Friday, February 6, 2015

Contraband Camp Developments, Late Summer & Fall 1864, Part II

Last week I wrote about the efforts of the Friends' Association for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen to assist the contrabands living on government farms in Northern Virginia during the summer and fall of 1864. As the organization continued to send more teachers and supplies to help transition former slaves to freedom and self-sufficiency, the Union Army in the Department of Washington pursued tougher policies that were designed to reduce dramatically the number of freedmen and women dependent on the government. Capt. Joseph Brown, head of the Department's Bureau of Freedmen and Government Farms, led the campaign to cut costs.

James Mott, member of the Board of Managers of the Friends' Association and husband of fellow member and famed abolitionist Lucretia Mott (courtesy of Wikipedia).

In November 1864, the Association sent Helen Longstreth and James Mott to the contraband facilities at Mason's Island and Camp Wadsworth. On Mason's Island they found that "the condition of the people had improved" since the Association's visit earlier that fall. (First Annual Rpt. 12.) Longstreth and Mott were pleased with the educational arrangements, despite the loss of one teacher:
The new school room is large, well lighted and ready for the stoves which are promised this week. The discontinuance of the school taught by a daughter of the superintendent places all the children under our care; these at present number about one hundred who can be accommodated in this commodious room. (12.)
Seeing that the supply of water, although better than before, was still "insufficient," they pressed the camp's superintendent, as well as Capt. Brown, to complete construction of an additional well. Both men promised that the work would be "finished at once." (12.)

Longstreth and Mott visited with and interviewed many of the freedmen and women on Mason's Island:
The countenances of a few beamed with pleasure, as they showed us useful articles which they had purchased, with the proceeds of their paid labor. Some were preparing their dinners, but the greater number were sitting listlessly around the stoves, evidently suffering for want of something to occupy their thoughts and attention. Upon our asking them whether they would like to do some kind of work, their faces brightened, and their answers conveyed the idea that anything would be better than idleness, even if they received "no pay," but they preferred "pay." (12-13.)
Based on these observations, they recommended to Brown that the Government support the establishment of an "industrial school, in which [the contrabands] could be employed in making up new, and mending their partly worn, clothing, [and] also receive instruction in cutting out, making and mending such." (13.) They "found him ready to co-operate with us in establishing a school of this kind." The Association "offered to supply one or more teachers," and Brown agreed to furnish a room and supplies. (13.) Nevertheless, the captain warned Longstreth and Mott that the "Government was unwilling to make costly outlays, as the permanency of the camp in this place is doubtful on account of the unhealthiness of the island during several months of the year." (13.) Given Brown's desire to reduce the numbers of contrabands from Mason's Island and other camps, he may have exaggerated the influence that the weather had on his decision about spending more money on the contrabands. [1]

On November 5, Longstreth and Mott traveled to Camp Wadsworth near Langley.They made a troubling discovery that largely stemmed from Brown's policies of apprenticing children and hiring out adults:
Before leaving home we had learned that there were but few children at either the upper or lower camp. [2] The present policy of the Government is to find homes for all children of suitable age to bind out. Many parents not wishing to be parted from their children have left these camps, preferring the uncertainties of seeking their own livelihood without the aid of Government to the probability of what may prove a permanent separation from them. This movement has nearly broken up Lydia T. Atkinson's school. (13.) 
The pair recommended "the transfer of her remaining pupils to the lower camp. . . under the care of Mary McLain, and [Atkinson's] removal to Mason's Island where our school has been so greatly increased." (13.) The two "regret[ted] this suggested change, as the children under [Atkinson's] care had advanced rapidly in their studies, and the adults had greatly improved in house keeping." (13.)

The Friends also uncovered additional issues at Camp Wadsworth:
At the lower camp we found that our teacher had been equally faithful in the performance of her duties, but we were much disappointed to see that the superintendent had built her a very small cabin, which judging from its loose construction will barely protect her from the winter weather. (14.)
Longstreth and Mott went to see the superintendent at his home, but he was not there, so they instead talked to his wife. Based on this conversation, they concluded:
. . . [I]f we wish to do our work well, we must use our influence to induce conscientious farmers and their wives to seek such situations as this man holds, for unless those who have the care of these Government farms go hand in hand with us, and with our teachers, we shall be able to do our duty but partially, and throw discouragements in the path of those who look to us as their true friends. (14.)
The pair at least had some good news to report about Camp Wadsworth and made a few recommendations for future action:
The greater part of the Freed-people, in these two camps, are earning money by cultivating the farms. They are inclined to spend it judiciously. We, therefore, suggest, that our teachers here be furnished with a stock of trimmings and a few other articles in order to form a nucleus for a small store in case it should prove desirable to establish one here. Now, they are obliged to send nine miles to Georgetown for needles, tapes, and other similar articles. (14.)
Longstreth and Mott returned to Philadelphia with their findings. Unfortunately, the Association had little choice but to transfer Atkinson away from Camp Wadsworth due to the impact of Capt. Brown's policies. Time would tell whether the Union Army would deliver on its other promises to assist the Friends in their work among the contrabands. In the meantime, even the two visitors appeared to recognize that the contraband camps had limitations and were perhaps a temporary measure: "We must not, however, forget that it is equally our duty to obtain all the information we can, upon the various modes for elevating the Freedman, in order that we may be prepared to work in other directions, so soon as it is thought best for us to do so." (14.)


If you notice a decline in activity on the blog in the upcoming weeks, it's not because I have lost interest in the Civil War! My wife and I are expecting, and things are about to get really busy around the house with a newborn and twin preschoolers. I will try to blog whenever possible, but right now I won't make any promises about regularity of my posts. That said, I will remain active on Twitter and Facebook, so be sure to follow me there as well.


[1] Between July 1864 and March 1865, the Department reduced the number of freedmen and women on Mason's Island from 1,200 to 500, and the camp was shuttered by mid-1865. (Berlin et al. 261.)

[2] Camp Wadsworth was located on two different properties that had belonged to secessionists before the war. The reference to "upper" and "lower" camp likely refers to this division.

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); 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);  Friends' Intelligencer: A Religious and Family Journal, Vol. XXIII (1867).


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the new baby! I recently discovered your blog and I look forward to catching up on the archives while you're enjoying your time with the new addition.

Jay Lechtman
Vienna, VA

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thank you so much, Jay! Glad you are enjoying the blog. I will be back at it, although likely with a little less frequency for the time being, as you might imagine!