Upon hearing the word graffiti, spray painted tags, stencils, or other designs on buildings, overpasses and other fixtures might come to mind.
At Historic Blenheim in Fairfax, Virginia, however, researchers study a very different type of graffiti. These graffiti were written in graphite, crayon and charcoal by Union soldiers over one hundred years ago. The graffiti and the stories of the soldiers who wrote them provide insight into the lives of the Union Army recruits who early on answered the call to fight to preserve the Union.
The centerpiece of Historic Blenheim is a brick farmhouse, built by Albert and Mary Wilcoxon on their a 300+ acre farm near what was then known as the village of Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia, about 17 miles west of Washington, DC The house was built around 1859 on the site of their previous home which had been destroyed by fire.
In July of 1861, an article in the Richmond Dispatch described how Union soldiers, en route to Manassas, vandalized the home, breaking windows, tearing doors off hinges and destroying furniture. Those Union soldiers moved on and Confederate forces held the area until March of 1862, when they evacuated toward Richmond.
Once the Southern troops withdrew, the Army of the Potomac moved from Washington, DC to occupy parts of Northern Virginia, including Fairfax Courthouse. The Wilcoxon’s, who favored succession, departed their home and resided elsewhere in the area sometime between July 1861 and March 1863.
During the Civil War, as in many wars, disease killed more soldiers than combat. Poor sanitation, inadequate nutrition, contaminated water, cramped living conditions, a limited understanding of germs, and other factors all contributed to an environment rife with disease. Illnesses such as dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, and tuberculosis were common and deadly for Civil War soldiers.
As a sturdy structure near strategic thoroughfares, the Wilcoxon house and farm soon became a hospital for Union soldiers diagnosed with diseases and other inhibiting ailments, rather than combat wounds. Many were housed in tents in the surrounding fields. The more seriously ill were quartered in the house.
The first soldiers convalescing in the Wilcoxon house found three floors of pristine plaster walls. Since the house was new, the plaster had not yet cured and the walls were neither painted nor wall papered. Soldiers quickly began writing their names, units, dates, and adding drawings, doodles, sketches and other decorations.
The first dates written by soldiers on the house’s walls were in March 1862. Soldiers were on the Wilcoxon farm through mid-1863. The family returned to the home around September 1863, after Albert Wilcoxon signed an “Oath of Allegiance” to the United States. The Wilcoxons returned the farm to working order. Although the family would paint and paper the walls on the first and second floors of their home several times through the years, none of the four generations that lived in the house ever covered or altered the attic graffiti.
Today, the property is known as Historic Blenheim and the Civil War Interpretive Center. Visitors can tour the first floor of the Greek revival farm house and see the recovered writings and some of the preservation work underway. Paper and paint have been carefully removed from the walls and the floors reinforced to protect the structural integrity of the house.
Unfortunately, the second floor and the attic are not open to the public, but the nearby Interpretive Center does have a life size replica of the attic so visitors can get a closer look at the attic drawings. The Interpretive Center also has information about the soldiers and units who passed through Blenheim, additional background on the Wilcoxon family and a small gift shop.
The center’s staff have identified 122 individual soldiers from 23 different units who wrote graffiti on the Blenheim walls. Reviews of military records provide an overview of the men. As a group, the average age was 25. About 45% were foreign born, mostly from present day Germany. Farming was their predominate occupation.
Blenheim researchers though have combed through military, pension and other government records and worked with local historical and genealogical societies to assemble more intimate portraits of many of these men. One is Charles Schlingermann of the 58th New York Infantry Regiment. A native of Prussia, he enlisted in September 1861 at the age of 19. He had only been in America about three months. He died of his wounds following the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862 and is buried on the grounds of the Old Soldiers’ Home in Washington, DC.
Another is Charles H. Johnson, of the 1st Michigan Calvary Regiment. He was 19 years old when he wrote on the attic walls on June 20, 1863. He survived service at Gettysburg and the remainder of the war to reenlist in the Veterans Volunteers of the 1st Michigan Cavalry. He served at Fort Laramie during the Indian Campaign.
He left the Army in 1866 and returned to Michigan where he married and raised his family. After his wife’s death, he moved to San Jose, California to live with his daughter until his death in 1924. He was a prolific letter writer during his military service; his many letters home are now archived at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
A visit to Blenheim provides a unique Civil War historical experience. It is not a battlefield, and not quite a memorial nor museum. The names on the wall take on a new significance when written by the hand of the soldier. As a preservation project, Blenheim takes its visitors past the odd fact and footnote and literally introduces them to the personal legacy of the soldiers who passed through over a century ago.
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Civil War soldiers left their marks in other buildings as well. The Northern Virginia Civil War Graffiti Trail features six other Civil War era buildings where soldiers’ writings have been preserved.
Historic Blenheim and the Civil War Interpretive Center are located at 3610 Old Lee Highway, Fairfax, Virginia, 22030 The operating days and hours are 1000 – 1500 Tuesday – Saturday. The historic house tour is held once each day at 1300. Call 703-591-0560 for more information. Historic Blenheim can be accessed by public transit. Take Metro’s Orange Line to the Vienna Metro Station. From the Station, take the CUE Gold Bus Route 11 toward George Mason University, stopping at Heritage Lane.