Thursday, January 26, 2012

Kilroy was here: Uncovering soldiers' graffiti inside historic Virginia building

The walls talk to Chris Mills, but they yield their secrets slowly.

The architectural conservator works inches away from the grimy plaster, which is covered by a blue whitewash. He works methodically, using swabs, razors and other equipment to go back in time at the Graffiti House in Brandy Station, Va.

Mills this week was wrapping up his latest stint at the two-story frame house named for graffiti left by Union and Confederate soldiers, principally in 1863.

“It’s tedious work, but I am the first person to see this since 1870,” Mills told the Picket in a phone interview Wednesday. “My job is to protect what is here without a loss to it.”

Three upper rooms have yielded a mother lode of information about the men who fought in the Battle of Brandy Station or moved through the Northern Virginia town during other campaigns.

H.D. Specht, Co. G, 6th Regiment, Pennsylvania Reserves Volunteers Corps was here.

So was a proud member of the 3rd Corps. The federal soldier wrote the unit’s name in huge letters, making it the John Hancock of signatures on one wall in the room named for Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

Mills, 48, works at the behest of the Brandy Station Foundation, which has a museum downstairs in the home. The structure is believed to have been built in 1858, three years before the Civil War began. Tradition holds it served as a hospital during the conflict.

Soldiers used charcoal to make their mark, pulling charred wood from the building’s fireplaces.

“It looks like it came right out of a fire,” said Mills, a Pittsburgh native whose business operates out of New York City. “The penmanship is remarkably good.”

The foundation has identified about 35 soldiers, most content to list their name and unit. Several were with the Confederate Stuart Horse Artillery.

Others wrote the name of battles, such as Gettysburg, Rappahannock and Kelly Ford’s.

A Gettysburg notation includes this message: “The Rebels got licked.”

And because victors write the history – or graffiti – they often added their message on top of another. “It appears to be them marking their territory,” said Mills.

One wall in the Stuart room features what’s believed to be the signature of the famous Confederate cavalier, who died in 1864 at Yellow Tavern, Va.

Interestingly, a soldier wrote either a supply or packing list on one wall: Three undershirts, one overshirt, two pair of drawers and three hose (socks).

Graffiti, of course, is not new. Conquerors or passers-through have left messages for centuries.

In Brandy Station and other cities affected by war, it was a sure sign of unrest, Mills said. “Graffiti has always been vandalism.”

The Battle of Brandy Station, in Culpeper County, was one of the greatest cavalry engagements in history.

On June 9, 1863, about 22,000 troops tangled when Union horsemen under Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton launched a surprise attack on Stuart. After an all-day fight in which fortunes changed repeatedly, the Federals retired without discovering Lee’s infantry camped near Culpeper.

Some of the 1,000 estimated casualties may have received medical treatment at the Graffiti House, which the foundation says could have served as a hospital for Union and Confederate forces.

“This battle marked the apogee of the Confederate cavalry in the East,” the National Park Service writes in its summary of the battle. “From this point in the war, the Federal cavalry gained strength and confidence. Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle of the war and the opening engagement of the Gettysburg Campaign.”

The house, not far from railroad tracks, once faced potential demolition. It housed a telemarketing operation for some time. The foundation acquired it in 2002.

Over time, some sections of graffiti were removed, much of which was returned. Other examples were damaged or destroyed over the years. Someone tried to make wall repairs in the 1970s or 1980s, Mills said.

“The walls were literally falling down,” before the foundation did significant work to stabilize them, according to Mills.

Those structural improvements likely saved the graffiti and the walls from collapsing during the East Coast earthquake last year.

Mills believes the graffiti, which was etched on plaster, was covered within several years of the war. After all, residents in the vanquished South may not have wanted to see daily reminders.

Before then, smoke, nicotine and grime slowly covered the graffiti. That actually helped protect it from lime wash used to cover the walls.

The conservator painstakingly removes as much whitewash as he can to bring the graffiti to the surface. But Mills must work carefully, and he injects acrylic resin into plaster cracks to further strengthen the walls.

In some cases, he leaves an area alone if he can’t do the conservation without damaging the graffiti. Future technology one day may make it easier to remove the lime wash, Mills said.

The foundation, which uses the building as its headquarters, is funding the work and is conducting research on the findings.

Mills has not gotten yet to one wall in the Stuart room, which he says should yield a lot more graffiti.

“We really do rely on donations to do the work,” foundation secretary Peggy Misch recently told the Culpeper Star Exponent. “We feel we step back in time when we come to this house.”

Mills has felt the same way.

He mentioned the discovery of a message left by a soldier who recorded the first snowfall of the year. Such ordinary notations give him a glimpse of the people who were there.

“I like seeing the person,” the conservator said.

Photos courtesy of the Graffiti House, Brandy Station Foundation.

More information on the house, foundation

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