The Impact of the Civil War on John Chapman – Part 1

john chapman

John Chapman – Owner of the Mill During the Civil War

Part one of a three part article.

This piece  was originally written in 2011 by Ellen Percy Miller.  It details the life and fortunes of John Chapman before the Civil War and his rapid decline following it. 

John Chapman (1814-1866), 7th Chapman of the five generations to own Chapman’s Mill is an interesting example of a civilian who was a true casualty of the Civil War, being ruined economically, emotionally and physically by the experience.

John Chapman was a wealthy, ambitious man from a wealthy, visionary Tidewater family who used their slaves to build Chapman’s Mill in Thoroughfare Gap, Prince William County sometime between 1737 to 1742 when the area was a frontier.

When John’s father, George, died in 1829, he owned over 9,000 acres, fifteen fine houses and multiple smaller ones, two mills and numerous slaves. His will read:

“I Will and devise my Thoroughfare tract, and all other tracts adjoining thereto to my two Sons John and George, containing upwards of 1500 acres lying in Prince William and Fauquier Counties with two Whet Manufacturing Mills thereon to be divided between them according to quantity and quality, giving each a Mill (with the exception hereinafter mentioned) and them and their Heirs forever.”

John got the Lower Mill, or Chapman’s Mill.

John was 15 when his father died and his older brothers, Pearson and Charles Alexander Chapman, ran the mill until he was old enough to take over. From photos taken in the 1850’s we do know that the property also contained a saw mill, a large stone barn, a coopers shop and at least two smaller buildings.

Probably, John Chapman was well educated because his father’s will left provisions for all the children to be “liberally” educated.

In 1840 his brother, George, died and John Chapman seems to have taken over George’s Upper Mill and property for his own use, instead of dividing it between himself and his siblings.

In 1849 John Chapman married Ellen Thornton, born in 1829, of the 1,100 acre Sudley Plantation in western Fairfax. They never had children.

The PWC 1850 Industrial Census shows John Chapman running a “manufacturing & grist mill” with a capitol investment of $3,000 and paying 2 male workers $30 a month. John must have been using slave labor to run these mills.

In 1851 he advertises “a new mill” for rent, probably the Upper Mill still owned by brother George’s estate. Possibly John had rebuilt it after a fire.

In 1852 the Manassas Gap Railroad was built through the Gap and along side the Mill. John Chapman paid a $2,000 bribe (today equal to $40,000) to ensure the tracks weren’t placed on the other side of Broad Run. In a Chancery suit his sisters brought against his estate they claimed that he kept the money the Manassas Gap Railroad paid to George’s estate for the right of way the railroad needed. About this time Chapman adds a side rail that would hold seven rail cars.

Chapman was a farmer as well as a miller. He also substantially developed his farm by improving 100 acres of land between 1850 and 1860. According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture his farm value increased by $10,500 ($230,000 in today’s dollar!) to $42,500.

In 1858 he raised the mill to 7 stories on its western gable end side and 6 ½ stories on its eastern gable end side, making it still the tallest, stacked stone building in the U.S. today.

In the 1860 PWC Industrial Census he is listed as running a Merchant & Grist Mills & Plaister Mill employing two workers paying them $20 & $25 a month, with a capitol investment of $8,000 in the plaister mill & $38,000 in the Merchants Mill (raising it to 7 stories). Again one must assume he is using slave labor. He is now producing six times as much plaister as in 1850 and triples his output to $23,000 annually ($440,000 today). Chapman’s Mill was the largest industry in Prince William County in 1860. Prince William was one of the most industrialized counties in Virginia.

In the Census of 1860 John is found living in Meadowlands, possibly after the death of his mother in 1856 and the marriages of his sisters. Meadowlands had been left to the unmarried sisters in their father’s will.

On his 1860 Personal Property Tax John claimed 11 taxable slaves (over age 12), seven horses worth $450, one pleasure carriage worth $125, one watch worth $25, one clock worth $5, 61 cattle valued at $925, sheep and hogs were not assessed, $50 worth of gold, silver plate, and jewelry, and $300 in kitchen and household goods. The total value was $2,160.

On the 1860 Slave Census, John Chapman owned 24 slaves. Slaves had the greatest value at that time. Perhaps he inherited or bought some of his mother’s 21 slaves after her death in 1856. In his will of 1827 George had exhorted his children to “treat the Negroes with great kindness and humanity.”

Next Week – Part Two: The Civil War


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