Thursday, August 29, 2013

In Search of the Contraband Camps of McLean, Virginia, Part I: Camp Wadsworth

Back in June I wrote a two-part installment on the establishment of contraband camps in Northern Virginia. (See here and here.) Thousands of slaves fled to Washington in search of freedom during the first few years of the Civil War. As the number of contrabands grew, their living quarters became increasingly overcrowded and unsanitary. Seeking to resolve this problem, the Union Army decided to relocate dependent contrabands to abandoned secessionist properties outside Washington in May and June 1863.

Two of the camps were placed on land near Langley and Lewinsville, which are now part of the community of McLean, Virginia. As a McLean resident, I was naturally curious about the location of the contraband camps. Such historical sites are not always easy to find, as I have learned many times before in trying to pinpoint the location of former Union encampments in my neck of the woods. But the contraband camps present a somewhat different story. Today's post takes a look at Camp Wadsworth, the first of the two contraband camps established in McLean.

In a July 10, 1863 report concerning the new contraband camps, D.B. Nichols, the Superintendent of Freedmen, noted:
On the same day, May 30, we commenced an encampment on rebel COOKE's farm, near LANGLEY, on the Leesburgh [sic] Turnpike. This encampment we called Camp Wadsworth. A branch of this camp was shortly after formed on a farm of rebel MEANS near by. (N.Y. Times, Aug. 9, 1863.)
Cross-referencing the farmers' surnames on a map of land ownership in Fairfax County in 1860, I determined that Camp Wadsworth was established on property belonging to James W. Cooke and Lewis D. Means. Both men had ties to the Confederacy and were slave owners, making their abandoned farms a prime target for the contraband camps. The land ownership map shows the 1860 land boundaries superimposed on a county map from 1981, so I was also able to draw some conclusions as to the location of the camps in McLean. Not all researchers get so lucky without having to comb through countless land deeds and court records!

The Cooke Farm

James W. Cooke was born in North Carolina in 1812 and became an orphan at the age four. Cooke's uncle, a port collector in Beaufort, North Carolina, raised his young nephew and helped to secure his appointment as a U.S. Navy midshipman in 1828. Cooke spent most of the following years at sea, but in 1853 he was assigned to the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington. Cooke purchased a 60-acre property located along the road to Lewinsville, close to Langley and the Leesburg-Georgetown Turnpike (grid squares 21:4 & 30:2, 1860 Map). He also bought another 43 acres farther to the east along Pimmit Run (grid square 31:1). In 1856, Cooke left for a one-year tour of duty on a naval supply ship.

While in Langley, Cooke grew corn, oats, and wheat. He also tended to a peach orchard of some 500 trees and raised milk cows, horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs. The 1860 Census Slave Schedules indicate that Cooke owned twelve slaves, most of whom were women and children.
Capt. James W. Cooke, CSN (courtesy of Wikipedia)
As secession tore the country apart, Cooke was faced with the difficult question of choosing sides. In early May 1861, he resigned his commission as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and joined the Virginia State Navy.* The following month Cooke was appointed as a lieutenant in the Confederate States Navy. Fearing for his family's safety, Cooked moved his wife and son farther south to Portsmouth, Virginia at some point early in the war. He likely took his slaves with him, but their ultimate fate is unknown. Union troops eventually entered the Langley area, where they ransacked Cooke's home and destroyed the orchard. A Pennsylvania regiment even used Cook's house as a headquarters in the fall of 1861.**

Cooke served as the commander of the gunboat Ellis during a fight off Roanoke Island in February 1862. Although wounded and captured, he was released on parole and rejoined the Confederate Navy. Promoted to commander in June 1862, he supervised the construction of the famed Confederate ironclad ram, CSS Albemarle, and took charge of the vessel upon completion. Under Cooke's leadership, the Albemarle successfully engaged Federal forces in April and May 1864. Cooke received an appointment as captain in June 1864 and ended the war as the commander of the inland waters of North Carolina. Cooke returned to Portsmouth after the war and died in 1869.

Portion of "Detailed map of part of Virginia from Alexandria to the Potomac River above Washington, D.C. 186-" from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (courtesy of Library of Congress). The map is oriented with east at the top. Both the Cooke and Means properties are shown along the road between Langley (top) and Lewinsville. Cooke's name is misspelled here. Today VA-123/Dolley Madison Blvd. and Old Chain Bridge Rd./Chain Bridge Rd. roughly follow the former roadbed.
The first branch of Camp Wadsworth was likely established on Cooke's 60-acre parcel along the Lewinsville Road. This plot was near Langley and the Leesburg-Georgetown Turnpike, as Nichols described.*** Cooke's Pimmit Run property was smaller, isolated in the middle of other farmland, and farther from Langley. Moreover, Cooke has a residence on his property along Lewinsville Road where the contrabands would likely have been quartered. Today the site of Camp Wadsworth is occupied by residential neighborhoods, including the Madison of McLean townhouse development. The blue area below indicates the location of Cooke's 60-acre property superimposed on a current map of McLean:

View Camp Wadsworth in a larger map

On the map above, Lewinsville is located at the intersection of Chain Bridge Road and Great Falls Street to the left. Langley is shown on the map to the upper right. VA-193 is the Georgetown Pike (old Leesburg-Georgetown Turnpike). My neighborhood, which belonged the Johnston family during the war, borders the old Cooke property.

A contemporary view of the south side of the former Cooke farm along the road to Lewinsville (now VA-123/Dolley Madison Blvd. at this spot). The walls of the Madison of McLean community are visible along the edge of the highway. Cooke lived across the road from Salona, the property of Jacob Smoot. Salona was used as a headquarters for Union Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith from October 1861-March 1862. The Salona house survives today.
The Means Farm

Lewis D. Means was born in Virginia in 1819. During the 1840s and 1850s he ran taverns in both Virginia and Washington. The 1860 Federal Census listed Means as a farmer living with his wife and four children in Fairfax County. He had a tract of 134 acres along the road to Lewinsville, not far from Cooke's property (grid squares 30:1, 30:2, & 30:4). Means also co-owned a larger parcel of 438 acres near Fairfax Court House with a man named James J. Love (grid squares 47:1 & 47:3). Means grew a variety of crops, including corn, oats, rye, and wheat. He also owned four slaves.

While living in Virginia, Means became involved in civic affairs. He sat on the Board of Trustees for the local Strawberry Vale Institute for Young Ladies, just up the road from Lewinsville at Peach Grove (current-day Tyson's Corner). He also served as a commissioner in the Lewinsville precinct for the vote on the Ordinance of Secession. Means cast his ballot in favor of secession. At some point in 1861 he moved his family to Fauquier County, Virginia to escape the Federal occupation. His property was almost certainly raided by Union soldiers who advanced into the area around Langley and Lewinsville in the fall of that year. Throughout the war Means appears to have acted as an agent for the Confederate Quartermaster's Department or otherwise sold goods to the Confederate Army. Incidentally, Means was the brother of Virginia Unionist Samuel Means, who led the partisan Loudoun Rangers. Means returned to Washington after the war, where he worked as a cattle dealer. He died in 1902.

The second branch of Camp Wadsworth was established on Means's acreage near Lewinsville, not far from the Cooke farm. The Union Army likely used Means's residence to house the contrabands. The area marked in yellow on the above map indicates the site of the former Means property in current-day McLean. This land is a mix of commercial and residential property and is bisected by major transportation routes. McLean Central Park also sits on the former Means property.

Current-day view of the south boundary of the former Means property along the road to Lewinsville (known today as Chain Bridge Rd. at this location in downtown McLean). The entrance to the farm was situated somewhere on this side of Mean's land.

The Means property also occupied this spot, which today is the site of McLean Central Park, as well as the intersection of VA-123 and Old Dominion Dr. At the time of the Civil War, neither of these roads existed.
Determining the location of Camp Wadsworth in McLean is just the beginning of the story. The selection of the Cooke and Means properties begs the question as to how the Union Army chose these specific properties. There were many abandoned secessionist properties scattered across Virginia, so what was it about these two men that drew the attention of those who were planning the contraband camps? Presumably Cooke was well-known enough of a local Confederate officer that the authorities viewed his farm as target for seizure. And once the camps were established, which former slaves were relocated there? What did they feel about life in camp? Who were the Union troops that kept guard? These and other such questions will require additional research, but at least we now have an idea about some of the locations in McLean where the contrabands resided and worked starting in the summer of 1863.


*It is unclear whether Cooke voted for the Virginia Ordinance of Secession in Fairfax County on May 23, 1861. His name does not appear on the voting tally for the Lewinsville precinct, which is where he more than likely would have cast his ballot.  A "J.W. Cook" is listed as supporting ratification of the Ordinance in the West End precinct.  If in fact this voter is Cooke, the last name is misspelled. Moreover, Cooke did not reside in West End precinct at the time.

**The N.Y. Times of October 11, 1861 names the unit as the "First Pennsylvania." In the fall of 1861, Gen. George A. McCall's Pennsylvania Reserves occupied Langley. The 1st Pennsylvania could mean the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves, the 1st Pennsylvania Rifles, the 1st Pennsylvania Artillery, or the 1st Pennsylvania Reserve Cavalry, all of which belonged to McCall's division.

***Leesburgh Turnpike" in Nichols's report.


Lindley S. Butler, Pirates, Privateers, & Rebel Raiders of the Carolina Coast (2000); Taylor M. Chamberlin & John M. Souders, Between Reb and Yank: A Civil War History of Northern Loudoun County, Virginia (2011); Brian A. Conley, Fractured Land: Fairfax County's Role in the Vote for Secession, May 23, 1861 (2001); Fairfax County Park Authority, Draft Park Master Plan for McLean Central Park (2013); "Lewis D. Means (1819-1902)," Find-a-Grave (website); Beth Mitchell, Fairfax County in 1860: Property Owners (original map book available at Virginia Room, City of Fairfax Regional Library) ("1860 Map"); N.A.R.A., Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, 1861-65, available at; N.A.R.A., Unified Papers and Slips Belonging in Confederate Compiled Service Records, available at fold3.comN.Y. Times, Oct. 11, 1861; N.Y. Times, Aug. 9, 1863; Edith Moore Sprouse, Fairfax County in 1860: A Collective Biography (1996) (7 vols. available at Virginia Room, City of Fairfax Regional Library); U.S. Department of the Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command, "Captain James Wallace Cooke, Captain, Confederate States Navy (18??-1869)," Online Library of Selected Images: People -- United States; U.S. Federal Census Returns for the Commonwealth of Virginia and District of Columbia, 1850-80, available at; U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules for 1860, available at; Washington Evening Star, Aug. 29, 1860.

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