ECW Weekender: Northern Virginia Civil War Graffiti Trail
Today, we are pleased to welcome back Paige Gibbons-Backus
Throughout the country remnants of the Civil War are still seen today; from the open battlefields and the monuments in the media spotlight today, to the cemeteries and historic buildings that witnessed the momentous events that impacted so many lives. However, another reminder of the events of the day that do not immediately come to mind for some are the writings of these soldiers on the buildings in which they stayed or passed through, also known as graffiti. While numerous homes in the Northern Virginia area contain evidence of these soldiers, a collection of six historic buildings, known as the Northern Virginia Civil War Graffiti Trail, tells collective story of soldiers—from both North and South—who left their mark. The graffiti also helps illuminate some of the ways that civilians were impacted by this total war. The level of graffiti seen in these historic buildings vary, but spanning from Fairfax to Winchester, the trail provides both general visitors and Civil War enthusiasts with the opportunity to fill a day or two with amazing stories from the Civil War and see some of the unique and incredible marks left behind.
Some of the most vandalized homes on the graffiti trail consist of the Graffiti House, in Brandy Station, and Historic Blenheim, in Fairfax since both of these homes had seen thousands of soldiers pass by during the wartime years. Due to the Graffiti House’s location along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, the house was occupied by both Union and Confederate soldiers throughout the war. Using charcoal, soldiers (some famous and some not so famous) left their signatures, drawings, and commentaries. Many of which still survive today, resulting in over 200 legible pieces of graffiti to be seen by the modern visitor though the site’s free, self-guided tours.
Historic Blenheim also has many pieces of graffiti that are visible, with over 120 soldiers positively identified within the house. With the continued restoration of the property, more pieces of graffiti are likely waiting for discovery. Remarkably, much of the graffiti is located in the home’s attic, which has remarkably seen very little change after the war. However, while the Graffiti House contains both Confederate and Federal graffiti, Blenheim contains the names of Union soldiers. Many of the soldiers that have been identified were either encamped nearby or hospitalized at the house throughout 1862 and 1863 providing valuable insight into how the Fairfax Courthouse community was impacted throughout the war. Visitors can stop by Blenheim anytime between to visit the museum with exhibits about the history of the house and the soldiers whose names have been discovered, as well as a full-scale replica of the attic so that one can see the graffiti found within. The house itself is accessible to the public through guided tours available at 1:00pm or by appointment.
While not all the sites on the graffiti trail can boast hundreds of signatures, all of the sites have a unique story to tell, including Ben Lomond Historic Site and Liberia Plantation, located within 20 minutes of each other in Manassas, Virginia. Primarily interpreted as an immersive Civil War hospital where one can hear, touch, taste, smell, and see an active field hospital, Ben Lomond offers another story. Throughout the spring of 1862, like the rest of Northern Virginia, Union troops passed through the area and some even camped near the house. In addition to stealing food and supplies from the family who lived there, Federal soldiers also vandalized the house. While much of the graffiti is protected from view for preservation, sections of walls that are left uncovered for visitors to view during the guided tours of the hospital.
Just down the road from Ben Lomond stands Liberia Plantation, that also saw significant action in the beginning of the war. However, unlike the other sites, the graffiti at Liberia was only just recently discovered. The house served as Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard’s headquarters, and even hosted Confederate President Davis. It also served at General Irvin McDowell’s headquarters in 1862, when President Lincoln visited the site. It was also used by General Daniel Sickles and his troops guarding the Manassas Junction after the battles of Manassas. The home is currently undergoing restoration in an effort to discover more graffiti and return the house back to its wartime appearance. While it is undergoing restoration, the historic structure is closed to regular tours, however, it is open for special events and tours may be scheduled.
Spanning to the western end of Northern Virginia, the last two buildings on the graffiti trail are unusual; instead of private homes, they are instead a church and a courthouse. Mount Zion Old School Baptist Church, in Aldie, was used as a rendezvous site for Mosby and his raiders, a prison, barracks, and a battleground during the war. Additionally, Union troops used the church as a hospital after the cavalry battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville in June 1863. To view the graffiti on the walls and even in the pews, visit Aldie for their guided tours the fourth Sunday of the month. Not only was a church vandalized in Northern Virginia, the Frederick County Courthouse was as well. Known today as the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum, the courthouse also served as a hospital, prison, and barracks for both sides over the course of the war. While some of the drawings and signatures left by soldiers have been covered for preservation, some of which can still be seen in addition to the restored courtroom, and exhibits that tell the story of not only the graffiti, but of the Civil War era in the Shenandoah Valley.
There is lots to see and do when exploring the Northern Virginia Civil War Graffiti Trail! Not only will one be able to see and learn about some of the amazing examples of the marks these soldiers left behind, one can also see and explore a variety of different Civil War sites throughout Virginia, from museums and historic houses, to guided tours. Information about the trail can be found on the Brady Station Foundation’s website at http://www.brandystationfoundation.com/ or by visiting any of the sites on the trail. We hope to see you soon!
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