Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Friends' Association Reports on the State of the Contraband Camps, June 1864

During late spring 1863, the Union Army resettled nearly nine hundred former slaves on abandoned secessionist properties across Northern Virginia. Lt. Col. Elias Greene, the Chief Quartermaster of the Department of Washington, wanted to put the contrabands to work raising crops for the Union war effort and viewed the government farms as a way to improve the condition of the freedmen and women who had fled to the nation's capital in search of freedom and opportunity. The Friends' Association for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen and other charitable organizations supplemented the government's efforts to assist the contrabands who lived in the camps. As summer 1864 fast approached, the farms were already a year old. Just how had conditions evolved since Greene launched his ambitious program to manage the contraband situation and improve the lot of the former slaves?

In June 1864, Harriet E. Stockly of the Friends' Association made a "visit of examination to the camps near Washington." (First Annual Rpt. 4.) Her final report, which was published in the Friends' Intelligencer of June 25, 1864, provides useful insights into the condition of the government farms in Northern Virginia at the time.

Camp Todd

Camp Todd sat across the Potomac from Washington in Alexandria (now Arlington) County. When the government established the camp in June 1863, Greene chose to house the freedmen and women in former army barracks near Ft. Albany. Stockly counted 280 persons a year later. [n1] Two-thirds were "adult women" because "most of the men belonging to these families [were] in 2d District regiment, stationed at Key West, Fa." (Friends' Intelligencer 249.) [n2] The noted abolitionist Emily Howland served as superintendent and teacher. Stockly described the economic activity at Camp Todd:
Those in camp are working industriously on the Hunter farm, in which there are 200 acres under cultivation. Many of the women are also working on the farm. The men receive from $8 to $10 , and the women from $6 to $8 per month. The vegetable garden belonging to government contains twenty acres. 
Here, as at all the camps, Stockly found that "[t]here seems a prevalent want . . . of a spot of ground to
belong to each family where they can raise vegetables for themselves, and also to give their homes a more attractive appearance."

Detail from 1862 Union Army map of N.E. Virginia showing properties associated with Camp Todd (courtesy of Library of Congress). Ft. Albany sat on land belonging to James Roach, a wealthy contractor with secessionist sympathies. The abandoned army huts used by the former slaves were located close to Ft. Albany, possibly on Roach's property. Today the area is bisected by I-395 near the Pentagon. According to Stockly's report, the contrabands farmed land belonging to the Hunter family, likely the property marked "Genl Hunter" on the map above. The Hunter plantation was known as Abingdon. Gen. Alexander Hunter had died by the time of the Civil War, but the plantation remained in his family through his brother and nephew, who entered the Confederate service in 1861. Today the grounds of Ronald Reagan National Airport occupy the site of Abingdon. Another possibility for the Hunter farm is the land belonging to a Mrs. Hunter situated to the west of Ft. Albany along Columbia Turnpike.
Camp Wadsworth

Stockly also visited Camp Wadsworth in Langley, where she counted "[o]ne hundred and seventy Freedmen" in the care of superintendent Philip Fowler and farmer Ephrafm Plowman. [n3] Five hundred acres were "under cultivation, worked by about 60 persons" for "10 hours a day." According to Stockly,"[t]he farm looks well, and it is supposed 30 bushels of wheat and 50 bushels of rye will be raised to the acre." On the downside, Stockly was shocked to find that "some children of only eleven years of age are put to daily labor in direct violation of Government regulations, which require that they be sent to school till they are 14." Her findings helped to spur the appointment of teacher Lydia T. Atkinson.

Stockly took stock of living situation at Camp Wadsworth, reporting that "[t]he Freedmen occupy two houses three-quarters of a mile apart." [n4] As for alternatives, Stockly observed that "[t]here are only three or four cabins and six acres appropriated to them, but the farmer promises to make a different arrangement." [n5]

Camp Rucker

At Camp Rucker near Falls Church, Stockly found "[e]ighty-six men, women and children -- 20 men, 32 women, and 34 children" under superintendent Fowler and farmer Oliver Beesley. [n6] Sarah Ann Cadwallader were serving as a teacher at the camp. All told, "there [were] at this time, on this farm, 90 acres in winter grain, 85 in corn, 50 in grass, 7 in garden, 2 1/2 in black-eyed peas, 25 of white beans, 2 1/2 of corn for horses, and 1 acre in potatoes."

Camp Rucker had been established on property belonging to Maj. William D. Nutt, who fled to Richmond upon arrival of Union troops in September 1861. The government initially sheltered the contrabands in tents, but by the time Stockly arrived, the situation had changed. She noted:
Since last fall, all the cabins, 15 in number, have been built: with four exceptions, they are 16 feet by 14 feet, and ample in height. There are upon an average about six persons to each house. Should the Freedmen remain here, there will be more cabins erected. Government has disposed of this farm, and the people will have to be removed, but this probably may not occur for two or three years. [n7]
Camp Rucker left Stockly with am extremely positive, if not somewhat exaggerated, impression:
The condition of the Freedmen here is very satisfactory. Their cabins are whitewashed outside and in, and all neatly kept. The people are clean, tidy and highly appreciative of the improvement in their condition. Many of them escaped from severe masters, and they manifest a degree of gratitude to those who have aided them which I have never seen excelled. They are exceedingly attached to their teacher, and fear lest she should leave them. She has labored indefatigably, and in a measure successfully, for their elevation, and it is their testimony that their condition has been greatly improved since she came among them. There is a smaller number at this camp than at any other, which gives them a decided advantage. The standard of morality is high, and they are well cared for. 
Stockly concluded:
The people here will not be likely to need further supplies from us. The teacher thinks that when the present supply is exhausted they will be self-sustaining, unless an unexpected calamity shall befall them.
While at Camp Rucker, Stockly had a chance to attend a wedding ceremony:
. . . I never saw a ceremony of the kind conducted with greater dignity or propriety. They were married by a colored clergyman, who read the Episcopal service, frequently pausing to consider the words before pronouncing them. We were honored with an invitation to the supper. The order in which it was partaken by the guests was somewhat peculiar. First the bride and groom ate alone, then the first bridesmaid and groomsmen, then the second, then their white friends, then their colored friends.
Stockly also visited other contraband settlements in Washington City, Alexandria, Falls Church, Freedman's Village, and Mason's Island before returning home.


Thanks to Stockly's report, we have an idea about how the freedmen and women were faring in the contraband camps of Northern Virginia after a year in operation. The number of former slaves at Camps Rucker, Todd, and Wadsworth remained roughly the same. Hundreds of acres were under cultivation, providing the government with crops and the freedmen and women with an income, however modest. Conditions at Camp Rucker had progressed to a point of near self-sufficiency, and the former slaves there finally had a roof over their heads. Teachers were also holding classes for those who had never learned to read and write. Of course, the situation was far from perfect. Unlawful child labor remained prevalent at Camp Wadsworth. The former slaves also lacked opportunities to own and farm their own plots of land. And left unsaid in Stockly's report, the very existence of the camps raised questions about how long a successful transition from slavery to freedom and economic independence would take. The Friends' Association, as well as the U.S. Government, had much work left to do.


1. The Superintendent of Freemen, Rev. Danforth B. Nichols, reported 230 persons in Camp Todd on June 30, 1863.

2. This regiment was also known as the 2nd United States Colored Troops.

3. Nichols reported 178 residents in June 1863, slightly more than a year later.

4. The dwellings belonged to Lewis D. Means and Confederate Navy officer James W. Cooke, secessionists who had fled Langley at the start of the war. See my previous post for more information about the owners.

5. It is unclear who built these cabins and where they were located.

6. By contrast, there were 105 residents of Camp Rucker in June 1863.

7. According to an item in the Alexandria Gazette on March 1, 1864, Nutt's property near Falls Church was seized and sold by the U.S. Government under the Direct Tax Act.


Alexandria Gazette, Mar. 1, 1864; Assn. of Friends (ed.), Friends' Intelligencer: A Religious and Family Journal, Vol. XXI (1865); Board of Managers, Friends' Assn. for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen, First Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Friends' Assn. for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen (1865); Benjamin Franklin Cooling III & Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (2010 ed.); Alexander Hunter, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank (1905);  "The Hunter Family Marker: Abingdon Plantation,"; 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"); "Prospect Hill Marker,"


Grace Rivers said...

I discovered your blog as I was just browsing Langley Forest, the neighborhood I grew up in, WAY before the multi-million dollar houses were built. My house was the first built, by my father, on Mackall Avenue in 1949. My friends lived on Mackall Avenue,
Sorrel St., Whann Avenue, Benjamin St., Douglass St., etc. As the record-keeper of my family genealogy, I really appreciate your passion for and commitment to the history of the area.

Ron Baumgarten said...


Thanks for your compliment. I am really glad that I can spread the word about our rich local history during the Civil War. Based on conversations I've had with long-time residents, things sure have changed around here. It sounds like back in the 40s and 50s, the area was still largely rural and resembled what it was like at the time of the war.