Thursday, June 6, 2013

Contraband Camps Established in Northern Virginia: May-June 1863, Part I

A few months ago when researching events that transpired in the McLean area during 1863, I came across various references to "contraband camps." After some additional digging, I discovered that the Union military established camps for fugitive slaves on land in Northern Virginia at the end of May and start of June 1863. Unlike the Freedman's Village on Robert E. Lee's Arlington Estate, these contraband camps have attracted little attention in accounts of local Civil War history. In today's post I begin an exploration of the contraband camps of Northern Virginia. My research has just started, and I hope to tell more of this compelling story in the months ahead.

As the Civil War progressed, thousands of slaves fled to the nation's capital from surrounding states in search of freedom and opportunity. The abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia in April 1862 led to an even greater migration of slaves to Washington City. The problems of caring for these contrabands mounted as their numbers grew. Northern aid and religious societies provided material donations of necessities like clothing and sent teachers to educate the former slaves, but the chief responsibility for the contrabands rested with the Federal Government.

James Wadsworth, the military governor of Washington, soon recruited help from the outside. In June 1862 he named the Rev. Danforth B. Nichols as the Superintendent of Freedmen.  Nichols was a Methodist minister and member of the American Missionary Association, a society dedicated to abolition, racial equality, the education of blacks, and the spread of Christian values. (NPS, Theodore Roosevelt Island, fn121.) In his new role, Nichols oversaw the distribution of food, blankets, and clothing to ex-slaves; placed them in jobs throughout the city; and handled issues related to contraband housing.

Gen. James S. Wadsworth, commander of the Military District of Washington from March 1862 to September 1862 (courtesy of  Wadsworth faced the challenge of dealing with an influx of contrabands during his time in the nation's capital.
Many contrabands were housed in tenement dwellings along Duff Green's Row on Capitol Hill. In July 1862 smallpox erupted among the contrabands there, and the authorities feared the spread of the deadly disease. Nichols removed the contrabands to abandoned barracks at a more remote location, far from the populated areas of the capital. (The camp sat at 12th and Vermont Avenue, N.W., near today's Logan Circle). Called Camp Barker, this new settlement "became the center of the government's effort to provide relief and employment for former slaves in the District of Columbia," but before long, difficulties also plagued Camp Barker. (Berlin et al. 247.) The contraband population continued to grow, and conditions deteriorated. Diseases like scarlet fever, whooping cough, and measles spread in the overcrowded barracks and killed many of the former slaves. Nichols also worried that the close quarters at Camp Barker were contributing to promiscuity and immorality.

View of Camp Barker (courtesy of Civil War Trust).
The government clearly faced a daunting task as the third year of the war got underway. Lt. Col. Elias Greene, the Chief Quartermaster for the Department of Washington, hatched a plan. In early May 1863, he wrote to Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman, commander of the Department. Greene viewed the population of dependent contrabands as a "dead weight on the Government." (Berlin et al. 298.) The Chief Quartermaster reminded Heitzelman that lands abandoned by "rebel owners" in Virginia were "now lying idle." (in Berlin et al. 298.) He observed:
On quite a number of these farms the houses are left standing--of these, there are enough to provide quarters for, from 500 to 750 field hands, with a very small outlay for additions and improvements. (in Berlin et al. 298.)
The Chief Quartermaster suggested:
The force of contrabands, males and females, now idle in this City. . . can be employed to very great advantage in cultivating the above lands, raising corn and millet, cutting Hay . . . for this Department. (in Berlin et al. 298.)
Greene felt that there would be "a decided advantage afforded to [the contrabands] of the salutary effects of good pure country air." (in Berlin et al. 298.) Moreover "a return to their previous healthy avocations as 'field hands' under much happier auspices than heretofore, . . . must prove beneficial to them, and will tend to prevent the increase of diseases now prevalent among them." (in Berlin et al. 298.)

Greene concluded:
The arrangement I propose will not only in my opinion conduce to the sanitary and moral improvements of the contrabands, but will save the Govt an immense amount of money. (in Berlin 298.)
Greene recommended that Nichols, who agreed with the plan, remain as Superintendent. The Chief Quartermaster also asked for a response to his proposal within 48 hours so that farming could start before the imminent end of the planting season.

Heintzelman approved Greene's plan, and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs added his endorsement. On May 14, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton agreed to the proposed system of contraband camps in Virginia, and a week later, Heintzelman formally issued orders authorizing Greene to execute his plan by relocating dependent contrabands to abandoned secessionist lands in Virginia. (General Orders No. 28, May 22, 1863.) The social experiment across the Potomac would begin in earnest.

Up Next: Nichols establishes five camps throughout Arlington and Fairfax.

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); John H. Eicher & David J. Eicher, Civil War High Commands (2001); Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004); Robert Harrison, Washington During Civil War and Reconstruction: Race and Radicalism (2011); National Park Service, "Freedman's Village," Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial (website); National Park Service, Historic American Landscapes Survey: Theodore Roosevelt Island.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your blog!
S. Jordan