“If these signatures could talk…”: Chatham Graffiti, Part 1

From Mink:

Throughout time, soldiers taking the field have always left their mark behind. Visible evidence of their presence on battlefields includes fortifications, artifacts and battle debris, and even graves. Less visible reminders can take the form of graffiti. These writings are often more personal, with soldiers leaving sketches, commentary on the times and events, and most often their names and military unit affiliation. In the Fredericksburg area, the most well known examples of graffiti left by Civil War soldiers can be found at Massaponax Church in Spotsylvania County and Aquia Church in Stafford County, where interior and exterior walls are covered with a wide variety of penned drawings and statements. Perhaps these were left out of boredom and inactivity, or perhaps the soldiers’ uncertainty of their fate resulted in a desire to leave behind a mark to be remembered by.

In the years following the end of the Civil War, a great deal of soldier graffiti on houses and other structures was covered over. From time to time, work done on local buildings reveals the writings and etchings. Such is the case at Chatham, where every few years another example of a soldier’s presence here is uncovered.

As early as 1929, workers were finding graffiti at Chatham. A newspaper article from that year reported on quite a few prominent names that were found scrawled on exposed plaster.

“Among the signatures standing out most distinctly were the following: General Burnside; Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick, Commanding 3rd Division Cavalry Corps; Lieut. James B. Seywell, 1st New York Mounted Rifles; T.W. Moffett, 3rd Indiana Cavalry; Brig. General Buford, September 2, 1863; Capt. Nelson, Co. B, 1st Reg. New Jersey Corps; John F. Bradshaw, April 1, 1865; F.D. Gorman. There are scores of other names scrawled on the walls which are more or less distinct. The hand of time has obliterated a larger number of the signatures, which were found only in the hall and which was evidently unpapered in the sixties. They extend from a wooden chairboard up as high as the tallest soldier could reach from the floor. If these signatures could talk, no doubt thrilling and secret tales of the War Between the States would be uncovered.”

It is not known whether these signatures were removed, or if they still exist beneath generations of wall paint. In 1977, however, art conservator Walter Nitkiewicz and Park Technician Chris Calkins investigated the suspect walls, but failed to uncover the graffiti, although illegible scribbling was discovered.

Since the National Park Service came into possession of Chatham, park staff has discovered quite a few other examples of soldier graffiti, and this will be the first of a series of posts looking at these writings.

One window of the main house contains a good deal of graffiti, which the park has left exposed, yet protected by Plexiglas. This window is located in the Dining Room and on the east face of the house.

Undoubtedly, when the park was preparing the house for visitation in the late 1970s, this graffiti was uncovered. Originally, wood paneling would have covered the plaster walls around the window, but as we know, much of original paneling in the house was removed by soldiers during the war. This is probably what exposed the plaster walls and provided a surface for them to leave drawings and their names. As one faces the window today, from the interior of the house, the exposed surface to the left contains a few names and one regimental designation, as seen in the photo below.

The graffiti reads:

Wellington                                                                                                                       Wheaton                                                                                                                                                                    Co.I 34thRegt                                                                                                                                                    N.Y.S. Vols                                                                                                                                                                                 G L Perkins

Wellington Wheaton was an 18 year-old farmer living in Bath, New York when he enlisted on May 23, 1861, to serve two years. He mustered into Company I of the 34th New York Infantry, as a private, on June 15, 1861. Wheaton mustered out of service with his company on June 30, 1863, at Albany, New York. Six months later, on December 5, 1863, Wheaton enlisted to serve another three years. He mustered in as a corporal in Company G of the 22nd New York Cavalry. He was appointed Quartermaster Sergeant on July 1, 1864 and mustered out with his company on August 1, 1865 at Winchester, Virginia. The name “G L Perkins,” which appears below Wheaton’s writing, is a bit of a mystery. Given its proximity to Wheaton’s scribbling, and the similar size and darkness of lines, it might be inferred that Perkins name was added around the same time as Wheaton’s. No soldier by those initials and name appears on the roster of the 34th New York Infantry. Is it someone from another regiment?

Coincidentally, Chatham has a second example of graffiti from the 34th New York Infantry. On October 23, 2006, park Restoration Specialist John Stoddard was repointing bricks on the west façade of the Chatham Laundry. John noticed that one of the loose bricks had something etched on it. The wall and bricks had been covered in ivy, which is why the carved brick may have gone unnoticed until then. The brick was used as part of a stretcher in the building’s Flemish Bond pattern and was located approximately three feet up from the ground and in the second course above the water table.

The etching on the brick is faint and weathered, making its exact wording difficult to discern. What it reads is “34 NY V”. It certainly must have originated at the hands of a soldier in the 34th New York Infantry.

The brick is badly chipped and damaged on one end, leading John to surmise that it might have been used as ¾ replacement brick in some restoration work done on the wall prior to the Civil War. The brick has been added to the park’s curatorial collection.

So, when might two soldiers, or perhaps Wheaton alone, have left these reminders of their presence at Chatham? The 34th New York first arrived in the Fredericksburg area in November 1862. The regiment camped a good ways back from Stafford Heights, prior to participating in the December Battle of Fredericksburg. It spent the winter around Falmouth, a few miles upstream from Chatham, before taking part in the May 1863 Second Battle of Fredericksburg. Following that engagement, the regiment returned to the Stafford County side of the Rappahannock River and, according to the published regimental history, it did “not go back to our ‘old camp ground;’ but to a new site back of, and just north of, the Lacy House.” In early June, Wheaton and those in the regiment whose terms of service had expired returned to New York to be mustered. Given the post-Second Fredericksburg camp’s proximity to the Chatham (aka Lacy House), it’s more than likely that these two examples of graffiti were left on Chatham’s walls sometime between May and June 1863.

More graffiti exists at Chatham and will be looked at in future posts. We know there must be many antebellum structures in the Fredericksburg area that still retain names, messages, and drawings from soldiers who visited them so long ago. If you are aware of any surviving graffiti in the area, and would like to share it, please let us know.

Eric J. Mink

3 thoughts on ““If these signatures could talk…”: Chatham Graffiti, Part 1

  1. Carolyn – We do try to photograph and document the Civil War graffiti in the Fredericksburg area. We can only do that, however, for those examples that we know of and are granted access to. I’m hoping that these posts might encourage folks that know of graffiti in our area to alert us to, and allow us to photograph, them.
    – Eric Mink

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