We’ve all seen it. The spray paint on the side of the trains rolling past a crossing. The initials carved into trees. The doodles scrawled on school desks or brick walls. Driving through any town, it’s hard not to run across some form of graffiti or “tagging” as it’s sometimes called. Looking even further back, archeologists are always finding paintings and inscriptions in cave walls or in the ruins of temples across the world. Pompeii is a wonderful example of how people in the Roman era defiled public property all the time with obscene or inspiring messages for their contemporary citizens to enjoy (or sneer at). I’m guilty of writing “My first kiss was here” on a metal pole of an awning at my school. There’s a specific bridge that’s known across Pensacola as the “Graffiti Bridge”, which is absolutely covered in all types of art, but no one bothers to clean it up because it’s like a historic landmark. It’s part of the culture and community image that the vandalism is – more or less – allowed.
It may be a human psychological impulse to want to leave their mark for others to find. Instinctively, we want to create a legacy, whether that’s through fame and recognition or creating a family. It’s what drives us to succeed and be accepted by our peers. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, this kind of complex is listed pretty high on the priority scale for humans.
The soldiers of the Civil War were no exception. Across the country, soldiers on both sides engaged in this practice of graffiti etchings on the walls of homes, in forts, and on personal items.
The best preserved evidence of this can be found in houses or structures of the era that served as hospitals or prisons following a battle. Soldiers convalescing would pick up pieces of graphite or charcoal and scrawl out their names (sometimes in big letters or very tiny) on the walls next to their cot/bedroll. Prisoners who had nothing better to do would do the same and sometimes add colorful threats to their captors. The idea was to make sure that they were remembered, should they perish or be lost to time.
For historians, there are a few factors that help us to really make sure that their memory is immortalized in the historiography of the area in which they were.
Name – First and last name is fantastic, but often times in the muster rolls, a first initial and last name is all that’s listed. That doesn’t necessarily help if your name happens to be “John Williams”. They’re as numerous as sand on the beach. If a soldier had a strange last name like “Bitikofer”, sometimes a first name isn’t even needed.
Regiment – Again, this helps to narrow down WHICH John Williams we’re looking at. Regiments can be listed like “7th Georgia Volunteers” or “140th Pennsylvania Infantry”. Specifying if they were infantry, artillery, cavalry, or reserves is even better. It can also confirm which army or division was in the area. The regiment can tell which side they fought for, Union or Confederate. That could then tell historians and preservationists if the site was used as a prison or a hospital – or both.
Company – Sometimes, even once you narrow down that it was John Williams of the 146th New York, there could be more than a couple dozen. Instead of searching through medical records and prison rolls for all these men, if they included their company number, like “Co. A” or “Co. K”, then that can even further pinpoint the author of the graffiti.
When all these elements are put together, historians can place a soldier at a specific time and location, adding to the overall picture of the actions and events that took place around that area. For instance, the former city hall in Winchester, VA has some great examples of soldier graffiti in their upstairs exhibit. This building was used as a prison for Union soldiers during some of the battles that took place around Winchester throughout the war. One of which is a rather creative curse upon Jefferson Davis which reads:
“To Jeff Davis, may he be set afloat on a boat without compass or rudder then that any contents be swallowed by a shark the shark by a whale, whale in the devils belly and the devil in hell the gates locked the key lost and further may be he put in the north west corner with a south east wind blowing ashes in his eyes for all eternity.”
This unknown Union soldier was not happy at all.
Preserving these messages and inscriptions has been the main focus of many historians and curators. Meticulous documentation and research has led to the identification of countless soldiers who left their marks. Graffiti that has been covered up for years by drywall or wallpaper is especially at risk. Homeowners who wanted to cover up this vandalism would paint over the letters or try to obscure the writing in some other way that can severely complicate the job of historians in the future. Nature itself can also be against them, as UV light and water damage can destroy any evidence. Luckily, technology has advanced enough that scientists and historians can team up to help restore and preserve the graffiti for study and historical interpretation.
During April and May, to combat the cabin fever many of us have suffered from during the Covid-19 crisis, Civil War Graffiti Trails sponsored a weekly live event, visiting several places throughout Virginia that are well known for their preservation of soldier graffiti. Below are those videos where historians and park rangers tell the stories of these men who were determined to never be forgotten.