously sheltered through the first Battle of Fredericksburg with her children in a city basement, then took refuge at Braehead after the battle.
Beale’s diary is a gripping account of civilian life during the war, and can be read as part of the Civil War exhibit at the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center.
Braehead continues to provide a refuge of sorts today, whether it’s a peaceful place to retreat from the noise of modern life, an elegant and unique setting to celebrate a wedding or other milestone, or a place to make a very personal, authentic connection with what life was like a century and a half ago.