Monday, April 23, 2012

Camp Griffin and the 5th Vermont: Yesterday and Today

A few months ago I reviewed an excellent book on George Houghton's Civil War photography. Published by the Vermont Historical Society, "A Very Fine Appearance" covers Vermont soldiers in camp and on campaign in Virginia from 1861-63. The book contains many priceless photographs of the Vermont Brigade at Camp Griffin near present-day McLean, Virginia. As readers are well aware, I've written extensively on Camp Griffin, which was home to Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith's division during the first winter of the war.  

One of Houghton's photographs has won a degree of fame as the cover illustration for the companion book to Ken Burns' acclaimed public television documentary on the Civil War. The photograph, reproduced below, shows soldiers of the 5th Vermont Infantry during a review in the fall of 1861. The troops stand at attention before a mounted officer. Local historian Carole Herrick has identified this officer as "Col. L.A. Grant." (Herrick 41.)*

5th Vermont at Camp Griffin (courtesy of Vermont Historical Society)
The most distinctive natural feature in the photograph is the large rock outcropping visible to the right of Grant.  This landmark remained undisturbed when the area underwent residential development at the start of the 1950s and survives today.  Local historians have used the outcropping to identify the precise location of the Houghton photograph along Kurtz Road in McLean.  (Hatch 89-91; Herrick 41.)  Many local residents are well aware of the existence of this rock and have mentioned it to me in casual conversation or on this blog.  The actual site of the 5th Vermont's camp was not far from Baldy Smith's headquarters at Salona.

Close-up view of the rock outcropping

This past weekend I took my twin boys for a walk in search of the rock outcropping.  A helpful local pointed me in the right direction, and I finally located the outcropping in the front yard of a private residence along Kurtz Road.  A map of the location at the intersection of Kurtz and Maugh Roads can be found here.  The outcropping is now embedded in a hillside and covered with ivy, but the feature is unmistakable.  I snapped a few quick shots on my iPhone to share with readers.  (My digital Nikon would have worked better, but sometimes it's best not to run around suburban neighborhoods toting a large camera!)

Current view of the rock outcropping along Kurtz Road 

Present-day view of the site of Houghton's photograph of the 5th Vermont.  The arrow indicates the location of the rock outcropping.  Today this area is part of a residential subdivision in the Northern Virginia community of McLean. The Google map linked to above contains a street-level view that allows readers to examine this spot in more detail.

Finding the location of Houghton's well-known photograph of the 5th Vermont is a piece of cake thanks to that rock outcropping.  We are not so lucky with many of the other photographs that Houghton took of the Vermont Brigade at Camp Griffin.  The landscape around here has dramatically changed since the Civil War, and many of the pictures hold few clues as to the precise location where Houghton took them.  That being said, I will continue my search for the campgrounds of the Vermont Brigade and other units that occupied the countryside near Lewinsville and Langley.  The closer I get to understanding where those camps were, the closer I may be to figuring out where Houghton may have taken his photos.  As always, I'll be sure to report my findings on this blog.

*According to the Vermont in the Civil War website, "L.A. Grant" is Lewis Addison Grant, who was a Lt. Col. when this picture was taken in the fall of 1861.

Winslow R. Hatch, Old Roads and New Insights: Adventures in Discovery (1985); Carole Herrick, Images of America: McLean (2011); Vermont in the Civil War (website).


Todd Berkoff said...

Hi Ron. Great post. I'm glad you were finally able to get over to the boulders. The terrain today still resembles the terrain of 1861, as the ground slopes downward toward the location of the boulders and the expansive camp beyond. Lewis A. Grant--known as "the other General Grant"--was actually a full colonel when this photo was taken in late 1861, not a Lt. Col. Grant was promoted to colonel on September 16, 1861, and this photo was clearly taken after the trees lost their leaves, probably in late November or even December 1861, if not later. Grant, a Medal of Honor recipient, finished the war a brevet major general, served as Asst. Secretary of War under President Harrison, and died in 1918. Much of the area beyond the tents in the Houghton photo will be open to the public as a county park at some point.

Ron Baumgarten said...


Thanks! I was glad to find the time to get over to Kurtz Road and check out the location of the outcropping. The last time I went to that neighborhood, I couldn’t quite find the rock. Luckily a neighbor showed me the way. I agree that the general terrain around there seems similar to the Civil War era, and today one can easily replicate the angle from which Houghton took the photograph. As you mention, it also seems likely that the photo was taken in November/December 1861 or later. However, according to the Vermont Civil War webpage cited above, as well as several other sources, Grant was appointed Lt. Col. in September 1861, and only became Col. in September 1862. (See Benedict, Vermont in the Civil War, Vol. 1, 181, 184, 191 (1886);; It appears, however, that Grant was acting commander during the fall of 1861 due to the absence of the commander of the 5th Vermont. I also am looking forward to the opening of the park at Salona, which will hopefully enable us to explore more of the ground where Camp Griffin was located.

Todd Berkoff said...

Ah, yes. You are correct about Grant's promotion date. I got the month and day correct, but misread the year in my files.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Yes, the dates were both in September,so easy to misread them. In any event, Miller's Photographic History published the photo with the caption indicating that the officer was Col. L.A. Grant. ( Carole Herrick's identification of Grant is possibly based on the one in the Miller book.

Anonymous said...

The Henry Sheldon Museum in Middlebury, Vermont has many Civil War letters. Some are from Camp Griffin. They are not well cataloged as such, but can be found in individual family collections.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for letting me know. Sounds like a good collection!