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Braehead had Civil War role
Historic Braehead is on the Candlelight Tour this year.

 Previous owner Graham Stevens framed this Braehead key collection.
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Date published: 12/7/2012


It couldn't be more appropriate that Braehead, the 1859 brick mansion where Gen. Robert E. Lee had his breakfast on the day the Civil War came to Fredericksburg, is a stop on the city's Candlelight Tour this year.

Not only does the property have that memorable role in local history, but its thorough restoration, inside and out, was just completed a few weeks ago. Today it probably looks as good as it ever has since the general hitched his horse, Traveller, to the walnut tree that still stands nearby.

Participants in the tour, sponsored each year by Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc., will be welcomed to a place that in every key respect is the same as it was when it was built 153 years ago. This is readily documented primarily because it has been owned by but two families, the second taking over stewardship just a few years ago.

New owners Robb and Diana Almy bought the home while it was held on a contingency contract by the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust. The organization had entered the agreement with Graham Stephens, the earlier owner and a descendant of the home's builder, John Howison. It's said Howison built the house for $15,000--a very large sum at the time.

Tucked off Lee Drive in the National Battlefield Park, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is also protected under a conservation easement. The restoration for residential use qualified the project for Virginia state tax credits and oversight by the state Department of Historic Resources.

The new owners contracted with Jay Holloway of Habalis Construction in Fredericksburg to renovate and restore the property, and the results are nothing short of remarkable.

Time and a lack of maintenance had taken their toll. But the house is now a comfortable home for a young family while it retains all that makes it a historic structure--which Robb Almy considers the perfect blend of old and new.

"It's not a museum but an old house that is actually lived in," he said. And that's because it has been a home, except for a period as a bed-and-breakfast, since the day it was built. Any interior changes that had been made were undone during the restoration.

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A history of the house written by Mary "Aunt Mamie" Howison, who was born in 1859, recalls that her Uncle John Howison, Braehead's builder and first owner, loved to host his extended family at the house each Sunday, when the dining table would extend through both the living and dining rooms and lively discussions would ensue.

It was a time when a house was where life experiences took place--births, deaths, weddings.

The Howisons enjoyed a relatively high standard of living, thanks to the lucrative dairy plant that John Howison ran from the house. He took in milk from local farmers and distributed it to customers in Fredericksburg.

In just two short years, however, life for the Howisons would change dramatically as the family and community turned its attention to the Civil War. Selling a fine tract of Braehead timber to the Confederate government for the war effort was only the beginning. In 1861, Howison's wife died and three of his sons went to war.

Dec. 13, 1862, was the day Gen. Lee came to take breakfast at Braehead, steeling himself for the day of battle ahead. Lee had positioned his headquarters at a nearby spot now known as Lee's Hill. Viewing the brutality from that vantage point, he observed: "It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it."

During the second Battle of Fredericksburg in 1864, the house was used as a hospital by the Union Army. The Yankee soldiers left the place standing, but they tossed furniture through the windows, carved their names in walls and trim, broke the china, and ate or otherwise killed the livestock.

Union cavalrymen's spur marks remain on the risers of the home's stairs. The floors were left so blood-soaked that it was easier for the Howisons to cover them with a dark stain than to clean them.

By war's end, Howison had lost his wife, two of his sons, all of his dairy equipment and was $60,000 in debt. There was also a cannonball hole at one end of the house.

--Richard Amrhine

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