During the Civil War, in the winter of 1863-64, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was in the Orange area. General Lee camped on the east side of town with his 15,000 men. General Ambrose Powell Hill, commanding III Corps of Lee’s Army, headquartered at the Willis home (now Mayhurst Inn). He commanded over 18,000 men from his tent on the front lawn. His wife, Kitty, was with him at Mayhurst that winter as a house guest of John and Lucy Willis. The winter encampment provided many opportunities for social occasions, which most assuredly included General Lee at the Willis home. One of A. P. Hill’s daughters, Lucy Lee Hill, was born that winter. Her Godfather, General Lee, held her in his arms throughout the christening ceremony at Mayhurst on May 1, 1864. The christening scene has been recently recreateed by renowned historical artist, Mort Kunstler, in a painting entitled "Tender is the Heart". A Giclee Print of the scene stands in the Mayhurst Parlor where the ceremony took place.
Nearly two years earlier, General "Stonewall" Jackson's cavalry was in the Orange area fighting the Federal cavalry on Main Street on August 2, 1862. He remained in Orange for about a week. On August 6, the Willis household notices a man seated and resting on their gatepost. Someone is sent out to offer assistance. It is General "Stonewall" Jackson, who is invited to stay the night, he accepts. Two Jackson biographers, Robert Krick and James Robertson, Jr., confirm that he spent the night at the home of Mr Willis, three quarters of a mile south of town. Three days later while marching from Orange to Culpeper, General Jackson encounters General Pope and defeats him in the Battle of Cedar Mountain. The chance encounter is a scene of intense hand to hand fighting. At a critical stage of the battle, as Jackson is about to be outflanked, he charges in to rally his forces, waving the Confederate flag and his sword rusted into its scabbard. He is quoted as saying, "Jackson is with you! Your general will lead you! Follow me!" Jackson considered Cedar Mountain the most successful of his exploits.
Here's a story that brings the war to the front door of Mayhurst. In Major D. Humphrey's book "Heroes and Spies of the Civil War" (Neal Publishing 1903), Capt. Magruder relates "the scene at Orange Court House (Aug.2, 1862) when General Jones took the Seventh and Twelfth down there from Gordonsville, having heard the Bluecoats were moving that way...They scattered one-third of our men in the rear, while those in front did not know what was the matter in the rear, and drove their lines out of the town...General Jones said afterwards, 'that half of his men charged and half discharged.' On the grounds about the residence of Colonel Willis, in the south side of town, on a hill, many of our scattered men gathered. Seeing which, General Jones ordered me to take a squad and bring the men down into town and reorganize them. He ordered the killing then and there of any man who failed to obey the order. As I approached the house about fifty men were standing in front of it. On the porch there stood a pretty and noble looking girl, Miss Willis, who was urging the men to go to their command and do their duty. As I come up, I heard her say, 'Oh, I wish I was a man!' when one fellow, who had been down in the fire, said, 'Yes, Miss, and if you was, you would wish you was a gal again mouty soon!' This brought down the house, and I brought down the men."
Construction on the Mayhurst Manor House began in 1859, just two years before the Civil War. Undoubtedly it was the most fashionable home in Orange county at the time. The house was built in the latest style, Italianate. It is not known who designed the four story Italianate home. An educated guess is a Baltimore architect, Mr. Starkweather, who designed Camden on the northern neck. The similarities are remarkable; even to the marble mantles and the elaborate window and door trim.
Colonel John Willis, great nephew of President James Madison, was 50 years old when he built the mansion for his family of 8 children. It would be his "full tide of prosperity", said his daughter. The Willis plantation raised corn, cattle, hogs and horses. Fifty enslaved African-Americans worked the fields, and tended to the needs of the Willises. The very fertile Davidson soil provided bountiful harvests and the plantation prospered.
Unfortunately, Colonel Willis lost his home and at least 1700 of his 2500 acres in 1868. He had supported the Confederacy very generously and was unable to pay taxes. It was purchased by a Northern carpetbagger sent by the Federal government to administer the county. An original 110 year old copy of his obituary, found in the attic in 1996 and now hanging in the front hall, states "He bore the loss of his wealth with a philosophical fortitude that almost amounted to indifference, and no one can say that they ever heard a murmur escape his lips that having been rich he had become poor." He is buried at Montpelier.