Tuesday, March 24, 2015

N. Virginia Contraband Camps Presentation, Arlington Historical Society, April 9

I am pleased to report that the Arlington Historical Society has invited me to speak next month about the contraband camps of Northern Virginia. During the first years of the Civil War, thousands of slaves fled to Washington in search of freedom. As the number of “contrabands” grew, their living quarters became increasingly overcrowded and unsanitary, while the financial burden on the government continued to grow. Seeking to address these problems, the Union Army relocated freedmen and women to abandoned secessionist properties in Arlington and Fairfax during the spring of 1863. My talk will explore the history of these long-forgotten contraband camps, including economic, social, military, and political dimensions. My presentation will also offer some insights into where the camps were located in Northern Virginia. As readers know, this is a topic near and dear to my heart, and I look forward to spreading the story of the contraband camps.

Below and at the link is some additional information on the event. I hope to see you there!

When: 7:00 pm, Thursday, April 9

Where: Marymount University, 2807 N. Glebe Rd, Arlington, VA 22207, in the Reinsch Library auditorium.

The program is free and open to the public. For additional information, please contact 703-942-9247.


For those who take public transit: A free shuttle bus provided by Marymount University is available from the Ballston-MU Metro Station (Orange and Silver lines). The University is also accessible via Metro bus routes 23A and 23T; exit at the N. Glebe Road and Old Dominion Drive stop.

For those who drive: Marymount University provides free parking. Attendees should enter the main entrance gate (located at N. Glebe Road and Old Dominion Drive) and park in the main lot in front of The Lodge. If that lot is full, visitors may also park in the White Garage, located next to the Reinsch Library, or the Blue Garage, located under Ostapenko Hall. The Security Station at the main entrance can help direct where to park.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Civil War Views: Battery Martin Scott

This week's "Civil War Views" takes another look at the strategic Potomac River crossing of Chain Bridge. The defenses around the bridge became the subject of many wartime photographs and sketches. Aside from a lower battery at the Washington end of the bridge, another gun emplacement, known as Battery Martin Scott, occupied the heights immediate above. The battery was initially composed of two 32-pounders and one 8-inch seacoast howitzer mounted en barbette. Two 6-pounder rifled guns apparently replaced these three artillery pieces.

A few months ago, I discovered that the New York Public Library has made available a collection entitled, Sketches for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper : 138 original drawings of the Civil War by staff artists, 1861-1864. This set of drawings contains many fascinating images of Washington and environs during the early days of the Civil War. Among the drawings is this sketch by Arthur Lumley of Battery Martin Scott:

"High Battery at the Chain Bridge" (courtesy of New York Public Library)

As my friend and fellow blogger Craig Swain has pointed out, the three guns depicted here aren't very precise renderings of the actual armaments at the battery. Below the battery, the wooden span of Chain Bridge crosses the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the more distant Potomac River. A mule team pulls a boat along the canal. The gun position offers a commanding view of the Virginia shoreline and hills. Incidentally, Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen protected the approaches to Chain Bridge on the Virginia side. They cannot be seen here, but sat on the hills opposite the battery.

Lumley's sketch appears as an engraving in the November 9, 1861 issue of Frank Leslie's:

(courtesy of archive.org)
The paper said the following about the illustration of Battery Martin Scott:
WAR is a fearful and wonderful teacher of topography. Places and objects which a few months ago were known only to travellers, or those dwelling on the spot, are now "familiar as household roads." Washington and its adjacent localities  are to the majority of readers now as well known to them as to their denizens. Among the more prominent spots is the Chain Bridge, which crosses the Potomac river at the Little Falls, about five miles above Washington City. It is the direct route from the camp at Tenellytown and Georgetown to Lewinsville and Langley, and is consequently a position of much importance. Our readers will perceive that the National Government has erected a powerful battery on the Maryland side, so as to sweep with utter destruction any hostile force. Now that the Federal Capital is safe, we trust Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee will be rescued from the rebel hordes, whose presence is unwelcome to the people of those States as it is humiliating to the National cause. (at 389-90.)
Today, I'd venture to speculate that once again, few outside the Washington area know the Chain Bridge! But Lumley's sketch reminds us of  the importance of such places over 150 years ago. So the next time you cross the river there, whether because you commute across the bridge daily, or because you are on a vacation in the area, think back to the sketch and engraving as you look up at the bluffs overlooking the Potomac.


Benjamin Franklin Cooling III & Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (2010 ed.);  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Nov. 9, 1861; OR1:21:1, 911.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Civil War Views: Lower Battery at Chain Bridge

As readers may have noticed, things are a bit "quiet along the Potomac" here on the blog! With a newborn and increased responsibilities on the home front, the time I have for research and writing each night has dwindled considerably. That said, I have many new topics in the pipeline, and much of the related research is substantially completed, so I hope that I will be able to post some original, in-depth content here as we head into the spring and summer. In the meantime, I am launching a new visual series on the blog called, "Civil War Views."

I've recently come across some amazing drawings and photographs of wartime Washington, DC and Northern Virginia. It seems that every day that the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and other institutions are making more and more visual content available on the Internet. Rather than just post a newly discovered image on Facebook or Twitter, I felt it would be nice to offer a little context about the photograph, sketch, or engraving in a good, old-fashioned blog post! So now, without further ado, here is the first installment. . . .

I've written extensively about Chain Bridge over the years. Many of my posts have focused on the defenses that the Union Army erected to protect this key Potomac River crossing. I particularly like this relatively obscure photograph of the Lower Battery at Chain Bridge:

"Battery at Chain Bridge, Washington, D.C. 1862" (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

The photograph shows the battery that was established in 1861 on the Washington side of Chain Bridge. Gun crews pose next to a 12-pounder howitzer (l) and 24-pounder howitzer (r). (Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Craig Swain for helping to verify!)  The artillery is positioned to fire through embrasures in the earthwork. A few soldiers stand guard, while others mill around at the end of the bridge. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal is visible to the right side of the photograph. Incidentally, another gun emplacement, known as Battery Martin Scott, was located on the bluffs above the battery pictured here. More on that one in a future Civil War Views post!


Benjamin Franklin Cooling III & Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (2010 ed.).

Friday, February 6, 2015

Contraband Camp Developments, Late Summer & Fall 1864, Part II

Last week I wrote about the efforts of the Friends' Association for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen to assist the contrabands living on government farms in Northern Virginia during the summer and fall of 1864. As the organization continued to send more teachers and supplies to help transition former slaves to freedom and self-sufficiency, the Union Army in the Department of Washington pursued tougher policies that were designed to reduce dramatically the number of freedmen and women dependent on the government. Capt. Joseph Brown, head of the Department's Bureau of Freedmen and Government Farms, led the campaign to cut costs.

James Mott, member of the Board of Managers of the Friends' Association and husband of fellow member and famed abolitionist Lucretia Mott (courtesy of Wikipedia).

In November 1864, the Association sent Helen Longstreth and James Mott to the contraband facilities at Mason's Island and Camp Wadsworth. On Mason's Island they found that "the condition of the people had improved" since the Association's visit earlier that fall. (First Annual Rpt. 12.) Longstreth and Mott were pleased with the educational arrangements, despite the loss of one teacher:
The new school room is large, well lighted and ready for the stoves which are promised this week. The discontinuance of the school taught by a daughter of the superintendent places all the children under our care; these at present number about one hundred who can be accommodated in this commodious room. (12.)
Seeing that the supply of water, although better than before, was still "insufficient," they pressed the camp's superintendent, as well as Capt. Brown, to complete construction of an additional well. Both men promised that the work would be "finished at once." (12.)

Longstreth and Mott visited with and interviewed many of the freedmen and women on Mason's Island:
The countenances of a few beamed with pleasure, as they showed us useful articles which they had purchased, with the proceeds of their paid labor. Some were preparing their dinners, but the greater number were sitting listlessly around the stoves, evidently suffering for want of something to occupy their thoughts and attention. Upon our asking them whether they would like to do some kind of work, their faces brightened, and their answers conveyed the idea that anything would be better than idleness, even if they received "no pay," but they preferred "pay." (12-13.)
Based on these observations, they recommended to Brown that the Government support the establishment of an "industrial school, in which [the contrabands] could be employed in making up new, and mending their partly worn, clothing, [and] also receive instruction in cutting out, making and mending such." (13.) They "found him ready to co-operate with us in establishing a school of this kind." The Association "offered to supply one or more teachers," and Brown agreed to furnish a room and supplies. (13.) Nevertheless, the captain warned Longstreth and Mott that the "Government was unwilling to make costly outlays, as the permanency of the camp in this place is doubtful on account of the unhealthiness of the island during several months of the year." (13.) Given Brown's desire to reduce the numbers of contrabands from Mason's Island and other camps, he may have exaggerated the influence that the weather had on his decision about spending more money on the contrabands. [1]

On November 5, Longstreth and Mott traveled to Camp Wadsworth near Langley.They made a troubling discovery that largely stemmed from Brown's policies of apprenticing children and hiring out adults:
Before leaving home we had learned that there were but few children at either the upper or lower camp. [2] The present policy of the Government is to find homes for all children of suitable age to bind out. Many parents not wishing to be parted from their children have left these camps, preferring the uncertainties of seeking their own livelihood without the aid of Government to the probability of what may prove a permanent separation from them. This movement has nearly broken up Lydia T. Atkinson's school. (13.) 
The pair recommended "the transfer of her remaining pupils to the lower camp. . . under the care of Mary McLain, and [Atkinson's] removal to Mason's Island where our school has been so greatly increased." (13.) The two "regret[ted] this suggested change, as the children under [Atkinson's] care had advanced rapidly in their studies, and the adults had greatly improved in house keeping." (13.)

The Friends also uncovered additional issues at Camp Wadsworth:
At the lower camp we found that our teacher had been equally faithful in the performance of her duties, but we were much disappointed to see that the superintendent had built her a very small cabin, which judging from its loose construction will barely protect her from the winter weather. (14.)
Longstreth and Mott went to see the superintendent at his home, but he was not there, so they instead talked to his wife. Based on this conversation, they concluded:
. . . [I]f we wish to do our work well, we must use our influence to induce conscientious farmers and their wives to seek such situations as this man holds, for unless those who have the care of these Government farms go hand in hand with us, and with our teachers, we shall be able to do our duty but partially, and throw discouragements in the path of those who look to us as their true friends. (14.)
The pair at least had some good news to report about Camp Wadsworth and made a few recommendations for future action:
The greater part of the Freed-people, in these two camps, are earning money by cultivating the farms. They are inclined to spend it judiciously. We, therefore, suggest, that our teachers here be furnished with a stock of trimmings and a few other articles in order to form a nucleus for a small store in case it should prove desirable to establish one here. Now, they are obliged to send nine miles to Georgetown for needles, tapes, and other similar articles. (14.)
Longstreth and Mott returned to Philadelphia with their findings. Unfortunately, the Association had little choice but to transfer Atkinson away from Camp Wadsworth due to the impact of Capt. Brown's policies. Time would tell whether the Union Army would deliver on its other promises to assist the Friends in their work among the contrabands. In the meantime, even the two visitors appeared to recognize that the contraband camps had limitations and were perhaps a temporary measure: "We must not, however, forget that it is equally our duty to obtain all the information we can, upon the various modes for elevating the Freedman, in order that we may be prepared to work in other directions, so soon as it is thought best for us to do so." (14.)


If you notice a decline in activity on the blog in the upcoming weeks, it's not because I have lost interest in the Civil War! My wife and I are expecting, and things are about to get really busy around the house with a newborn and twin preschoolers. I will try to blog whenever possible, but right now I won't make any promises about regularity of my posts. That said, I will remain active on Twitter and Facebook, so be sure to follow me there as well.


[1] Between July 1864 and March 1865, the Department reduced the number of freedmen and women on Mason's Island from 1,200 to 500, and the camp was shuttered by mid-1865. (Berlin et al. 261.)

[2] Camp Wadsworth was located on two different properties that had belonged to secessionists before the war. The reference to "upper" and "lower" camp likely refers to this division.

Ira Berlin et al., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Selected from the Holdings of the National Archives of the United States, Series I, Volume II, The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South (1993); Board of Managers, Friends' Assn. for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen, First Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Friends' Assn. for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen (1865);  Friends' Intelligencer: A Religious and Family Journal, Vol. XXIII (1867).

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Contraband Camp Developments, Late Summer and Fall 1864, Part I

As the Union Army fought over the future of Northern Virginia's contraband camps in the late summer of 1864, the Friends' Association for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen continued its work to improve the lives of former slaves living on government farms near Washington. Established by Philadelphia Quakers at the start of the year, the organization provided supplies and teachers to supplement the efforts of Union military authorities. But the debate within the government was not without consequences, and by the end of 1864, the Friends would face the unwelcome challenge of a new and harsher policy towards the contrabands.

An important part of the Friends' charitable activities centered on education. Since starting work in Northern Virginia earlier in the year, the association had sent teachers to Camp Rucker in Falls Church, Camp Wadsworth in Langley, and Mason's Island. In August 1864, the Friends decided to increase the number of teachers to meet the growing needs of the contraband community. Mary McLain was dispatched to Camp Wadsworth, while Margaret Preston was installed at Mason's Island. [1]

Map of contraband quarters at Mason's Island (courtesy of TR Center). Hospital buildings are shown in the center of the drawing.

The Friends also provided the contraband camps with clothing, sewing supplies, dry goods, and other household items. At least some of these donations were sold to the freedmen and women, presumably at a discount. [2] In September 1864, the Friends' Association decided to disband its Committee on Supplies and established a new Sanitary Committee. The Board appropriated $500 to the committee for the purchase of hospital supplies for Mason's Island. That month, the committee issued the call for donations in the Friends' Intelligencer:
The undersigned, a sanitary committee of said Association, solicit from Friends and others, contributions of hospital stores, which will be judiciously distributed by nurses and teachers sent out by the Association to Mason’s Island, Camp Wadsworth, and other points in the vicinity of Washington. 
The articles most needed, are dried fruits,such as apples, peaches, cherries, plums, and blackberries; also blackberry and other syrups, and all other articles suitable for the sick and convalescent.
Contributions of bed-covering, and clothing for women and children, will be very acceptable, as they are greatly needed. Free transportation has been granted by Government from Philadelphia. (456.)

At the same time the Friends were intensifying their involvement with the camps, Capt. Joseph Brown, an assistant quartermaster, took over primary responsibility for the contrabands in the Department of Washington from the outgoing Chief Quartermaster, Lt. Col. Elias Greene. Brown pursued decidedly stricter policies than Greene, who had lost his job as the result of an Army report critical of his management of the contraband camps. Brown, the head of the Department's Bureau of Freedmen and Government Farms, wanted to rid the government of the expense and trouble of caring for the freedmen and women in the camps and tried to send as many to the Northern States as possible. He also departed from Greene's policy of keeping families together. Brown thought nothing of apprenticing children to local households and hiring out their parents on separate jobs.

Toward the end of September the Friends' Sanitary Committee sent Louisa J. Roberts and Margaret A. Griscom to Mason's Island. Roberts wanted to meet with the new Chief Quartermaster of the Department of Washington, Col. John Ellison, to explain "the wants of our teachers and the people among whom they labor." (First Annual Rpt. 10.) Following her conversations with Ellison, Roberts reported that "[o]ur teachers appear to have his entire confidence, and he seems willing to do all that lies in his power, to promote their comfort and efficiency." (First Annual Rpt. 10.) As to Mason's Island, the visitors found:
The condition of the people. . . is much improved; the great mortality that prevailed during the latter part of the summer, has given place to a more healthy condition, attributable to the success that has attended our efforts to provide hospital accommodations, and to the approach of colder weather. (First Annual Rpt. 11.)
Nonetheless, Roberts and Griscom saw indications of troubles yet to come. As the Friends' Education Committee reported in October, "many grievances were found to exist at Camp Wadsworth, and it was believed that through their representations to the proper authorities most of these would be redressed." (Friends' Intelligencer 521.) The Friends were betting on the willingness of the new military leadership to assist, but Brown's policies were fast becoming a part of the problem.

Up Next

Camp Wadsworth suffers a setback.


[1] Preston was also charged with nursing responsibilities, as the circumstances required.

[2] According to the Friends' Association's First Annual Report:
The people on the two farms composing [Camp Wadsworth] evince a desire to support themselves, and they have paid for a considerable  portion of the clothing distributed among them. (10.)

Ira Berlin et al., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Selected from the Holdings of the National Archives of the United States, Series I, Volume II, The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South (1993); Board of Managers, Friends' Assn. for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen, First Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Friends' Assn. for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen (1865);  Friends' Intelligencer: A Religious and Family Journal, Vol. XXI (1865).