Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Townsend in Langley: Abandoned Huts and Contraband

The Pennsylvania Reserves left Camp Pierpont in Langley and headed towards Manassas in March 1862. The division was rerouted to Alexandria, where the soldiers spent a few weeks before heading further south as part of General Irvin McDowell's First Corps.  Journalist George Alfred Townsend entered Langley not long after the Pennsylvania Reserves had moved out.  In his book Campaigns of a Non-Combatant (1866), he described the scene:
"Langley's," — a few plank-houses, clustering around a tavern and a church, — is one of those settlements whose sounding names beguile the reader into an idea of their importance. A lonesome haunt in time of peace, it had lately been the winter quarters of fifteen thousand soldiers, and a multitude of log huts had grown up around it. . . . 
[I] examined the huts in which the Reserves had passed the winter. They were built of logs, plastered with mud, and the roofs of some were thatched with straw. Each cabin was pierced for two or more windows; the beds were simply shelves or berths; a rough fireplace of stones and clay communicated with the wooden chimney ; and the floors were in most cases damp and bare. Streets, fancifully designated, divided the settlement irregularly; but the tenements were now all deserted save one, where I found a whole family of " contrabands " or fugitive slaves.

George Alfred Townsend, ca. 1899 (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Townsend, while betraying a somewhat patronizing attitude, gave readers an idea of the hardships that this family endured in the search for freedom:
These wretched beings, seven in number, had escaped from a plantation in Albemarle county, and travelling stealthily by night, over two hundred miles of precipitous country, reached the Federal lines on the thirteenth day.  While the troops remained at Langley's, the [husband, Jeems,] was employed at seventy-five cents a week to attend to an officer's horse. Kitty [the wife] and Rose [the daughter] cooked and washed for soldiers, and the boys ran errands to Washington and return, — twenty-five miles! The eldest boy, Jefferson, had been given the use of a crippled team-horse, and traded in.newspapers, but having confused ideas of the relative value of coins, his profits were only moderate. The nag died before the troops removed, and a sutler, under pretence of securing their passage to the North, disappeared with the little they had saved. They were quite destitute now, but looked to the future with no foreboding, and huddled together in the straw, made a picture of domestic felicity that impressed me greatly with the docility, contentment, and unfailing good humor. . . .
Kitty asked Townsend how far the family had to go to get to the North, and Townsend reported "[a] long way. . . perhaps two hundred miles."  The wife seemed willing to continue the family's trek, but Jeems shouted her down, reminding her that she "got a good ruff over de head now."  Before leaving, Townsend "tossed some coppers to the children and gave each a sandwich."

We don't really know how much Townsend may have embellished his story by the time he put pen to paper.  But assuming at least some truth, the episode paints an interesting portrait of a slave family that fled to the Union lines in Northern Virginia and earned a living by doing odd jobs for the soldiers at Camp Pierpont.  The family's fate is unknown; the Pennsylvania Reserves's departure may have complicated matters, but then again, there were still plenty of Union troops in the Washington area who could furnish work.  I hope to research more about the life of fugitive slaves in and around "Washington City" during the war, and what role they may have played in helping the Union Army.  

Note on the book:

A special shout-out to Bob Eldridge of the Hunter Mill Defense League, who first told me about the local anecdotes contained in Townsend's book.  I bought my copy, a re-print from Time-Life of the 1866 original, on  I hope to get the original someday to add to my collection of antique Civil War-era books.

No comments: