“If these signatures could talk…” Fredericksburg Graffiti

From Eric Mink:

This blog has featured Fredericksburg’s Farmers’ Bank (aka National Bank of Fredericksburg) more than once in its posts (found here and here). Located at the intersection of Princess Anne and George Streets, the structure sits at what was essentially the center of the town. A prominent building, it saw tremendous activity during the war, as occupying Union troops commandeered use of the building as a headquarters and hospital both during and after the Civil War. It is also quite possible that Confederate forces also used the bank, although no sources have come to light pointing to its use by southern soldiers. It should come as no surprise that the marks of war survive on the building.

Farmers Bank East

Farmers’ Bank (1820)

Numerous bricks on both the Princess Anne and George Streets facades of Farmers’ Bank bear the scratching and carvings of vandals. Most of it appears to be of fairly modern origin, but some of the graffiti is without question from the 19th century. Only two are legible enough to be deciphered and attributed to soldiers who passed through Fredericksburg during the Civil War. Both are the work of Confederate privates from Virginia cavalry units.

One of the two names carved into a brick is located on the George Street side of the bank, beneath a window to the left of the entrance that historically accessed the residence portion of the building.

Ellis Graffiti

Confederate soldier’s graffiti is located on the George Street facade of Farmers’ Bank

The inscription consists of a name and partial unit affiliation carved into the stretcher of a single brick. It reads: LB ELLIS – CO A

Ellis Graffiti2.jpg

Lewis B. Ellis was born in June of 1839 in Prince William County, Virginia. The 1850 Census lists him living with his family, but by the 1860 Census he had moved out of his father’s household. He enlisted October 11, 1862 at Winchester, Virginia in Captain Augustus P. Pifer’s cavalry company (later Company A, 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry). Captain Pifer’s company was assigned to duty as scouts and couriers for General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Ellis served through the remainder of the war with the 39th Battalion and was paroled at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Eight months later he married Phillippa J. Brown in Orange County, Virginia and raised a family. The 1870 Census lists his occupation as “works on the railroad.” By 1880, he and his family had moved to Pickens County, South Carolina. Twenty years later, Ellis appeared in the census for Greeneville, South Carolina and worked as a telegraph operator. His trail goes cold after 1900.

The 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry served as couriers and scouts not only for General Jackson, but also did similar duty for generals Richard S. Ewell, James Longstreet and Robert E. Lee. While it is not known when Ellis left his mark on Farmers’ Bank, it is likely he had opportunities to move in and through Fredericksburg during both the winters of 1862-1863 and 1863-1864. Perhaps on some official mission to deliver dispatches, Ellis found himself with time to kill in the town and used it to leave his mark on the bank building.

The other legible piece of graffiti is located on the Princess Anne Street side of the bank building.

Norvell Graffiti

Confederate soldier’s graffiti is located on the Princess Anne Street facade of Farmers’ Bank.

Just below the Virginia State Landmark sign near the southeast corner can be found a name carved into a brick header. It reads: PD Norvell

Norvell Graffiti2

Nailing down a time for this bit of graffiti is a little easier than it is with Private Ellis’ carving. Polk D. Norvell was a seventeen-year old day laborer living in Fredericksvillle, Albermarle County, Virginia when the war began. His service record is a bit confusing, containing contradictory information about his enlistment. Norvell either enlisted May 13, 1861 in Culpeper County or May 31, 1862 at Charlotteville. Either way, he joined Company K of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry. He spent some time in the Gordonsville Hospital in November 1862, but returned to his company in time for Union cavalry to capture him on March 17, 1863 at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford. The Federals forwarded him to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., but his stay in captivity proved brief and his captors released him on March 29. On July 22, 1863, Norvell once again entered a hospital, this time in Charlottesville, and remained there until he returned to duty on August 4, 1863. The muster cards in Norvell’s service record that during August 1863 he was “In Fredericksburg on Provost Guard.”

Late summer of 1863 saw the contending armies in Virginia facing each other across the Rappahannock River in Fauquier and Culpeper Counties. Cavalry patrolled up and down stream, occasionally sparring with one another in skirmishes and minor clashes. In the final days of July, the Confederates pushed their cavalry as far east as Fredericksburg, to counter Union cavalry moving in the same. (Click here for an example of surviving Union graffiti from this period in Falmouth) General Fitzhugh Lee’s Virginia regiments moved to near Fredericksburg and picketed the fords above the town. They shared this duty with General Jerome B. Robertson’s four regiments of Texas infantry. Within their area of operation and responsibility was the town of Fredericksburg itself. After two years of war, during which the community had twice become a battlefield, the destruction wrought by the conflict was quite evident to those who visited the town. A trooper in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry wrote this description to his fiancée on August 9:

“The once beautiful and flourishing city of F [Fredericksburg] is for the most part in ruins and nearly deserted. What few of its inhabitants remain remind me of the account given in the Bible of the dispersed builders of Babell, a motley crew of poor wretched degraded beings representing every tribe and tongue. I can not see how the poor creatures subsist…” 

Lieutenant Colonel William R. Carter of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry made the following entry in his diary:

“Aug. 16: Went to Fredericksburg to act as Provost Marshal of the town, having a force of 110 men for the purpose. What a commentary on war and depravity it generates! That it should require such a force to keep a place quiet once noted for its hospitality & order.” 

The need to maintain order in the town was apparent. Four days later, Carter made the following notation in his diary:

“Aug. 20: Regiment quiet. Private R.J. Tyree (co. B. 2nd Va. Cavalry) was killed in a fray on the streets of Fredericksburg this afternoon.”

The killing of Private Richard J. Tyree of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry did not occur in some ambuscade with Union raiders, but came at the hands of a fellow soldier. Sergeant Robert W. Parker of the same regiment wrote his wife the following day:

“There was a considerable accident happened down in the city yesterday. Two of Company B Wise Troop had difficulty with a Texan, and the Texan killed one of them and wounded another. The man killed was Tiny, the one wounded was Tucker, both from Lynchburg. Horrid affairs. The row was at a house of ill fame. Oh, that our men would turn from such wicked deeds.” 

The wounded soldier could have been Private Willis T. Tucker, although his service record does not indicate any incident, let alone a wounding, in August 1863. Both Tucker and Tyree enlisted May 1861 in Lynchburg as members of Company B, also known as the “Wise Troop.” A Confederate headstone for Richard Tyree stands in Lynchburg’s Presbyterian Cemetery, although the inscription claims him as a member of the 11th Virginia Infantry. The name of the Texan responsible for Tyree’s death is not known.

The “house of ill fame” where Tyree was murdered may have been The Shakespeare House Hotel located on the east side of Caroline Street, midway between Hanover and George Streets. During the wartime occupation of Fredericksburg, the hotel had the reputation of housing prostitutes who found much business with soldiers from both armies.

Caroline Street

The Shakespeare House Hotel was destroyed by fire on November 17, 1865. Commercial businesses now occupy the site.

Perhaps Private Norvell’s choice of recreating with graffiti and not visiting other diversions was a wise one. Sadly, Private Norvell did not survive the war. On July 3, 1864, he entered Chimborazo Hospital No. 5 with a fever. He died there three weeks later. His final resting place is not known.

The Farmers’ Bank is private property, although the graffiti is visible from the adjacent public sidewalk.

Eric J. Mink


Thanks to my good friend and colleague Mike Gorman at Richmond NBP for helping to identify Private Norvell.

Sources consulted: Compiled Service Records of Lewis B. Ellis, Polk D. Norvell, Willis T. Tucker and Richard J. Tyree, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Blake W. Corson, Jr., ed. My Dear Jennie by William Clark Corson (Richmond, Va.: The Dietz Press, 1982); Walbrook D. Swank, ed. Sabres, Saddles and Spurs by Lieutenant Colonel William R. Carter, CSA (Shippensburg, Penn.: Burd Street Press, 1998); Catherine M. Wright, ed. Lee’s Last Casualty: The Life and Letters of Sgt. Robert W. Parker, Second Virginia Cavalry (Knoxville, Tenn.: The University of Tennessee Press, 2008); Noel G. Harrison, Fredericksburg Civil War Sites, April 1861-November 1862 (Lynchburg, Va.: H.E. Howard, Inc., 1995)


11 thoughts on ““If these signatures could talk…” Fredericksburg Graffiti

  1. Hi: Just received new post. Can not access the remainder of the article or the comments.  Is there a glitch? Susan Williams

    • Sorry for the confusion Susan. In an attempt to schedule the posting, I inadvertently posted it immediately. Therefore, an announcement went out to all subscribers. In the meantime, I had deleted the post and rescheduled it as I had intended. User error. My apologies for the confusion.

      – Eric

  2. Eric –
    When I was downtown yesterday the large sign next to the bank building had a “sold” sign on it. Did the building find new owners?

  3. According to Chris Ferguson in his book “Southerners at Rest” which lists most of the Confederate soldiers buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, most of the men who died at Chimborazo were interred in Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond. He states that the soldiers who died at the hospital were usually buried at the nearest cemetery. Even though his grave may not be marked chances are he is buried there.

    • Darrell,

      Thank for the suggestion. I had checked Oakwood Cemetery’s list of Confederate burials and failed to locate Norvell’s name among it. It certainly is possible, in fact quite likely, that he is buried there, but just not in a marked grave..

      – Eric

  4. Novell is almost certainly buried in the Confederate portion of Oakwood. They kept a record of soldiers buried there from early 1862 for about a year then they stopped. Consequently, the vast majority of Oakwood burials are unknown. The early Oakwood burial register is in the Brockenbrough Library of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond but there are numerous errors–names, initials, and units. Incidentally, the published Oakwood burial list was not published until 1880s and is so full of errors as to be almost totally useless. The Oakwood Burial Register has never been published and should. Many southern families would finally know where their ancestor was buried, as I did.

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