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—
One of the more historic structures in Falmouth is the Conway House, located along King Street. Built in 1807, this Federal-style home is most well-known for having been the childhood residence of author, clergyman, and abolitionist Moncure Daniel Conway. On the eve of the Civil War, Moncure lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he served as a Unitarian minister, although his father and mother still lived in the Falmouth house.
In his autobiography, Moncure relates a story, as told to him by his father, about the arrival of Union troops in the spring of 1862:
“When the Union Army under General McDowell entered Falmouth they found the village deserted by the whites. My father was in Fredericksburg, and my two brothers far away in the Confederate ranks. The house was left empty and locked up, the house servants remaining in their abode in the back yard. Yet as the Union soldiers were filing past a shot was fired from a window of the Conway House, or from a corner of the yard, and a soldier wounded. It was never known who fired the shot; our negroes assured me that the house was locked and watched. The Union soldiers, alarmed and enraged, battered down the doors, and, finding no one, began vengeance on the furniture.
The house was of brick, and the largest in Falmouth; it was made a hospital, and the seriously wounded soldier was its first inmate.” – Moncure Daniel Conway, Autobiography: Memories and Experiences of Moncure Daniel Conway, Vol. I (1904), p. 356
Another example of soldier graffiti in Falmouth can be found here
Union Church in Falmouth - ca1880s.
Churches seem to have been a favorite target for soldier graffiti during the Civil War. This was most likely due to the fact that as they did not contain residents, the buildings were unoccupied and thus easy targets for vandalism. Additionally, churches were often used as hospitals and barracks, where soldiers spent much idle time. In the Fredericksburg area, we have examples of soldier graffiti at Massaponax and Salem Churches in Spotsylvania County, as well as Aquia Church in Stafford County. Add to that list Union Church in Falmouth.
Built around 1820, Union Church served the Falmouth community for over 130 years. Union Church is actually the third house of worship constructed on the hill overlooking Falmouth. At the time of its construction, the Falmouth community did not contains members of any one single congregation to warrant a church devoted to either the Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian faiths. Union Church served all three congregations.
Upon arrival of Union troops in the spring of 1862, Union Church served the occupying forces as a hospital. Union forces also used it as a barracks, housing Union soldiers on picket duty along the Rappahannock River. One regiment to occupy the building was the 7th Michigan Infantry. This regiment had been the first to cross the river opposite the upper end of Fredericksburg on December 11, 1862.
7th Michigan Monument at the site of the upper pontoon crossing - Fredericksburg.
Falmouth, as viewed from east of the village – ca1880s.
The village of Falmouth, Virginia sits along the left bank of the Rappahannock River one to two miles upstream from Fredericksburg. Established in the early 18th century along a river ford, Falmouth enjoyed the benefits of being situated along a major avenue for regional traffic. 19th century roads, railroads and a canal, however, all bypassed Falmouth and linked Fredericksburg with other communities. By the Civil War, Fredericksburg eclipsed Falmouth as a regional commerce center.
When the Union army arrived in the spring of 1862, Falmouth consisted of a small collection of houses, warehouses, a church and other buildings. The river ford was important to the armies and Falmouth became a strategic location. Some of the soldiers, who spent their time here, left their names to be remembered 150 years later.
A handful of antebellum structures remains in Falmouth. Located at the intersection of King Street and Cambridge Street is a small non-descript brick warehouse. The warehouse is known locally as “Lightner’s Store,” named for its 20th century owners and use. Some sources place its construction in the 1830s by the wealthy entrepreneur Basil Gordon. During the Civil War it was the property of Duff Green.
On the front of the warehouse, next to one of the doors, is the faint remnant of graffiti left by a Union soldier.
When one considers that Chatham continued to be a private residence until 1976, it is amazing that so much graffiti does survive. Each owner upgraded or rennovated the property’s structures, but it is the retention of so much original fabric that has allowed these signatures to survive.
On October 6, 1993, park staff was involved in removing lead paint from the exterior woodwork of Chatham. On the paneling surrounding the south entrance on the west facade of the main house, it was discovered that the paint had filled in carvings into the bottom panel.
Once the paint was removed, graffiti left by a New York soldier was revealed.
During the Civil War, Chatham served as Union Army headquarters, communications center, a sanctuary for soldiers picketing the Rappahannock River, and as a hospital. Following the Battle of Fredericksburg, hundreds of wounded Union soldiers, and a few wounded Confederates, received treatment inside the main house. One source placed the number treated at Chatham between December 13 and December 15, 1862 at 371. Clara Barton, who assisted the surgeons at Chatham described the crowded conditions:
“They covered every foot of the floors and porticos and even lay on the stair landings! A man who could find opportunity to lie between the legs of a table thought himself lucky. He was not likely to be stepped on. In a common cupboard, with four shelves, five men lay, and were fed and attended. Three lived to be removed, and two died of their wounds. Every man had left his blood at Fredericksburg – every one was from the Lacy house.”
It is not surprising that some of those treated at Chatham found time to leave their mark on its walls. Sergeant Sylvester Ostrander of 16th Michigan Infantry was one such patient.
On March 14, 1994, park Maintenance Workers James Patterson and Bob McGibbony were stripping paint from the plaster walls within the Morning Room at Chatham. They uncovered a good bit of graffiti, but only one piece was legible and that was the signature of Sergeant Ostrander.
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.”