First-hand history: Civil War soldiers’ graffiti uncovered in a Fairfax house

The picture of life during the Civil War continues to develop at a house in Fairfax, Virginia.

Between March 1862 and June 1863, hundreds of Union soldiers left their enduring marks in charcoal, graphite or crayon on the walls of the attic and first and second floors of Historic Blenheim, a brick 1859 farmhouse and 12-acre estate on what is now Old Lee Highway.

“The City of Fairfax purchased the site in 1999 from in-laws of the family that had lived here for four generations,” said Andrea Loewenwarter, a historic resources specialist with the city, during a tour of the home and interpretive center. “It has incredible remnants of graffiti, of Union soldiers’ Civil War writings, pictographs, sayings, thoughts, that were on the walls of the attic.”

The farmhouse was built for Albert and Mary Willcoxon just outside the village of Fairfax Court House. “He sold goods from his mixed-crop farm to the Confederate Army — for the first nine months of the war, this was Confederate-controlled,” Loewenwarter said.

“In 1860, Albert owned six enslaved people of African descent, and we’ve been able to possibly identify three,” said Loewenwarter. “James and Milly Seals, who were a married couple, and Henson Smith, who was 65 in 1860.”

“While it was still Confederate-held, they were here when some of the Union soldiers took issue with secessionists and started damaging property,” said Loewenwarter. “The door was torn off its hinges, the windows were broken, the banister was broken, furniture smashed.”

Mary Willcoxon and the couple’s two young children moved out of the house by the summer of 1861, although Albert continued to run the farm.

By March 1862, the property became a training camp and camping spot for Union soldiers.

By December 1862, the 11th Army Corps was forced to leave many of their sick behind, and Blenheim served as part of the Reserve Hospital system for the Corps.

“Most of the soldiers would have been in tents, sharing their diseases outside the house,” said Loewenwarter. “We believe some of the sicker ones would have come inside.”

Inside the attic, and on walls and floors on the first two floors, soldiers left graffiti.

“We have 126 positively identified soldiers,” said Loewenwarter. “They are all Union, and 75% of the names were written in a three-week period in March of 1862.”

Loewenwarter said some of the graffiti was scrawled boldly, with soldiers inscribing their names.

Others left simpler inscriptions to indicate they had been at the location. “Two-thirds of the soldiers died from disease — did they know if they were going to survive? They did not know, so those were a bit more poignant.”

The attic of the home is no longer accessible to the public. The Civil War Interpretive Center is a life-sized replica of two attic rooms.

“This is a warship with cannons, and cannonballs flying,” Loewenwarter said of one drawing. “We believe it may be representing one of the ships that the soldiers were told to march to, down in Alexandria.”

During the decades after the original owners left, layers of paint and wallpaper began to cover much of the graffiti on the first two floors of the home.

After the house was purchased by the city, two conservators were hired to try to peel back layers of history.

“One was to remove the wall paper, by steaming it off, and someone else to find graffiti,” said Loewenwarter. Other experts provided high tech methods: “We’ve used something called multispectral imaging, which is using narrow-band lighting of ultraviolet through infrared.”

Loewenwarter said the city will continue to peel back layers of paint and wallpaper to try to learn more of the history of those who spent time at Historic Blenheim.

“It is a very painstaking process,” she said. “But well worth it.”

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