- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2005

One of the few areas of Civil War research that has not received much attention is graffiti — the scribblings and doodlings written or carved on walls with soot, ashes, pencil or knives by Civil War soldiers.

Certainly, the subject is overlooked because few examples have survived the ravages of time. Most of the graffiti walls and buildings are gone, and those not destroyed have been lost to many layers of paint and wallpaper.

Luckily, at least four buildings in Virginia contain the signatures, poems, drawings and trash talk of soldiers from both sides: The Blenheim House in Fairfax City, the Graffiti House in Brandy Station (Culpeper County), the Massaponax Baptist Church in Fredericksburg (Spotsylvania County) and the Old Court House in Winchester (Frederick County).

The Blenheim House, located at 3610 Old Lee Highway in Fairfax City (703/385-8414), was purchased from private owners in 1999. Its walls have the names of 88 identifiable Civil War soldiers, a drawing of the famed Col. John S. Mosby and an excerpt from the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

One soldier’s comments communicated a message to the homeowners: “Lovely ones, we come to protect and not to injure. The others have destroyed your house — We are guarding it at present from vice.”

The Graffiti House, located at 19484 Brandy Road in Brandy Station (540/727-7718, www.brandy-stationfoundation.com), was purchased from private owners in 2002. Its writings were not discovered until 1993. There are 34 recognizable names, of which 30 are of Confederate soldiers. There are also six drawings of women, including one crossing a stream and another smoking a pipe.

A Confederate soldier succinctly and happily reported one day’s event: “April 16th, 1863, Battle of Beverly’s Ford, Yanks Caught Hell.” There also is a large picture of a bird, replete with its feathers, captioned, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

Brandy Station Foundation President Bob Luddy gladly shares the stories of all the names written on the Graffiti House walls, including the fascinating tale of John Farnum of the 70th New York Infantry. Seems before the war Farnum was a wealthy maritime aficionado with his own 260-ton ship.

Somehow his boat became the vehicle in which two entrepreneurs illegally brought more than 750 slaves from Africa to Georgia in 1857.

Predictably, Mr. Farnum claimed he had sold the vessel and was not involved. The two defendants to whom Farnum claimed to have sold the ship were put on trial and found not guilty. This verdict put an abrupt end to a planned congressional hearing into the affair.

The most-prized graffiti in the house is a drawing of a scroll containing the complete roster of 16 names of Confederate Marylanders of “Rifle Gun #1 Stuart Horse Artillery.”

The Graffiti House also has a next-generation wall with the signatures of about 125 descendants of soldiers from both sides who fought in the Battle of Brandy Station. Included in this collection of names are four generations of J.E.B. Stuarts, starting with J.E.B. Stuart IV.

The Massaponax Baptist Church, located at 5101 Massaponax Church Road in Fredericksburg (540/898-0021), was the site of the famous outdoor photograph of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant sitting on church pews with his officers under the trees.

Perhaps while the officers were conferring outside, the privates were inside writing on the walls: “The Union forever, firm noble and true/And the Flag of the Union, The Red, White and Blue.” And nearby: “The Union forever. Who is not for the Union? None but traitors.”

The Confederate messages were more vitriolic. They included a drawing of a man hanging from a scaffold with the caption, “Abe Lincoln dancing on nothing.”

Another Confederate took a direct attack against a Union soldier named Nepp: “You say your name is Nepp well I would make you one sweet mess if here I should catch you.”

Included is a sincere wish of a Confederate soldier: “I hope this Sacred place may never again be polluted by Yankee feet.”

One last oblique comment: “Fools names are like their faces/ Always seen in public places.”

The Old Court House, located at 20 N. Loudoun St. in Winchester (540/542-1145, www.civilwarmuseum.org), contains the names of hundreds of soldiers of which 25 have been meticulously documented to prove when and how they ended up there.

Built in the 1840s, the Court House was used as both a hospital and a prison during the war. The volume of graffiti from soldiers on both sides is no wonder: Winchester changed hands approximately 70 times during the war.

The Old Court House has an incredibly scathing and descriptive federal curse to the president of the Confederacy that also was said to have been passed around in soldiers’ diaries and letters: “To Jeff Davis: May he be set afloat in a boat with out a compass or ruder, the boat swallowed by a shark, the shark in the belly of a whale and further may he be locked in Hell with the key lost and set in a northwest corner with a southeast wind blowing ash in his eyes for all ETERNITY.”

These walls present a fascinating and vivid reminder of how close we are to the Civil War. The war was right here and seems in many ways to have taken place yesterday. The names are not just names on a wall, but the names of men who shared some of their thoughts.

How many letters home were written in the graffiti houses by men recuperating from wounds? How many soldiers slept on wool blankets on the wood slats that still are in the buildings? How many soldiers ate concretelike hardtack softened in stale coffee and considered it a great meal? How many men got their only good look at Mosby, Grant, or Gen. Robert E. Lee from one of the graffiti buildings and proudly told their grandchildren 50 years later about the time they ran into Marse Robert?

You get a good sense of what history must have been like from books and sometimes movies, but from the graffiti buildings you get the feeling you are back in history.

Paul N. Herbert is a criminal investigator who lives in Fairfax.

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