Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Fallout from the Report on the Contraband Camps in Northern Virginia, 1864

Back in September I wrote about the Union Army's investigation of the contraband camps in Northern Virginia during the summer of 1864. The inspectors' report, authored by Majors Elisha Ludington and Charles Compton, condemned the military's experiment in transitioning slaves to freedom and economic independence. The officers called the government farms in Arlington, Langley, Lewinsville, and Falls Church nothing more than "expensive toys" and recommended that they be disbanded once the current growing season was over. (Berlin et al. 341.) The report was sent to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and soon landed on the desk of Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs.

The inspectors' conclusions did not sit well with Meigs, who had supported the efforts of Lt. Col. Elias M. Greene, the Chief Quartermaster of the Department of Washington, to establish the government farms on abandoned secessionist properties in Northern Virginia. The report singled out Greene's ideas for particular scorn. Meigs wrote to Stanton on August 15, 1864 to register his objections.
Lt. Col. Elias M. Greene, Chief QM of the Dept. of Washington (courtesy of Civil War Badges).

Meigs disputed the inspectors' accounting, arguing that the farms were actually turning a profit. In any event, the camps provided intangible benefits that far outweighed their cost. The farms ensured "healthful and useful employment for a considerable number of men and women who were not fit for the active and hard work of the army." (344.) The camps had also led to a drop in disease among the contrabands, who previously lived in crowded and unsanitary conditions in Washington City, and prevented the spread of smallpox to the white population of the nation's capital. Meigs further believed that the government had an obligation to care for the wives and children of those who were fighting for the Union. As he noted in his letter to Stanton, "the United States. . . must take care that they do not starve." (345.)

The Quartermaster General rejected the recommendation that the government farms be discontinued. However, he proposed that employment on the farms be limited to women and the infirm and that their pay "be reduced. . . to a mere reward, enabling the laborer to procure tobacco or some such luxury." (345.) Meigs overall defended Greene's contraband policies, and praised him for "the improvement in the condition, treatment and health of these poor creatures, and the cessation of the criticisms and complaints of the press." (345.)

Meigs's letter to Stanton was endorsed by the Inspector General, Col. James Hardie, and sent to Maj. Ludington with a request to take another look at the report's conclusions. Although Ludington lowered his cost estimate for the government farms, he still found that they ran at a loss to the government. He refused to take make any other changes or alterations to the original report.

Despite Meigs's best efforts, Greene lost his job over the inspectors' findings and criticisms. He was sent to the Western Theatre, and his duties largely fell to Capt. Joseph Brown, an assistant quartermaster of who became head of the Department of Washington's Bureau of Freedmen and Government Farms. The government farms, however, continued in operation against the inspectors' recommendations. Unfortunately, Brown would prove far from sympathetic to the plight of the freedmen and women living in the contraband camps.


I am grateful once again 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).

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