Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Stinging Indictment of the Government Farms in Northern Virginia, July 1864

Earlier this summer I wrote about the state of Northern Virginia's contraband camps in Northern Virginia in June 1864. The Friends' Association for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen compiled a report on some of the camps that the Union Army had established on abandoned secessionist properties in the Old Dominion the previous year. The group took an overall positive view of developments on the government farms, although recognized the need for more improvements.

Not long afterwards, the War Department also decided to take a closer look at the farms, as well as the new contraband camp on Mason's Island and Freedman's Village on Robert E. Lee's Arlington estate. The department was footing the bill for the camps and surely wanted to assess the merits of the undertaking. On July 20, 1864, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered officers working for the Union Army's Inspector General to conduct an investigation of  Freedman's Village and "all matters pertaining to the organization and control of the Freedmen in the Dept. of Washington." (in Berlin et al. 345.)

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Majors Elisha H. Ludington and Charles E. Compton began the inspection in earnest. On July 30, 1864 they sent their final report to Col. James A. Hardie, the Army Inspector General. The report, which stood in stark contrast to the Friends' optimistic assessment, sent shock waves throughout the Union military. 

Ludington and Compton examined the five government farms in Northern Virginia, comprising some 1,270 acres under cultivation. [1] They noted that the land was "of poor, thin soil, for the most part." (340.) Moreover, "[w]hen occupied it was without fences and overgrown with bush," so that "it was necessary to clear and fence it, with heavy expenditure." (340.) The two assistant inspectors general observed some positive developments after a year of operation:
These Farms appear well, the crops are fair, the employees comfortably cared for, and in all respects the farms compare favorably with others in the vicinity. (340.)
Nevertheless, they determined that the farms exhibited "a loss to Government of an alarmingly large sum," which they calculated to be $69,000 over the course of 13 months. (340-41.) As Ludington and Compton interpreted the accounts:
The expense of the Guard alone amounts to three fourths of the whole receipts. For wages alone there is paid within 3000$ as much as all the farms yield. And yet the crop is put at the highest estimate in amount, and valued at present extraordinary prices. (341.)
The report sharply criticized the entire endeavor, concluding that "[o]nly a very wealthy government can afford such expensive toys." (341.) (emphasis added.)

Freedman's Village and Mason's Island did not fare any better in the inspectors' eyes. In fact, the inspectors found conditions so "disgraceful" on Mason's Island that they recommended that Rev. Danforth B. Nichols, Superintendent of Freedmen for the Department, be removed from his position for his alleged mismanagement of the new camp. (343.)

Even in terms of non-material benefits, Ludington and Compton had nothing positive to add about the Army's efforts:
We fail to discover any improvements in the character or conduct of the Adults. Judging from what we saw, they are of the most ignorant class of slaves. Few have knowledge of any labor above field labor, and are but little skilled even in that. Their erroneous idea that "emancipation" signifies a claim upon Government for support in idleness, has been confirmed rather than corrected. (342.)
The two inspectors singled out Lt. Col. Elias Greene's "theories" about the camps  for particular scorn. (342.) Greene, the Chief Quartermaster of the Department of Washington, was instrumental in the establishment and organization of the camps, and they were managed under his direction. The inspectors rejected outright his policy of refusing to bind out adult contrabands unless their children could accompany them:
This cannot be maintained on principles of humanity, for these people are seldom married -- have little idea of training children, and cannot hope to give them such advantages as are afforded by the Schools at the "Village." Moreover, the necessities of the times compel separations. . . . Nearly every women being burdened with children lessens the chances of her employment. (342-43.)
The inspectors' utter disregard for families seemed no better than the views held by the freedpersons' former masters.

Not surprisingly, Ludington and Compton called for an overhaul of the entire system. They recommended that most women be sent to work in "those portions of our Country where labor is greatly demanded, taking with them their children under 4 years of age." (343-44.) However, hearkening back to their views on separation of families, the inspectors advised that children from 4 to 14 should be held back, supported, and educated "out of the [government's] Contraband Fund." (344.) With respect to the government farms scattered across Northern Virginia, they urged that "all farming operations be discontinued as soon as the present crop is secured." (344.)
Col. James A. Hardie, Army Inspector General (courtesy of Wikipedia).

After landing on the Inspector General's desk, Hardie endorsed and forwarded the damning report to the Secretary of War. On August 4, Stanton sent the document to Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs. The inspectors had challenged nearly all of Greene's efforts to deal with the contraband problem around the nation's capital, and coming days would bring both controversy and change.

Up Next

Meigs rushes to the defense of his subordinate.


I am grateful to the historians of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project who compiled the primary source documents referenced here in 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).


[1] The five contraband farms were likely Camps Beckwith, Rucker, Springdale, Todd, and Wadsworth.

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