Thursday, June 13, 2013

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

As I wrote last week, the population of contrabands in Washington exploded during the first couple years of the Civil War. Conditions for the former slaves at Camp Barker and other contraband settlements continued to deteriorate throughout the start of 1863. In May 1863, Lt. Col. Elias Greene, the Chief Quartermaster for the Department of Washington, proposed the establishment of contraband farms on abandoned secessionist lands in Northern Virginia. Greene hoped that his plan would lead to an improvement in the physical and moral health of the contrabands, as well as generate savings for the government. The War Department quickly approved Greene's proposal, and the Federal authorities set to work under the direction of D.B. Nichols, Superintendent of Freedmen.

On May 18, 1863, the Union military established the first of the contraband farms, Camp Springdale, on the grounds of Robert E. Lee's Arlington estate. According to an official report filed by Nichols on July 10, the initial population at the camp consisted of "around ninety persons in all." (Official Report.)* The contrabands were quartered in tents because no deserted homes were available to shelter the camp's inhabitants. (Incidentally, Greene and Nichols were also busy on Lee's property building a planned community for ex-slaves known as "Freedman's Village.")

A group of contrabands (courtesy of Library of Congress). This picture was taken in Cumberland Landing, Virginia, but similar scenes were surely encountered in Northern Virginia's contraband camps.
The work continued towards the end of the month. On May 30, the Federal authorities established Camp Rucker on secessionist property in Falls Church.** Nichols reported that "the people at this place had to be sheltered in tents, there being no houses in the vicinity belonging to rebel owners." (Official Report.) That same day, Camp Wadsworth was set up in Langley on a Confederate sympathizer's abandoned farm near the Leesburg-Georgetown Turnpike. Not long after, a branch of Camp Wadsworth was situated on a neighboring secessionist property.*** The contrabands in the Langley camps lived in the empty farmhouses of the "rebel owners." (Official Report.)

The following week, Nichols and his men established two more contraband farms in Virginia. Camp Todd was placed on the site of a former Union Army encampment near Fort Albany**** The Union contrabands took possession of the log huts that were formerly occupied by soldiers under Gen. Silas Casey. Nichols considered that "these houses have capacity of holding not less than one thousand people, and are in a good degree of preservation." (Official Report.) Camp Beckwith was organized on two secessionist farms near Lewinsville, and the former slaves were placed in abandoned dwellings on the properties.*****

"Fort Albany, Near Alexandria, Virginia," from Harper's Weekly, Nov. 30, 1861 (courtesy of Camp Todd was established close to the fort at the start of June 1863.
Nichols reported the following numbers for each of the contraband camps in Northern Virginia as of June 30, 1863:
Camp Springdale, 300; Camp Todd, 230; Camp Rucker, 105; Camp Wadsworth, 178; Camp Beckwith, 72; total, 885.  (Official Report; see also Alexandria Gazette, Aug. 5, 1863.)
Nichols provided government rations to the contrabands living on the new farms. According to his official report:
Every man or woman above the ages of 16 and 14 years has drawn daily one ration; every boy from 1 year to 16 years, and every girl from 1 to 14 years, has drawn one-half rations; all below one year have drawn, nothing. (Official Report.)
In addition, Nichols believed that life on the contraband farms was having an overall positive impact, despite continued illnesses and deaths:
There has been a manifest improvement in the tone of health since we came over this side of the Potomac. We have had fresh air and pure water, and work on the soil to employ the people. This has contributed to the health of the people. Though several contagious diseases appeared among the people, yet they have easily yielded to the treatment, or have been removed to the pest-house in Washington. Twenty persons have died during the month of June, fifteen of whom were children, and five of the fifteen were only twelve months old, or under. (Official Report.)
By contrast, around twenty-five died per week in 1863 at Camp Barker, the main contraband settlement in Washington City. (NPS, "Freedman's Village," fn10.)

Nichols also oversaw the installation of buildings for use by the government in the administration of the contrabands in Virginia. He likely enlisted the services of able-bodied contrabands in undertaking this work. As Nichols informed Greene:
We have constructed quarters for the Superintendent of Freedmen and an office for the same; a storeroom for commissary department and another for agricultural implements, and a forage house and quarters and an office for the Surgeon. (Official Report.)******
Moreover, Nichols' teams removed wood poles from abandoned campsites at nearby Minor's Hill for use in constructing contraband housing. As to these various projects, Nichols concluded that the "work has been well done, and has a respectable show as regards amount, and the promise of ample remuneration is cheering." (Official Report.)

Nichols concluded with a few recommendations. He wanted all the contraband women and children to stay at Camps Springdale and Todd, under the protection Fort Albany's guns. The men could work on the other farms, return on Saturday evening, and leave for work again on Monday morning. Aside from the added security, Nichols also felt that the arrangement "would place [the contrabands] more immediately under the eye of the superintendent of them, and thus take away the necessity of having any assistant on each of these farms except that of the farmer." (Official Report.)

Nichols asked that the commander of the Department of Washington grant him "the power to perform the marriage ceremony among [the contrabands]." (Official Report.) He also requested that "a military commission (or a commission) be appointed, consisting of the military commander of the post, and the superintendent of the freedmen and the surgeon in charge, who shall hear causes of complaint made by [the contrabands] in relation to want of fidelity of parties to the marriage contract, and determine the facts and the penalty of every violation of the same." (Official Report.) Nichols noted that similar orders had already been instituted in the Department of South Carolina.

One hundred and fifty years ago the Federal government launched a social and economic revolution of sorts on the soil of the Old Dominion. The very notion of seizing the property of individuals who supported a government based on the preservation of slavery and turning that same land over to use by former slaves represented a radical step towards sealing the fate of the peculiar institution. The contraband farms "would eventually have nearly 1,300 acres under cultivation." (Berlin et al. 254.) Controversy and scandal also lie ahead. But in mid-July 1863, Greene and Nichols were just getting started. I hope you'll join me over the upcoming weeks and months as I return to the story of Northern Virginia's contraband camps.


*The founding of Camp Springdale pre-dated the official order authorizing the camps that was issued by Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman, commander of the Department of Washington, on May 22. The War Department, however, had approved Greene's plan on May 14. (Berlin et al. 299.) At this time, I am unsure of the origins of Camp Springdale's name.

**Camp Rucker was likely named after Gen. Daniel Henry Rucker, Chief Quartermaster of the Washington Depot. The Washington Depot was a major Union supply center for troops operating in the Eastern Theater of the war.

***Camp Wadsworth was the probable namesake of Gen. James Wadsworth, head of the Military District of Washington from March to September 1862.

****Fort Albany was situated north of Alexandria near the Long Bridge (generally the site of today's 14th Street Bridges). I have not yet discovered the provenance of the Camp Todd's name.

*****Camp Beckwith was likely named after Col. Amos Beckwith, the Chief Commissary of Subsistence of the Washington Depot.

******The exact location of these structures is uncertain from the information provided in the report. Given that Nichols subsequently worked at Freedman's Village, these buildings were likely erected on the Lee's estate.

Up Next

In a future post, I will pinpoint the location of Camps Wadsworth and Beckwith in the McLean, Virginia area and take a look at the individuals whose properties were seized by the government for use as contraband farms.


Alexandria Gazette, Aug. 5, 1863; "Amos Beckwith," Find a Grave; 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); Clayton R. Newell & Charles R. Shrader, Of Duty Well and Faithfully Done: A History of the Regular Army in the Civil War (2011); D.B. Nichols, Official Report on Superintendent Nichols Freedman's Department, South Potomac, Quartermaster for the Department of Washington, July 10, 1863, in New York Times, Aug. 9, 1863 ("Official Report"); James Grant Wilson & John Fiske (eds.), "Amos Beckwith," Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. 1 (1888).

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