Last week, I was invited to speak at Historic Blenheim in Fairfax City. Besides a well-attended and attentive audience (any author’s dream!), I learned about the site and the dozens of “souvenirs” left on the walls by Union soldiers.
And, by piecing a page from Julia Wilbur’s diary with site director Andrea Loewenwarter’s knowledge, we figured out Julia had been there in May 1863!
Albert and Mary Willcoxon built the sturdy brick home around 1857 and were living in it at the beginning of the war. Union troops, at least 23 different regiments, spent short periods of time in the house and on the property.
At the time, the walls were plastered—a tempting target indeed to leave one’s mark. And so it was. Men scrawled their names, drew pictures, wrote sayings, and even played games, using pencil, charcoal, and crayon. Many were German-speaking immigrants (more than 200,000 men who fought in the Union Army were born in Germany), and thus, some of the graffiti is in German.
Over the years, staff and volunteers have identified the people behind more than 120 signatures. They have learned where the men came from and what happened to them after their brief stay in the house.
The earliest signature is dated March 11, 1862, by a 13th New York State Volunteer named Matthew Mead Marshall. According to the research, he became injured shortly afterwards and never really recovered. He died in a Military Home in Wisconsin. Little did he know what lay ahead when he signed “M M Marshall, 13th N.Y.S.V., March 11, 1862.”
Another was Charles Johnson, then age 19. His family preserved his letters (now at the University of California, Santa Barbara), and he described the relatively idyllic time spent in Fairfax. He went on to Gettysburg.
On the first and second floors of the house, careful conservation uncovered the graffiti underneath wallpaper and paint. Upstairs, incredibly, the walls were never painted over. The home remained in the family until the 1990s, which, in Andrea’s view, is a primary reason that it remained intact. Still, it’s hard to believe that the Willcoxons or their descendants did not want to obliterate these visible signs of Yankee occupation.
Structurally, the attic cannot withstand a stream of visitors, so a modern visitors center next door contains a replica of the attic, down to the sloping ceiling and placement of chimneys.
Julia Wilbur Was Here!
I already knew Wilbur had spent time in the area in May 1863, so I gave Andrea a print-out of the diary entries from the trip. It left quite an impression—the three-day trip is covered in 20 diary pages.
Julia Wilbur wrote:
Left Alex. on the 11 A.M. train; destination the Battlefield of Bull Run if we could get there. Pass from the Pro. Mar. [Provost Marshall] here took us only to F.S. [Fairfax Station] where an Ambulance sent by Col. Tower of the 1st Mich. Cav. was waiting to take us to the Camp of this Regt. a mile east of Fairfax C.H. [Court House]
Blenheim is 1 mile east of the Courthouse, and Andrea knew that the 1st Michigan Calvary stayed in the house. Julia went with three Michigan women, including the wife of a chaplain and the sister of a man mortally wounded at Bull Run.
The troops entertained their visitors and gave them a decent meal, but all was not fun and games.
The 1st Mich. Cav. came out with 1200 men. They now have 714, have been in 42 battles & skirmishes, had had but 25 men killed outright. The remaining 461 have died or been disabled by wounds or disease…
Receiving permission, they went on to the Centrevill battlefield the next day, along with 30 men as escorts.
Where the battle took place are several fields, woods on every side, one inhabited house on the edge for a cornfield.
Julia’s friend, named Julia Wheelock, knew her brother had been carried into a barn nearby, where his leg was amputated. He died later in an Alexandria hospital. They could not get permission to get to the Bull Run battlefield, but they did see the stream and Julia Wheelock paid homage to her brother. Wilbur picked up “relics” (e.g., pieces of bayonets and swords), and they stopped and talked to people, of both Union and “secesh” leanings, along the way, as well as chatted with the soldiers accompanying them.
The group arrived in Alexandria a day later than expected
& found the folks really surprised to see us, they thought as we had staid a day longer than we intended that the rebels had surely taken us.
But they returned safely, and Julia had a great experience to recount.