Foundation buys home with soldiers' graffiti

Fredericksburg walls signed by wounded Confederates in 1863

October 27, 2002|By Donnie Johnston | Donnie Johnston,THE FREE-LANCE STAR

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. -- It is truly American graffiti. And, remarkably, after almost 140 years, it is still there.

While convalescing after the Battle of Brandy Station in June 1863, Confederate soldiers scrawled their names and drew pictures on the walls of a makeshift hospital near the field on which they were wounded. Little did the bored soldiers realize they were writing history when they rubbed charcoal and dull pencil against the plaster of a two-story house.

James A.T. Cooper from Loudoun County. Sgt. Allen Bowman, Co. E, 12th Va. Cavalry. Michael Bowman, 7th Virginia Cavalry. These are but a few of the names legible on the walls of what has for more than a century been known as "The Graffiti House."

If they wrote their names so they would not be forgotten, these Civil War soldiers are now getting their wish. On Tuesday the Brandy Station Foundation purchased the house so its walls and graffiti can be preserved for future generations. The preservation group plans to use the house as its office and as an interpretive center for those visiting the soon-to-be-opened Brandy Station Battlefield in Culpeper County.

"When the house came on the market, we couldn't pass it up," foundation member Helen Geisler said. The group paid $98,000 for the dwelling, which plantation owner James Barbour built as a tenant house in 1858.

"To a larger extent, we are not buying the building," said foundation president Bob Luddy. "We are acting as custodian of a time in history. The people who helped and those who died here bought this place."

Brandy Station is where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee gathered his troops for an invasion of the North. A probing expedition by Union troops into the area on June 9, 1863, turned into the largest cavalry battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere.

Ownership of the frame dwelling, used as both an antique shop and an office during the past two decades, has changed hands at least a dozen times since the Civil War. At some point, its walls were covered with wallpaper. During a renovation about 10 years ago, some of the paper was removed and the graffiti became visible again.

To prevent damage to the inscriptions, some of the more stubborn wallpaper was left in place and still remains. The historic graffiti contains names, military units, hometowns and dates. There are also several drawings, including a full-length sketch of a young woman and a man wearing a bowler.

The plaster is cracking in places and Luddy is not certain how to prevent further deterioration. "We need to get some real historians in here to help evaluate the building," he said.

Luddy called the house "a significant investment" for the foundation but one well worth the money. The group will be seeking donations and grant money to help pay for the building. Eventually, it hopes to restore the building to its Civil War condition.

"This is the first step," Luddy said. The foundation will begin restoration work and explore ways to remove the remaining wallpaper. Members believe as many as 250 more names might still be concealed in the building's five rooms.

The foundation hopes to have the house open in time for next summer's 140th anniversary of the Battle of Brandy Station, said author and foundation member Virginia Morton. It also hopes the Civil War Preservation Trust, which owns about 1,500 acres of nearby battlefield property, will have its interpretive signs, walking trails and pull-off areas ready by then, too.

Foundation members think the interpretive center will bring more tourists to Culpeper. The county is strategically located between Richmond and Washington and was the scene of more than 13 Civil War battles. They see the Graffiti House as a the starting point on a proposed Civil War trail leading from Brandy Station to Gettysburg, where Lee's invasion was stopped and the tide of the war turned.

The house is one of the few remaining field hospitals between Gettysburg and Gordonsville, foundation members say. It is the graffiti on the walls, however, that make it special. Here visitors will be able to see words written and sketches actually made by their ancestors.

"People are hungry for all the information they can get at this battlefield," Luddy said. "Here we can help them interpret the battle, and [the walls] will add the human touch."

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