Camp Lee, from the Old Guard

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From The Old Guard, Vol. III, No XII; Dec. 1865; pp 553-565


Until the late war between the North and the South, America, including both continents, if we except its discovery by Columbus, had been distinguished by no great historical events attracting the attention and exciting the admiration of the world.

[The author goes on for a page and a half on descriptive prose regarding America's history]

This war has made most of the South, and all of Eastern Virginia, classic ground. At every mile that we proceed, in this latter section, we come upon localities that were either fields of battle, or were in some way connected with the greatest, the most bloody and devastating war of modern or ancient times. The historical associations and reminiscences connected with these localities should be preserved. To do so will elevate and purify the sentiments, aims, and objects of our people, beget a well founded and just pride, and endear us to our homes. In our present adversity and poverty, it is a consolation to reflect that our misfortunes were brought on by honest well-meant exertions and sacrifices in what we considered our country's cause. To our children and our children's children, let us be content to leave a legacy of glory that shall deter them from mean actions and incite them to noble ones. Let Virginians be content with that frugal simplicity of life and purity of morals that distinguished Rome in her early and palmy days. If we play our parts as well in peace as we have done in war, to be a Virginian will make poverty not only endurable but honourable.

The proceeding considerations have induced us to give some account of Camp Lee, a locality not distinguished as a battle ground, yet connected with the affairs of the war, and having some historic interest before the war. We came, with our family, to reside there about the 20th of May of the present year. It had been occupied a month previous thereto as the chief hospital of the 24th army corps, and there were seven or eight federal surgeons, and some five hundred sick and other soldiers at that point, Just in the back ground, and at the distance of some two or three hundred yards, there were some twenty cabins, extending in the form of a crescent, inhabited by recently runaway, but now liberated, negroes. This village was called by the Federal soldiers Goree, after some negro village in Africa. These cabins, and many of the other buildings, had been erected by the Confederate authorities, who occupied the place during the war as a camp fir the reception of returning exchanged prisoners, and for other purposes. The largest and best of the houses, however, had been built by the Richmond Central Agricultural Society, who, some three or four years before the war, had purchased the site, consisting of sixty-three acres, from the children of General Winfield Scott. Some three or four hundred acres, part of a much larger tract, had been devised to those children by the widow of John Mayo, deceased, their grandmother. Besides the buildings erected by the agricultural society and the Federal authorities, the old brick kitchen, laundry, servants' houses, and stables of the old Col. Mayo, remained, and were the best and most substantial houses in this little village. As such, they were chosen as a residence for the surgeons  and their immediate attaches. This camp was situated on a high, level, but gently rolling plain, some mile distant, west of Richmond, but only a half-mile from the village of Screamersville, which is an extension of the city, though not yet included within the limits of the corporation. The situation is very beautiful, and the surrounding landscape  quite picturesque, being studded in every direction with fine country seats, embowered in forest trees. In the background, we have said, lies the negro village of Goree - a sort of Amazonian settlement, in which no men are seen, but only a population of about two hundred women and children. Most of the men who should be with these women have ran off to the North; the very few that remain are at work, probably, on neighboring farms, or in the city. The people of Goree are a very quiet, orderly set. They get a plenty to eat from the soldiers at the hospital, work very rarely, and seem to employ themselves in little else than looking for vermin in their children's heads. This is the favorite employment of negroes and monkeys. As the hospital breaks up, they are beginning to starve, but have a firm reliance on the Federal government to give them farms, stock, and plenty of provisions. Whence they derive this expectation, we know not; but certainly, the habitues of Goree entertain no doubt of its speedy fulfillment, and are, therefore, in the midst of hunger, happy and unconcerned. The cabins of Goree, now occupied by the negroes, were, during the war, occupied by Confederate soldiers. They are neither lathed nor plastered, indifferently weather boarded, and without ceilings. We cannot conceive how human beings could live in them during winter. There are very many other negro quarters in and around the city, assigned to them by the Federal authorities. If the Federal troops be withdrawn, the negroes who inhabit these wretched quarters must speedily return to their late owners, or else perish from hunger and cold. In front of Camp Lee, and at the distance of less than a quarter mile, there is a much frequented public road, bounded on the farther side by a ditch and a hedge of alanthus. This road is a continuance of Broad street (since the fire), the principal street of Richmond. The carriages, horsemen, and foot passengers, always seen in this road, give life and beauty of the landscape. But, besides this, the foreground of the camp is rendered picturesque by a noble growth of oaks, by rich pasturage, large numbers of fat cows, flocks of sheep, fine herds of beef cattle, and by many boys attending them as guards and shepherds. Nor must we forget the familiar goats that often strut around our cottage. Behind Goree, and flanking the hospital, runs the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Acquia railroad. This road is a link in the direct line from the South to the North, has just been repaired, and is now much traveled. When we first came to Camp Lee, there were in its immediate vicinity several camps of artillery, cavalry, and infantry, who frequently performed evolutions in the beautiful field in front of our cottage and the hospital; and at every hour of the day mounted soldiers and officers were riding at high speed about the grounds. Towards the southeast we have in view a part of the village of Screamersville and some of the church steeples in Richmond; and towards the northwest, and open plain extends as far as the eye can reach. The hospital patients – mostly convalescents and homesick men – sat and lounged, or wandered quietly, silently, and listlessly about the grounds, thinking of their much-coveted and far-off homes. It seemed the very castle of indolence, the living impersonation of the “dolce far niente,” for no one was occupied, nor seemed to desire employment. The sad, despondent faces of the homesick and the convalescent, their spectral appearance, and their anxiety to get passage to their homes, reminds us of Virgil’s description of the ghosts on the shores of the Styx:
[redundant poetry not transcribed]

Leaving, however, the hospitals and grounds immediately around them, and going into the apartments of the surgeons, you saw a quite different scene and a different sort of men. The surgeons were cheerful, social, intellectual, hospitable, and eminently companionable. Their rooms, at some hours of the day, were filled with officers, visitors from the surrounding camps; so that, what with the necessary attendance on some four hundred patients, and the entertainment of their visitors, they found their time fully occupied, and never suffered from ennui or homesickness, like the patients we have just described. Physicians are always the best-bred men in the world, because in the sick room they naturally and necessarily assume a quiet, composed, gentle, and benevolent manner, which soon becomes habitual, and distinguishes their every day deportment. Besides, the practice of their profession is the practice of benevolence, and the practice soon becomes a controlling sentiment and feeling. Moreover, physicians have little to do with bargain-making, competition, and the keen encounter of wit in mere money-making pursuits, which gradually blunt the moral sense, and harden the hearts of too many me. On the whole, we think the doctors are the politest and best part of society.

The surgeons at Camp Lee, when we came there to reside, were: Dr. S. A. Richardson, surgeon in charge of the hospital of the 24th Corps; Dr. Chas. M. Clark, chief operating surgeon of the 24th Corps; Dr. Thos. E. Hamilton, Dr. James Allen, Dr. Nathan Wright, and another gentleman who left soon after our arrival, and whose name I cannot recall. Dr. A. De Normandie and Dr. Joel S. Conklin, were subsequently appointed. With all of these gentlemen our intercourse was daily, kind, cordial, and agreeable. Dr. Richardson visited us several times in Richmond, in order to attend to and facilitate our removal; and after we settled at the camp, his kindness and attentions were unremitted. Every member of our household will ever hold him in grateful and agreeable remembrance. He is a man of genius, of excellent reading, and general information, and distinguished in his profession. His disposition is eminently cheerful, kind, and social, and hence he was an agreeable companion and warm friend. Yet, although politeness and goodness of heart made him endeavor to conceal his sectional feelings whilst in company of Confederates, it was obvious, on close observation, that much of the pride and prejudice of the Puritan clung to him, despite of his extensive intercourse with the world. He was a good man and a gentleman, with a dash of Puritanism, which did not render him less good or less agreeable. Some month or more after we removed to Camp Lee, Dr. Richardson’s term of service expired, and he returned to his home and family in Marlborough, Cheshire county, New Hampshire.

Dr. Clarke was appointed surgeon in charge of this hospital so soon as Dr. Richardson left. We have heard, from many highly respectable sources, that as a skillful and successful operating surgeon, Dr. Clarke has no superior in the Federal army. He is of Scottish descent, but he was born and reared in the city of New York. He received both his classical and medical education at the University of that city. He is a gentleman of much accomplishment, of highly refined and polished manners, and wholly free from provincialism or sectionalism, either in manner or feeling. He is the author of an excellent work, entitled, “A Trip to Pike’s Peak.”

Dr. Hamilton, who is of Scottish descent, is a gentleman of refined and dignified manners, and is kind hearted, intelligent, and agreeable. He is from the State of Connecticut. Dr. Allen, although from the State of New York, is of Puritan descent, and belongs to a Puritan church, the Congregational. Yet he is one of the kindest and most amiable of men, and seemed to be wholly free from ill nature, vindictiveness, or fanaticism.

Dr. Conklin was with us but a short time. He is from Long Island, New York, and taught school, for a year before the war, in Texas. He is very fond of reading, and said to be a well-informed physician. He seems to be singularly unsophisticated, and free from guile or deceit. Of course he is a very agreeable companion.

The hospital, so full of patients, and having so many soldiers, hospital stewards, and other attendants about it when we first settled her, is now almost deserted. Only Dr. Clarke, Dr. De Normandie, and some for attendance, remain. Our intercourse, however, becomes more frequent and more intimate as our numbers diminish.

A description of the hospital would be very incomplete without some notice of Uncle John. Uncle John is as sable a son of Africa as ever we met with. and displays rows of as white and as sharp teeth as the Anthropophagoe of the Feejee Islands. Yet Uncle John is no cannibal, but the kindest-hearted soul alive; always busy, always in rapid motion, and on "hospitable thoughts intent." He was a universal favorite, and sort of factotum; for he seemed to have something to do with all hospital affairs. Yet it must be confessed he was a proud old aristocrat, devoted to keeping none but the best society, and to high and hospitable living. His master was a gentleman who bred race-horses, and sometimes ran them - one of the veritable F. F. V., who kept open house for all gentlemen. Uncle John used, spring and fall, to attend the races, and knew the pedigree of all the racers and half the gentlemen in the State. His master being ruined by the war, he betook himself to the surgeons, because they, too, were gentlemen, and formed a social circle such as he had been accustomed to. Poor Uncle John! what will he do now? Both the black and the whit aristocracy of Virginia have collapsed, and will soon vanish. We wish we could photograph and stereotype a few specimens, ere they all pass off the stage - and we begin to rear as many featherless bipeds to the acre as they do in Belgium or New England.

Besides old Uncle John, there were six or eight young negro fellows employed about the hospital, chiefly in cooking. They charged nothing for their services, being entirely satisfied with the perquisites. No one knows better than the negro how to discover and avail one's self of perquisites.

For the last two weeks, as the hospital was being gradually broken up, and its habitues removed, a guard of some twelve or fourteen negro soldiers, under a mulatto, or rather an octaroon sergeant, has been stationed here. Never was there a squad of more quiet, orderly, well behaved, and contented men. They seem keenly to enjoy still life, and to be perfectly happy in doing nothing. Camp Lee will lose nothing of its prestige under their administration. It is still the castle of indolence, the happy retreat of the "dolce far niente."

White men may talk philosophy, preach it, and write it; but it is only the impassive, lazy, contented negro who knows how to practice it. He loves to do nothing, is never restless, and never suffers from ennui or tedium vitae. He can sleep all day in the sun, luxuriating in present ease, and without a care or apprehension about the future. He is your true philosopher, who, knowing that he cannot look into or control the future, leaves the future to take care of itself.

*              *            *            *            *            *

The last of the surgeons, Drs. Clarke and De Normandie, with their suite, left us some weeks since, and for eight or ten days we were quite solitary and melancholy. In the meanwhile, the black guard, freed from the supervision of the surgeons, began (some of them) to exhibit themselves in their natural colors, as veritable blackguards. They permitted some hundred negroes to assemble two nights in the week, and hold high carnival in one of the immense rooms of the vacated hospitals. Whiskey flowed abundantly, and they kept up the feast, the noise, the dancing, and the singing, until near day. But such a burlesque on dancing and singing was never seen or heard before, except in the interior of Africa or of Hayti. It resembled nothing human that we had ever witnessed, although negro corn-shuckings were favorite resorts of ours when I was a boy. It was manifestly savage, suppressed, but not expelled, by slavery, returning to resume her empire. The dancing was merely the pulling each other around in a circle, with the loudest possible tramping of feet; and the singing was so awfully monotonous and dissonant, as to remind one of Campbell's description of
"The wolf's long howl from Onoolaski's Sound."

But all this has now changed. Lieut. H. S. Merrell, Assistant Head of the Virginia Freedmen's Bureau, has come out to live, dismissed the black guard, and introduced an intelligent and well-behaved guard of white soldier in their stead. He at once brought the negro nocturnal orgies to something like order, and has now countermanded them altogether.

As the hospitals were one after another vacated, we were wont to visit the deserted rooms, from which the beds and other furniture had not yet been removed. It was strange how far more gloomy these vacated rooms seemed than when tenanted even by the sick and the dying. Not "banquet halls deserted" made such an impression on the spirits as these empty rooms. So eminently social is man's nature, that he is happier in the midst of pain, disease and death, than when wholly alone. Man feels not oppressed by solitude in the fields and the woods. He there may hold cheerful converse with nature. But solitude becomes oppressive and overpowering when one stands in the midst of what were lately the residences of men, but which are now deserted and untenanted.

But we have yet a sadder and more gloomy picture to present to the reader. In front of our cottage, at the distance of some hundred and fifty yards, in the midst of the grove of oaks which we have already described, stands, solitary and alone, the little dead house. When we first came here to live, some three or four corpses were sent to this dreary abode daily, there to be laid out and to lie until they were coffined and sent to the grave. Then almost the whole of the 24th Army Corps were in and around Richmond; and this hospital was the receptacle of the sick and the dying. The number of deaths diminished rapidly as first one portion, and then another, of the corps was relieved from service and permitted to return home. At no time was there great mortality in the corps. It has, for a long while, been held by many of our most distinguished physicians that the susceptibility to malarious diseases increases with each attack, and, finally, even becomes hereditary. Hence Federal soldiers, coming from localities not infected by malaria, should, when brought to the marshy regions of the South, be found less liable to such diseases than the native inhabitants. The experience of this war has vindicated the truth of this theory. Attacks of ague and bilious fever are of much more frequent occurrence with our native citizens than with the Federal soldiers.

Under the same venable oaks where stands the Federal dead-house, is the spot where the Confederates shot their deserters and hung spies. But for the exceeding clemency of President Davis, the number thus executed would have been very great. As it was, larger numbers of these poor unfortunates fell victims to the law here than at any other point. It is sad to reflect that some of these deserters may have been on their way home to relieve their starving families.

As early as the 1st of May, 1861, the site of Camp Lee was obtained by the Confederate authorities for the Central Agricultural Society, for the purpose of establishing a rendezvous for volunteer troops, which then, and previously, were assembling for organization. It was mostly confined to the infantry forces, the Richmond Baptist College, at the distance of about a half-mile, having been selected for artillery barracks and an artillery school. Colonel Wm. Gillam, of the Virginia Military Institute, was assigned as commandant of the post. Infantry companies were here rapidly organized into regiments, disciplined, and forwarded to the front. It remained chiefly for such purposes, and was commanded successively by Brig.-Gen. Dimmock, of the Virginia line, and Col. Wm. D. Stuart, of the 56th Virginia Infantry, until December, 1861, when it was designated in Department orders, as headquarters for the volunteer artillery, to be instructed, equipped with batteries, &c. Lieut.-Col. J. C. Shields, first of the Virginia, and subsequently of the Confederate States Artillery, was assigned to the command. A large number of batteries were here prepared for field service. In may, 1862, it was designated, in orders from the War Department, as headquarters for the recruiting service in Virginia, under the conscription law passed in April of that year. Col. Shields was retained by the War Department as commandant for the State. It remained under Col. Shields' command until the occupation of Richmond by the Federal forces on the 3d of April, 1865. It was also used as the recruiting rendezvous for the Virginia reserves. Having large hospital accommodations, it was used for general purposes by the Confederate Medical Bureau. In addition to the various other departments of service assigned to Camp Lee, it was the point to which Confederate soldiers returning from captivity reported, for the purpose of registration, clothing, pay, furloughs, &c. There was a very large amount of business - mostly of a delicate, disagreeable, and unthankful character - transacted at this camp. It is highly creditable to Colonel Shields that he not only gave satisfaction to the government, but also to the conscripts, to the detailed men, called into service in violation of the letter, if not the spirit of their contracts, and to the impatient, homesick soldiers, returning from painful and tedious captivity. The colonel is quite remarkable for patient evenness of temper, courtesy of manner, and firmness of purpose. He listens patiently to all complaints, and never gives just occasion for offence to those who have business with him. Consequently, in the discharge of the painful and unthankful duties of his office, he has made many friends and no enemies. Since the cessation of hostilities, the colonel has devoted himself to his duties as part owner of the Richmond Whig.

The Confederate authorities erected some forty buildings at Camp Lee, which, together with those that had been previously built by the Agricultural Society, constituted quite a village. A large two-story frame house, erected by the Confederates, fell down since we have been living here, and the materials of which it was constructed have been removed. Most of the other buildings erected there are more cabins, with two rooms and a chimney in the middle. They are frail and uncomfortable dwellings, and can hardly last two years. The only substantial houses built by them were two cottages, one of which we inhabit. These, as summer residences, are sufficiently comfortable for small families. The spacious buildings erected by the Agricultural Society are of the same frail character, and will hardly last to be used for another fair. The only good and durable houses is a row of brick buildings, which constituted the kitchen, pantry, servants' houses, and stables of the late Col. John Mayo, the father-in-law of Gen. Winfield Scott. His dwelling, the Hermitage, to which they were appended, was burned down many years ago. In front of where it stood, there is a fine grove of walnuts and locusts, which must have been planted a century since.

The original American residence of the Mayo family was Powhatan Seat, situated a mile immediately below Richmond, as was the Hermitage, now Camp Lee, a mile above that city. There seems no room for doubt that there was an Indian village on the present site of Powhatan Seat, which village was the residence of the great Indian king, Powhatan. Captain Smith describes just such a locality as that king's residence. The conformation of the country around would seem to determine it as the spot which would be selected by a savage tribe, who relied for support on the oysters, crabs, and fish of the lower or tidewater James River, and the game of the upper valley of that river. It is situated on that river, at about the distance of a mile and a half from its falls. In cultivating the land here, many Indian arrows and tomahawks have been found. Besides, uniform tradition points it out as the spot where Powhatan lived, and where Pocahontas saved the life of Captain Smith.

       Powhatan Seat is a fine old mansion, built more than a century ago, with bricks imported from England. It has since been burned down, and rebuilt on the same old walls. It is beautifully embowered in fine trees. It lies about a hundred and fifty yards from the James River, on the second steppe or plateau, there being below it, and next the river, a narrow meadow. We presume it is about fifty feet above tide-water. Back of it, at the distance of half a mile, bold hills rise to the height of a hundred feet. The Capitol in Richmond and Camp Lee are situate[d] on an extension of these latter hills. The grounds, gravel walks, house, &c., are kept in excellent order by their hereditary owner, Mr. Robert A. Mayo, and his accomplished lady. Like all the residences of the Mayos, it has ever been the seat of an elegant and liberal hospitality. In the yard there is a large sand rock, inscribed with a sort of hieroglyphics, said by tradition to cover the grave of Powhatan; and in the garden, a rock of the same kind, on which Capt. Smith was laid for execution, when Pocahontas interposed and saved his life. There are no other rocks, or even large stones, in this vicinity. The Powhatan tract of land is now a small one, but in the time of Wm,. Mayo, deceased, father of the present owner, it extended eight miles down the course of the river, and included very many thousand acres of fertile land.

(At this point, the author goes on at length re Mayo family genealogy, Winfield Scott and his family.)

Of Camp Lee, as the fair ground of the Richmond Central Agricultural Society, we know but little. It commenced its exhibitions in 1854. These exhibitions were attended by most of the beauty, wealth, fashion, and intelligence of Virginia, and of other States, as well northern as southern. The horses, cattle, and other stock and articles exhibited, were admitted on all hands to be unusually fine. Intelligent foreigners remarked that the grounds were more beautiful than any they had seen in Europe. Among these foreigners, we believe, was Lord Napier, who, with his accomplished lady, made a visit of a week to the President of the Society, the Hon. James Lyons, and with his lady attended the fair every day of its continuance. It was no doubt the great beauty of the place that occasioned its selection as the point of reception of the Prince of Wales, on his visit to Richmond. The hand of destruction has been busy here, yet there is much in the natural beauty of the locality that still remains, and is undestructible.

We are about to take our leave of the Camp, and we regret it; for it resembles the shifting scenes of a theater or a passing panorama, and daily develops some new phase of interest. Within the past week there has been a large accession to the population, both black and white, filling up most of the houses that were occupied by the surgeons and their attendants. Next week we expect some hundred and fifty negro orphan children, who have been deserted by their mothers, from the Chimborazo Hospital, on the side of the city opposite to this camp; also their white nurses, and a surgeon or two. Besides those, some well-intentioned ladies will next week set up negro schools there. We have never objected to teaching negroes. For many years our children, with our approval have tried to teach them, but with little or no good results.

Many very agreeable and well-informed gentlemen, attached to the Freedman's Bureau, occasionally visit the Camp. They are all mild Abolitionists, who admit the inferiority of the negro race; but they scout the theory that negroes are naturally wild men or savages, and will surely, but gradually return to the savage state, when forced from the control of the white men.

       The Freemen's Bureau is, perhaps, a good and necessary institution, for it is working out admirably that form of demonstration called the "reductio ad absurdum." Before Christmas, their failure to manage the negroes on their present plan will satisfy them and the rest of the world that negroes need white masters, and they will propose, we think, to hire those out by the year who will not find masters for themselves.

Richmond, Va.                                                                               G. F.


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