Narrow house

First-hand story: Graffiti of Civil War soldiers found in Fairfax home

“The city of Fairfax purchased the site in 1999 from the in-laws of the family who had lived here for four generations,” said Andrea Loewenwarter, the city’s historic resources specialist, during a tour of the home and the interpretation center. “It contains incredible remnants of graffiti, writing, pictographs, sayings, thoughts of Union soldiers about the Civil War, which were on the attic walls.”

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, it was under Confederate control,” Loewenwarter said.

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

“While it was still in Confederate hands, they were there when some of the Union soldiers challenged the secessionists and started damaging property,” Loewenwarter said. “The door was ripped off its hinges, the windows were smashed, the railing was smashed, the furniture was smashed.”

Mary Willcoxon and the couple’s two young children left home in the summer of 1861, although Albert continued to run the farm.

In March 1862, the property became a training camp and camping ground for Union soldiers.

In December 1862, the 11th Army Corps was forced to leave many of its sick behind, and Blenheim became part of the reserve hospital system for the corps.

“Most of the soldiers would have been in tents, sharing their illnesses outside the house,” Loewenwarter said. “We think some of the sickest would have gone inside.”

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

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

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

Others left simpler inscriptions to indicate that they had been in the place. “Two-thirds of the soldiers died of disease – did they know if they would survive? They didn’t know, so these were a bit more poignant.

The attic of the house is no longer accessible to the public. The Civil War Interpretive Center is a full-size replica of two attic rooms.

“It’s a warship with cannons and cannonballs flying,” Loewenwarter said of one drawing. “We believe it may represent one of the ships that soldiers were told to march to, in Alexandria.”

In the decades since the original owners left, layers of paint and wallpaper began to cover much of the graffiti on the first two floors of the house.

After the town bought the house, two restorers were hired to try to uncover layers of history.

“One was to remove the wallpaper, spray it on, and someone else to find graffiti,” Loewenwarter said. Other experts provided high-tech methods: “We used what’s called multispectral imaging, which uses narrow-band illumination from ultraviolet to infrared.”

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

“It’s a very laborious process,” she said. “But it’s definitely worth it.”