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At Blenheim: A Buzz-Worthy Event

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Fairfax’s Historic Blenheim (shown above) is a jewel of a historic site—one that weaves together the themes of family, the Union men who fought during the Civil War, and the enslaved. The site and its interpretive center provide unlimited opportunities for research, education, and preservation. And who could resist the mysteries behind the graffiti-filled walls of the site’s iconic brick farmhouse, today known as Historic Blenheim and during Lincoln’s time as the Willcoxon House?

No wonder the late Burrus (Buzz) Carnahan - Lincoln Group past president, historian, author, and Lincoln scholar - loved serving as a docent there. He definitely became part of the “Blenheim family.” With that in mind, this past weekend, the Civil War Round Table of DC (CWRTDC) and the Office of Historic Resources (OFC) in Fairfax combined forces to present a special event in honor, remembrance, and recognition of Buzz. Mr. Carnahan received the 2022 CWRTDC Edwin C. Bearss Legacy Award.

Before Andrea Loewenwarter, OFC historic resources specialist, discussed the topic for the afternoon, “Historic Blenheim: Discovery and Preservation,” she shared her memories of Buzz. He made contributions in numerous areas to Blenheim, just as he did for our own Lincoln Group and so many other organizations. He was keenly interested in the preservation and conservation efforts at the site. His knowledge of history, combined with his legal expertise, was top-notch. Moreover, he readily and excitedly shared his knowledge and research findings with others, both staff and visitors. Susan Gray, OFC executive director, remembered that whenever they had a question, they went to Buzz, who most often knew the answer but, if not, found one. What a resource Buzz was! He is truly missed by all at Blenheim.

Andrea Lowenwarter began her presentation with the smiling countenance of the man himself, in a photo (shown to the left), taken some years ago by our own Susan Dennis.

Blenheim Historic Site, through its stories of family, Union soldiers, and the enslaved, provides glimpses of the impact of the Civil War in this area, specifically in Fairfax. The owner of that red brick home when the Civil War began was Albert Willcoxon, a man who voted for secession, as did the majority of those voting in his area. By the way, the vote tally—and this was an oral vote at the local courthouse—was 156 for secession, 8 against. (Think about the pressure placed on those eight.) The Willcoxon family owned enslaved individuals, six in number. However, early in the war, the Union gained control over the area; the Wilcox family left the area, their home having been “trashed” by Union soldiers.

Arriving on the scene were the Union soldiers who would leave their mark, quite literally, on Blenheim. The house was on a major roadway and on a high spot overlooking the village of Fairfax—a perfect location to camp and train—while awaiting further orders. In most cases, after a few days, the soldiers marched (or rode—yes, there were cavalry units here) off to locations such as the Peninsula, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg. Not all who moved on to battle survived. The house also served as a hospital, as sickness was rampant.

As for the soldiers, many picked up chalk or charcoal and recorded their presence. A Civil War version of “Kilroy was Here.” This graffiti – names, regiments, messages to friends and family, thoughts, and sketches of cannons and comrades – provides an account of soldier life. The drawings of stars are believed to represent a popular game among German-born soldiers, the objective: to draw the star without lifting the charcoal.

Much of the graffiti – never covered or wallpapered over - is located in the attic of the home. Additional soldier artwork was found during restoration work under layers of wallpaper and paint in the main floors of the residence. The public cannot access the attic due to safety reasons; however, two attic rooms have been recreated life-size in Blenheim’s Interpretative Center so all can view these “diaries from the time” in a setting like the original.

Docents at the center and in the main house provided “snapshot profiles” of many of the soldiers who stayed at Blenheim. The detective work that has gone into identifying specific soldiers has been time-consuming. Some names are fairly legible, but many are not. Yet, from examining such resources as the Official Records of the Rebellion, Ancestry, pension records from the National Archives, and online sources, much has been learned about the soldiers, their wartime service, and post-war lives. Spectral imagery, too, has been a tool in deciphering signatures. In all, 126 soldiers have been positively identified, and research in this vein continues.

On the main floor of the house, we saw the signature of Asa Freeman of the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry (the regiment with the most soldiers identified to date as being camped at this site). The 44th New York Infantry was at Blenheim at the same time. The two regiments, known as the Butterfield Twins after their commander, Daniel Butterfield, gained fame in the defense of Gettysburg’s Little Round Top. As for Asa, who had had a will prepared early in the war, he was killed a few months after his Blenheim sojourn at Malvern Hill on the Peninsula Campaign.

Poignant too is the story of Carl Schlingermann, who also signed a wall at Blenheim. Prussian-born, he traveled to the US in mid-1861 and was enlisted in the 58th New York Infantry by late September. He was wounded at Second Manassas and transported to Armory Square Hospital in DC (near what we know as the National Mall), where he expired. He died fighting for the Union, although he was not a citizen.

Not all the Blenheim soldiers’ stories had tragic endings during the war. Many returned home, married, raised families, and ran businesses. One even survived a stint in Andersonville, the most notorious of the Confederate prisons.

A visit to Blenheim brings the Civil War to our doorsteps. The site interpretations give us a look at the conflict’s impact on individuals of the time, whether pro-Confederate, enslaved, or military. We too gain a new appreciation for “Lincoln’s boys” and the challenges faced by those who fought for the Union. The site also provides a textbook study for research on and preservation of our nation’s history.

Buzz Carnahan contributed significantly to the narrative of Blenheim’s history, and this program in his memory was a fitting tribute to our friend.

A reception provided an appropriate ending to an afternoon of history, fascinating facts, and expertly led tours, giving attendees the opportunity to chat with friends old and new. Cindy Stewart (Buzz’s widow) and Al and Adrienne Barna of the DC Round Table hosted the event. Cindy is shown below with part of the Lincoln Group contingent at the reception, from left to right: Cindy Stewart; Edgar Russell (a former Lincoln Group president); our corresponding secretary, Susan Dennis; Bernie Dennis; and Jacqui Lussier.


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