Thursday, March 3, 2016

Civil War Views: Log Huts for Contrabands?

Not long ago the Arlington Historical Society posted an engraving from the February 8, 1862 issue of Harper's Weekly on its Facebook page. Entitled, "WINTER-QUARTERS OF THE FOURTEENTH MASSACHUSETTS VOLUNTEERS—GARRISON OF FORTS ALBANY AND RUNYON," the illustration sparked my curiosity. Were these the same quarters used to house contrabands in the spring of 1863?

Camp of the 14th Massachusetts near Fts. Albany and Runyon, from Harper's Weekly, Feb. 8, 1862 (courtesy of
As I've chronicled at length on the blog, in May 1863, the Union Army decided to relocate freedmen and women from Washington City to abandoned secessionist properties in Northern Virginia. Here the military intended to pay the contrabands to raise crops for the Union war effort. At the start of June, the army established Camp Todd near Ft. Albany in Alexandria County (now Arlington), on the site of Gen. Silas Casey's former encampment there. As the official report on the establishment of the contraband farms states:
At Camp Todd we have used the log huts put up for the accommodation of Gen. CASEY's encampment. These houses have capacity of holding not less than one thousand people, and are in a good degree of preservation. 
Initially, 230 freedpeople were quartered in the empty cabins. So, did the Union quarter the contrabands in the same huts that are pictured in the Harper's Weekly illustration?

In the fall of 1861, the 14th Massachusetts Infantry arrived in Washington and was assigned to the defenses of Washington, including Ft. Albany. (The regiment was later designated the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery and saw heavy fighting in the Overland Campaign through Appomattox.) A regimental history takes note of the fine structures built by Company B, 14th Massachusetts:
Through the first winter, 1861-'62, the company remained at Fort Albany at regimental headquarters and built elaborate log barracks. As it was located first in the line on the way from Washington, its quarters were inspected first by the distinguished men who came from time to time, and on several occasions was honored by visits of President Lincoln, who was evidently proud to show some of the foreign officers the ingenuity displayed by his Massachusetts boys in making themselves clean, healthful and comfortable quarters. (Roe & Nutt 13.)
Presumably the log huts in Harper's Weekly show these huts, or similar ones. Various companies of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery remained at Ft. Albany until 1864. Meanwhile, in the fall of 1862, part of Silas Casey's division was assigned to protect Ft. Albany. By March 1863, his soldiers had received orders to defend other locations in Northern Virginia. Casey's division was reassigned to Gen. John J. Abercrombie in April 1863, and Casey then took charge of Provisional Brigades around Washington.

All of this history brings us back to the original question -- Could those log huts be the same ones that belonged to Camp Todd? The 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery still guarded the fort in June 1863, when the contrabands arrived, and it seems possible that the cabins were more or less in continual use until the regiment left for the front in spring 1864. Or the huts may have been dismantled for their timber and may not even have been in existence when Camp Todd was established. Casey's men probably built their own cabins to survive the winter of 1862-63, and those huts were presumably the same ones that the Union Army used to shelter the freedpeople in June 1863, since Casey's soldiers had left by that time. Only if Casey's men had taken occupancy of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery's huts, or a portion of them, could we assume that the engraving depicts some or all of those inhabited by the residents of Camp Todd.

I suppose my initial enthusiasm for the engraving was a bit misplaced! The huts in Harper's Weekly are more than likely not the same ones later used to house the freedpeople at Camp Todd. Nevertheless, the illustration gives us a good idea of what such structures may have looked like near the same site. The hunt for pictures of the contraband camps in Northern Virginia continues.


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; "1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery," Civil War in the East;  Official Records, 1:21, 939; 1:25:2, 30, 182, 588; Alfred S. Roe & Charles Nutt, History of the First Regiment of Heavy Artillery, Massachusetts Volunteers, Formerly the Fourteenth Regiment of Infantry, 1861-1865 (1917).

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