Civil War Graffiti House: Hidden History in Rural Virginia

Civil War Graffiti House in Virginia

As the Battle of Brandy Station roared around him, Private Phillip Carper of the 35th Virginia Cavalry Battalion had bigger things to worry about. His horse had been shot and he found himself suffering from wounds to the head, hand, and arm. Eventually, he was taken to a hospital for recovery, but first, he spent time in a make-shift hospital not far from the battleground. Waiting for his transfer, he signed his name on the wall with charcoal, just as other Civil War soldiers did before him. Eventually, he recovered from his wounds and surrendered in 1865 when the Civil War ended. More than a century later, Private Carper’s signature became one of the hundreds discovered within what seemed like a typical Virginia home. Whether he knew it at the moment or not, Private Carper helped to prop open a window into history. Today, the building now known as the Graffiti House tells an incredible collection of stories about a painful time in US history.

The Graffiti House: Humble Origins

Cavalry Charge at Brandy Station circa 1864. Source: Wikipedia
Built-in approximately 1858, the Graffiti House was years away from earning its nickname (and decades away from the first time it would be used). Owned, and likely built, by attorney and politician James Barbour, the structure was used as both a home and a commercial building. Its strategic location just a quarter of a mile away from the Orange & Alexandria Railroad made it a desirable spot for war efforts, and both Union and Confederate troops used it at various stages of the Civil War. Of all the roles the building held, its time spent as a hospital was the most interesting. As early as the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, the building was used as a field hospital for injured soldiers.

By 1862, the first names began to appear on the walls. Some soldiers may have wanted to leave their names as a form of memorial, and others may have been bored and looking for a way to spend their time. As the years passed, signatures, drawings, and messages began to coat the walls. Many names appeared during the Battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry conflict during the war. More than 100 soldiers died and more than 700 were injured, and the nearby house welcomed many of them as they recovered or waited for a transfer to a more established hospital.

Following the Civil War, the building was converted back from a makeshift hospital into a house. Over the years, it was bought and sold a dozen times, and with new owners came new layers of paint and wallpaper that covered the names of those who had stayed there. The autographs, doodles, and scrawls might have been lost forever if it weren’t for a 1993 renovation that uncovered some of what was hidden. Recognizing that the house was far more valuable as a tribute to all soldiers who fought during the Civil War, the Brandy Station Foundation purchased the house in 2002. Over the years, restoration efforts have uncovered a significant amount of the inscriptions and drawings that were added during the war.

Visiting the Graffiti House

The Graffiti House isn’t the kind of museum you can visit any day; there are published hours that confirm the dates and times it will be open. Volunteers staff the house and run informative tours that cover both of the structure’s floors. Our tour began on the first floor, where we learned the history of the house and its significance during the war. Although there are some examples of graffiti on the first level, the most fascinating contributions to the walls are significantly younger than the etchings that give the house its nickname. One wall is dedicated to signatures from descendants of those who signed the walls during the war. It’s an interesting visual to understand how relatives, following their family trees, found their way to Culpeper, Virginia to stand where a great-great-grandfather might have stood as he wrote his name. In a few cases, names representing several generations are listed, providing a more complete connection to the soldier and those who came after him.

Civil War Graffiti HouseUpstairs is where most of the stories are told. Through three separate rooms, the walls feel heavy under the weight of the history they hold. There are plenty of names to see, and there are also images. One depicts a man in a hat; above him are the words, “The rebs got licked,” and next to him a similar statement says, “He smells a rebel.” Because the house was used by both Union and Confederate soldiers, both sides contributed to the written version of trash talk. One soldier wrote, “Yanks caught hell” with his name.

The first room we entered was the Marshall Room, named after Lieutenant James Marshall of the 12th Virginia Cavalry who was also the grandnephew of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. He was wounded during the Battle of Brandy Station and added his name to the wall during his recovery. The Bowman Room bears the name of Sgt. Allen Bowman, whose name is among those on the walls. This room includes a drawing of a woman holding up her skirt as if walking across a muddy battlefield; she is known as the Dancing Lady. Other drawings in the room demonstrate less skill but just as much enthusiasm for passing time by adding an illustration to the wall. In the third room, the Stuart Room, we saw perhaps the most famous image at the Graffiti House: the Maryland Scroll, which lists the members of Rifle Gun #1 who fought for the Confederacy. The same room houses a signature believed to belong to Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, who was a very well-regarded cavalry commander during the war.

As our guide shared stories, we found ourselves wandering to take in as much of the visual as we could. It felt easy to picture what it might have been like to stand there more than 150 years ago, taking soot from fireplaces to add proof that you were there. In the winter, the rooms might have been cold but bearable as the fireplaces warmed them. In the summers, the heat and humidity must have been stifling without a breeze to force the air to move. Filled with other recovering bodies and the smell of blood or antiseptic, it would have been anything but pleasant. And today, it’s memorialized by those who captured a moment in history and added their names to its roster.

Visit the Civil War Graffiti House!

We had driven by the Graffiti House hundreds of times before stopping to visit, and it was well worth the time. It’s a great place to stop for a history lesson, especially if you are visiting the Washington, DC area or are exploring some of Virginia’s Civil War battlefields. Although so many historic properties have stories to tell, they are rarely written on the walls in front of you. We’ve often asked ourselves what we would hear if the walls could talk; at the Graffiti House, they do—and you might be surprised by the stories they share!

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