NEH grant helps Mason, partners create digital archive of Civil War graffiti


When Civil War soldiers were stationed in Northern Virginia, they left behind drawings, written passages, and other graffiti that serve as a historical record.

Mills Kelly taking photos of graffiti
Mason's Mills Kelly working in the Brandy Station house. Photo provided

Now those markings at two historic Virginia sites are being preserved thanks to a partnership between George Mason University’s award-winning Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM), the Fairfax City’s Office of Historic Resources, and the Brandy Station Foundation. The partnership recently received a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Office of Preservation and Access, to support the project.

The grant “Off the Wall: Digital Preservation of Civil War Graffiti Houses” will develop a proposal for an eventual implementation grant aimed at digitizing and contextualizing the graffiti and associated ancillary materials held by Historic Blenheim in Fairfax and the Brandy Station Foundation in Culpeper related to the graffiti in their two historic house museums.

Working with R.B. Toth Associates LLC of Oakton, this grant will use a range of digital imaging technology and work processes to capture the graffiti on the walls of Historic Blenheim and the Graffiti House at Brandy Station, and develop a metadata schema that will allow for the digitization and contextualization of the graffiti. This schema will serve as a model for future digitization projects of images on vertical surfaces.

cameras capturing the graffiti
R.B. Toth Associates is providing equipment to digitize the graffiti. Photo provided

“The graffiti gives you an insight into the lived experience of an individual soldier who was struggling to deal with an incredibly brutal war,” said Mills Kelly, director of RRCHNM and project manager.

R.B. Toth Associates provides digitization services and application of new technologies for cultural heritage preservation and research around the globe. They conducted multispectral imaging of both Civil War houses as part of a National Park Service technology development grant.

Mike Toth, president and chief technology officer of R.B. Toth Associates, who audits classes at Mason for personal enrichment, is providing technical support to the project.

For his business, Toth works with X-ray Synchrotrons and other various advanced systems. For this project, everything from cell phone cameras to a $50,000 Phase One 100-megapixel camera has been used to document the graffiti, said Toth.

“[The graffiti] may be the only first-person record [that says] the men who were out there fighting and dying were, at one point in time, here in Fairfax,” said Toth. “They may have gone on to die or gone home and moved on, and we're capturing that small bit of their life.”

The graffiti varies and includes poems, drawings, and even games that resemble Chinese checkers. “Some [are] talking about how they got paid and then lost all their money drinking booze,” said Toth.

Also working on the project is Stephanie Martinez, a second-year graduate student in Mason’s History and Art History Department. Martinez has been researching the murals and organizing the metadata that are the signatures, images, texts, and cartoons left behind by the soldiers.

“[Kelly] was actually my professor for a digital humanities class, so he was very instrumental in helping me develop these skills,” said Martinez. “He mentioned that they had an opening with the project and knowing my background with public history institutions, he thought it would be a great opportunity for me.” 

From left to right: Mike Toth, Peggy Misch from Brandy Station Foundation's Graffiti House, Andrea Loewenwarter from Fairfax City's Historic Blenheim, and Mills Kelly.
From left to right: Mike Toth, Peggy Misch from Brandy Station Foundation's Graffiti House, Andrea Loewenwarter from Fairfax City's Historic Blenheim, and Mills Kelly.

After the last major earthquake in the region, there was damage to the Blenheim house, said Martinez. “It's very clear that these inscribed signatures and stories are not going to be there for forever, so [this project is] especially important,” she said.

Kelly stressed the importance of the collaborative nature of the grant. “As a research center at a public research university, we are so pleased to be collaborating with our two community partners in Fairfax and Culpeper. We see this project as a first and important step toward building stronger linkages between our three organizations that will benefit our students and the communities we serve.”