“If these signatures could talk…”: Chatham Graffiti, Part 4


From Eric Mink:

For other posts on Civil War soldier graffiti left in the Fredericksburg area, check out these links here.

Over time, we become familiar with our surroundings. Often this familiarity is to the extent that we don’t even notice our surroundings. For forty years, park staff have worked inside Chatham, the 18th century plantation house that serves as the headquarters for the National Park Service in the Fredericksburg area. A few rooms are open to the public on the first floor. One of these, the dining room, utlizies exposed plaster around a window as an exhibit. Civil War soldier have scrawled their names and regiments across the plaster. A good amount of the graffiti is too faint to read or the handwriting is too difficult to decipher. Although exposed for forty years with thousands of eyes gazing upon it, we were able to decipher yet another name last week written upon the wall.

Perhaps the sunlight hit it just right in the later afternoon, but the regimental designation popped right out. It took a couple of us to figure out the signature.

There is no doubt, however, that the graffiti reads:

C McKenna/Co C 2d R—/NYSM/May 6th 18—

A little digging in New York rosters found that the signature belongs to Charles McKenna (also listed as McKinne), who served in Comapny C of the 2nd Regiment New York State Militia. When the New York State Militia regiments entered volunteer service early in the war, they received new numerical designations as state volunteer regiments. The 2nd New York State Militia also became known as the 82d Regiment New York Volunteer Infantry.

Charles McKenna enlisted in New York City at the age of 27. He mustered into Company C of the 82nd New York Infantry (2nd New York State Militia) on June 14, 1861. The regimental roster states that he was wounded, but no date or location are given. Charles reenlisted as a veteran on December 30, 1863. He was transfered to Company A, within the same regiment, on May 22, 1864 and was promoted to Commissary Sergeant two days later. He mustered out of service on July 3, 1864.

McKenna’s graffiti has a partial visible date of May 6, 18??. Obviously, he wrote it during the Civil War, but which year? The best, and likely only, candidate is 1863. Neither McKenna nor his regiment were in the Fredericksburg area in May 1862. On May 6, 1864, they were engaged on the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness. On May 6, 1863, however, the 82nd New York Infantry was camped on the grounds of Chatham or very close to it.

The 82nd New York Infantry, along with four other regiments, helped form the First Brigade of General John Gibbon’s Second Divison of the Union Second Corps. During the Chancellorsville Campaign, Gibbon’s division supported General John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps in the Second Battle of Fredericksburg. In the very early morning of  May 3, 1863, Gibbon’s First Brigade crossed the Rapphannock River into Fredericksburg. After engaging Confederates north of the town, the brigade withdrew back into Fredericksburg, while Sedgwick and his corps pushed on to Salem Church. By late afternoon, the First Brigade was ordered to recross the Rapphannock and protect the pontoon bridges. By the following evening, May 4, the brigade had regrouped at Chatham (aka Lacy House), where they remained for awhile. Soldiers evidently visited Chatham during this period, as one soldier in the 15th Massachusetts described the interior of the house:

“Many of the windows are broken out and the house out side generally looks very much dilapidated. Inside, everything is ruin. The window sills have been torn off, the partitions riped out and the splendid folding doors smashed up, all to make a little fire so the Soldiers might have a little coffee. “ – Roland E. Bowen, letter to Friend Guild, May 18, 1864 in From Ball’s Bluff to Gettysburg and Beyond, edited by Gregory A. Coco (1994), p. 153

During this period, McKenna would have had ample time to visit the house and leave his mark on the exposed plaster around one the windows.

It’s exciting to know that Chatham continues to reveal its history to visitors of the house, as well as to those of us who work within its walls.

Eric J. Mink

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6 thoughts on ““If these signatures could talk…”: Chatham Graffiti, Part 4

  1. I find it interesting that any evidence of Yankee occupation and desecration to a property survived in the rebuilding phase after the war. You would think that any evidence would have been plastered over, burned or thrown upon the rubbish heap. How much just one name scrawled on a wall can reveal. Amazing that it was there all the time and only now someone took some time in this crazy frenetic world to do some research. Good job…This is what makes history come alive. Thanks
    Brian K

  2. It is amazing to me, that these signatures have lasted through time, to speak to us today, to tell us of those who passed through this life before us, in a time that was so chaotic. I am also intrigued with how these names have only recently, come to be ‘unlocked’, and to be discovered by us today, to give us some real insight on those soldiers who passed this way during the war that is such an integral part of our history. What a great find his signature is…………history does indeed, reach out and talk to us today.

  3. Eric — I just started working at the Landon House in Urbana, MD, where the graffiti, or “lightning sketches”, are still visible and preserved on one of the walls. In researching the unit with the most legible signature and date, the 155th PA Infantry Regiment, I discovered that the most prominent artist in the group was Charles F. McKenna and that he was voted Regimental artist by his comrades. McKenna made many wonderful battlefield sketches, and his unit participated in the Fredericksburg campaign. Do you think there’s any possibility that he could be your Charles McKenna? BTW, troops often wrote on top of each others’ work. Let me know what you think! Thanks, Elizabeth

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