The Lost Yankee at Willis House

(From The Ghosts of Fredericksburg… and nearby environs by L.B. Taylor, Jr.)


If John Allan, the Scottish merchant who built a small house at 1106 Princess Anne Street - considered to be the second house built in Fredericksburg (circa 1740s) - were to transcend time and come back today to view his abode, he doubtless would not recognize it. Two extra stories, an entire new wing and a spacious back porch have been added over the past 200 years. However, he probably would be pleased at the loving care successive owners have given it, including thorough renovations and the addition of handsome period furniture, antiques and family heirlooms. It is called the Willis House today, and is presently owned by Judge Jere Willis and his wife, Barbara. It has been in the Willis family for more than a century. Flanked by no less than seven chimneys, the house features a large dining room, living room, music room, foyer, one bedroom and kitchen. From the sheltered porch, which the Willis family added, there is a pleasant view across a half-acre garden with old brick walls and a patio built with millstones found on the property. A pecan tree, dogwoods, daffodils, tulips and azaleas add color, fragrance and spice. Remarkably, the house withstood ferocious Union army shelling, preceding the great battle of Fredericksburg during the bitter winter of 1862. It is remarkable because 181 guns, spaced along Stafford Heights from the Washington farm to Falmouth, opened up at dawn on December 11th, and all the fire was concentrated on the town. At times during the bombardment, 100 guns a minute were fired - round shot, case shot and shell. As John Goolrick, author of the book, 'Historic Fredericksburg,' published in 1922, wrote of the shelling. . . "walls toppled, fires sprang up and chaos reigned." One survivor described the scene: "Men, women and children were driven from town. Hundreds of ladies and children were wandering homeless over the frozen highways, with bare feet and thin clothing."

Soon after came one of the fiercest fights of the entire war. The Willis House stood directly in the line of fire as the Federals and Confederates battled through the old town's streets and alleys.

Although the story is not as well known as are those of Kenmore, Chatham, Fall Hill, Federal Hill, and a few other area buildings - there is, or to be more precise, was a resident ghost at the Willis House.

Barbara Willis tells the story: 'Our house is directly opposite to where the Union Army crossed the Rappahannock River on pontoon bridges, and there was house-to-house combat. Apparently, a young Union soldier was in the house, and was standing behind one of the double doors in the back hall, using the doors as a shield. A bullet ripped a splinter through the door at chest-high level, killing the soldier, and leaving blood stains on the floor. He was buried in the garden. The door was never fully repaired. It was plugged, and the plug remains there to this day. In the 1920s, a Mrs. Marian 'Carrie' Willis was living in the house and she had a cook named Nannie. Carrie used to call the Union soldier 'Yip the Yank.' According to the legend that has been passed down, Nannie saw a young man come into the house by the side porch door, dressed in a Union uniform of the Civil War era. He went upstairs. She thought it might be Carrie's younger brother, and she told Carrie about it. But when they went upstairs to investigate, they found no one there."

This must have happened on more than one occasion, Barbara says, because Nannie finally said one day that she was going to 'lay his soul to rest.' She went out in the garden, kneeled, and said something over his grave. There have been no sightings of the apparition since. It appears that even though the Yankee soldier died far from home, Nannie persuaded him that Fredericksburg wasn't such a bad resting place after all.