Ghosts of Confederate prison speak with graffiti at the Huntsville Depot

Monday, April 11, 2011
Mike Marshall
The Huntsville Times

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – A man dressed in Civil War-era clothes stands by the front door of the Historic Huntsville Depot.

He identifies himself as Gen. Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel of the federal Army of the Ohio.

"I captured this building on April 11, 1862," he says.

His actual name is Winter Forests. He’s a tour guide and assistant curator at the depot.

"Whatever you want to know, we can talk about it," he says. "I can go on for an hour, an hour and a half."

All right. Let’s talk about Civil War graffiti.


The graffiti is the depot’s "money maker," according to Forests. It’s on the third floor of the depot, built in 1860 and two years before the graffiti was scrawled on the walls of Mitchel’s makeshift prison.

On the morning of April 11, 1862, Mitchel led thousands of Union forces into Huntsville.

As Forests described it:

"He came down Meridian Street. It was a cold, rainy, foggy day."

At dawn, Mitchell and about 5,000 of his soldiers moved into Huntsville, occupied by about 500 Confederate troops.

Badly outnumbered, the Confederate soldiers "just ran."

It was an important victory for the Union, Forests said, because of Huntsville’s location to the recently completed Memphis and Charleston Railroad, the first railroad to link the Atlantic Ocean with the Mississippi River.

"Huntsville was the eastern headquarters of the railroad," Forests said. "When Mitchel captured it, he said, ‘We have cut off the artery of the Confederacy.’ In other communications, he states he had broken the backbone of the Confederacy."

Quickly, the third floor of the depot was turned into a prison.

And that’s when the graffiti began.

"You get every (reaction) from ‘it’s amazing’ to ‘is it real?’ to everything in-between," Forests said. "Most people are quite impressed by what’s up here."

There’s a lot to be impressed with, even though much of the graffiti has faded after almost 150 years and a lot of sunlight.

Some of the graffiti, though, is decipherable.

"Here’s one of the oldest," Forests said. "Here’s a man, his arms and his legs. See his head, his neck, shoulders and arms?"

Here’s a New Year’s greeting "to all in the year of our Lord 1864."

Here’s a rocking horse and a peace dove. The dove measures about 3 inches by 5 inches. It is the largest bit of graffiti in the depot and possibly goes back to 1862.

There’s also an attempt at a cartoon character.

For poignancy, there’s a Union guide’s tribute to his fallen friend, Harris Grover, a comrade from Illinois.

Grover, once stationed in Huntsville, was killed around Atlanta on July 22, 1864.

"His name shall be remembered by true p-," reads the graffiti.

Scholars and specialists from Columbia University and the Smithsonian Institution who came here when the depot was restored in the late 1970s and early ’80s were unable to determine what the rest of the graffiti said.

But it’s likely that "patriots" is the incomplete word.

"In 1940, the railroad decided they wanted to pretty the place up, so they painted over all this," Forests said. "In 1979, we uncovered the graffiti. For almost 40 years, it was painted over."

For the last 30 years or so, the graffiti has come back to life on the third floor, the former bunk room of the depot.

The graffiti is also one of the big reasons there’s still life in the rest of the museum.

"That’s the primary reason we still survive today," Forests said. "It’s the graffiti. That’s our moneymaker."

© 2011 Alabama Live LLC.

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