Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Winter in the Confederate Camps Around Centreville, Part I: Weather, Shelter, and Daily Life

As readers may have noticed, I've spent a considerable amount of time on the Union camps around Langley and Lewinsville during the first winter of the war.  This week I've decided to shift my focus to take a closer look at the Confederate side of the story.  As I have written in previous posts, the bulk of the Confederate Army in Northern Virginia, around 40,000 men, withdrew to the Centreville area in mid-October 1861.  Here the men settled down for what was to become a very long and quiet winter. 

By all accounts, the Confederate soldiers around Centreville faced harsh winter conditions as 1862 got underway.  The men surely needed the woolen socks that they received from home over Christmas!  As a correspondent for the Richmond Daily Dispatch dramatically described his trip to the Confederate camps:

The weather, oh the weather! Cold stormy weather, chilly winds moving through leafless tress, sweeping in boreal blasts along barren mountain and meadow; fitful showers drizzling destruction on the fair snow; thick fog stealthily looming up from the semi thawing earth; gurgling troubled streams swelling o'er dessicate fields; sad and timid stars lured by "the momentary blue sky;" struggling frowning clouds giving dismal glimpses of the pale sky moon; dying campfires emitting spasmodic sparks and a great gloomy silence prevailing all around are the chief features that marked my journey from our out-posts line to [Centreville]. . . .  (Daily Dispatch, Jan. 24, 1862.)
The men were seemingly obsessed with the fury that Mother Nature had sent their way.  Another correspondent for the Daily Dispatch remarked how "[r]ain, snow, sleet, mist, fog, mud, and the state of the weather generally, have for the time being, monopolized conversation to the exclusion of that everlasting topic 'the advance and the expected battle.'"  (Daily Dispatch, Jan 27, 1862.)  John B. Gordon, at the time a Lt. Col. of the 6th Alabama, recalled that "[t]he winter was a severe one and the men suffered greatly—not only for want of sufficient preparation, but because those from farther South were unaccustomed to so cold a climate."  (Gordon 49.)

"Centreville, Va.  Confederate winter quarters, south view" (courtesy Library of Congress). This picture was taken when the Union Army occupied the area in March 1862.

The future general was a little off the mark when it came to the soldiers' preparedness.  As cold weather descended on Northern Virginia, the men constructed log huts to provide at least some shelter from the elements.  These crude structures were the subject of a well-known period photograph.  (See above.)  By the end of 1861, the Confederates had built about 1,500 huts.  Not everyone was equally gifted when it came to the use of a saw.  McHenry Howard of the 1st Maryland described his messmate's efforts to erect a hut at their camp near Fairfax Station:
Each company constructed a row of cabins, fronting on a wide street between two companies, the officers' houses at the end of each street and facing down it. In my mess of about eleven there was not one who had done any manual work before the war and we felt rather helpless in our inexperience. But by watching others, at least half of whom were countrymen, and getting some help, we managed to get out the trimmed logs, notch them at the ends and set up the four walls of our residence. . . . (Howard 61.)
Howard was not ashamed to admit that completing the roof "was too much for us and we hired comrades to do it." (Howard 61.)

"Rebel Winter-Quarters at Centreville, Virginia. With Bull Run in the Distance," Harper's Weekly, March 29, 1862 (courtesy of  Like the photograph above, this sketch depicts the camp as it looked after the Confederate evacuation.
The Richmond Daily Dispatch reporter felt that the cabins "have quite an air of neatness and home comfort, with their stick and plaster chimneys, and their one window of six and four lights, and their new plank door."  (Daily Dispatch, Jan. 27, 1862.)  He informed readers that "[t]o supply the windows, of course every deserted house between Centreville and the outside of the lines had to furnish its quota."  (Daily Dispatch, Jan. 27, 1862.)  In one instance, an "old lady" had spent the afternoon with a friend, only to return and find no windows in her house.  (Daily Dispatch, Jan. 27, 1862.)  The soldiers believed that because "no smoke was coming from the chimney" it was a "deserted property" and they simply helped themselves to the windows.  (Daily Dispatch, Jan. 27, 1862.)     

The men in the camps around Centreville passed the days in a variety of ways when not drilling or on picket duty.  Howard's messmate, Randolph H. McKim, sent his mother a letter on January 27, 1862 which provides an intimate glimpse into the soldiers' daily life in the camps:
Wouldn't you like to peep in on us some evening as we sit around our stove amusing ourselves until it is time to retire? We are a happy but a boisterous family, as the neighbors next door will tell you. Our amusements are various — reading, singing, quarreling, and writing. We employ the twilight in conversation, the subject of which is the "latest grape-vine" (i.e., rumor), or a joke on the Colonel, or when we are alone, our domestic concerns. We amuse ourselves with the many-tongued rumors which float about on the popular breeze, that England or France has recognized the Confederacy, or that the Confederates have gained a new victory, etc., etc. Then there are frequent domestic quarrels, free fights, passes with the bayonet, and hand to hand encounters, to vary the monotony of our peaceful life here. As soon as night sets in the candles are lit and we draw round the stove and take down our books, or else someone reads aloud till the newspaper arrives, when other occupations are suspended, and we listen to the news of the day. Then someone proposes a song and "Maryland, my Maryland" is generally the first.  (McKim 52-53.)
McKim, who later became an army chaplain, also began to hold prayer meetings with faithful soldiers in his regiment.  He even managed to procure a tent for the express purpose of hosting the religious services and installed "rude benches" for 25 to 30 men, although this "would hardly give seats to as many as would come."  (McKim 60.)

Many Confederate soldiers turned to the bottle rather than the Lord.  Alcohol could relieve the boredom of life in camp, but also led to trouble.  In one episode that occurred towards the end of 1861, the rough-and-tumble Louisiana Tigers brawled with members of the 21st Georgia who had stolen their bottle of whiskey.  All of the drinking worried men of the cloth.  As the chaplain of the 23rd North Carolina wrote in February 1862:
If we ever meet with a defeat in this army, it will be in consequence of drunkenness. Young men that never drank at home are using spirits freely in camp. I fear that while Lincoln may slay his thousands, the liquor-maker at home will slay his tens of thousands. (in Jones 268.)
The editor of a Southern paper blamed the drunkenness during this period of inactivity on the officers, who were both "profane and hard drinkers."  (in Jones 268.)  He believed that if the next battle was lost, it would be because "whisky whipped our men."  (in Jones 269.)   Gambling became another common distraction in the camps and was as equally condemned by those of religious persuasion.  The author of Christ in Camp observed that even officers would "win from the private soldier his scant pay, which he ought to have sent home to his suffering family."  (Jones 270.)  Luckily for the men's spiritual health, the idleness of camp life would end by March, when the Confederates moved out of Centreville.

In the next installment on life in the Confederate camps, I take a look at sickness and desertion.

Biblical Recorder, Feb. 19, 1862; Charles L. Dufour, Gentle Tiger: The Gallant Life of Roberdeau Wheat (1985); John B. Gordon, Reminiscences of the Civil War (1904); McHenry Howard, Recollections of a Maryland Confederate Solider and Staff Officer Under Johnston, Jackson, and Lee (1914); John William Jones, Christ in Camp (1904); Terry L. Jones, "A Tiger Execution," New York Times: Disunion, Dec. 13, 2011; Charles Mauro, The Civil War in Fairfax County: Civilians and Soldiers (2006);  Randolph H. McKim, A Soldier's Recollections: Leaves from the Diary of a Young Confederate (1921); Richmond Daily Dispatch, Jan. 22, 1862; Richmond Daily Dispatch, Jan. 24, 1862; Richmond Daily Dispatch, Jan. 27, 1862.


Unknown said...

Thanks for this. My gg grandfather died at Camp Centreville in December 1861 from disease. He was in the 11th Georgia Infantry Regiment.

Ron Baumgarten said...

You are welcome, and glad I could be of some help. It is unfortunate that your gg grandfather met such a fate, and so early in the war too.