Arriving at Camp Misery

These sloping plains outside of Alexandria, Virginia viewed from Fort Ellsworth became the site of a horrific camp where Union soldiers kept other Union soldiers. 15,000 at a time, about 200,000 in all. Public domain image from the Library of Congress

The inexperienced recruits of the 11th Rhode Island Infantry marched along a road slick with wet, red clay as they left their camp on Miner’s Hill near Arlington, Virginia on January 14, 1863. They had been posted on that hill since their arrival in Virginia about two months before. Some felt a bit sentimental about the departure. The hill, part of the defenses of Washington, was the site of their first camp in the field. They had drilled there day after day and gained a good reputation as a well-disciplined regiment.[1] Their first Christmas in the army was spent at Miner’s Hill and given their proximity to Washington within easy reach of supply wagons, it had been a merry holiday with plenty of boxes from home. The regimental historian later wrote that Miner’s Hill seemed as a “secondary home” to them.[2]

Despite this ambivalence, the Rhode Islanders sang loudly as they marched away, even as men from neighboring camps swarmed to pick over the baggage they had left behind. The unit had not seen fighting. The news of the Union’s disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg weighed heavily on them back in December. Now, at last, as they marched southward, it seemed they might finally have the chance to prove themselves in battle. They marched cheerfully despite the mud and kept good formation when the officers from time to time ordered them to move at the double-quick.[3] Their destination, however, was just six miles away—a spot halfway between Washington and Alexandria, Virginia known as “Camp Convalescent.” The rumors began to circulate even before they arrived. They were not going to the front. Instead they were to act as guards for their own comrades—thousands of sick and wounded men ejected from the hospitals in Washington and gathered together in near Alexandria with little shelter, clothing, or food until such time as they could be sent back to their regiments or discharged. There was no glory here, only misery.

Here the Rhode Islanders first observed what Private Ansel D. Nickerson called, “the terrible effects of war upon human life.” Nickerson, 28 years old, worked as a printer before the war. Like his compatriots in the regiment, he looked forward to earning the pride and respect that came with experience as a soldier as they marched away that day. Instead, he confronted the reality of the army’s treatment of sick and wounded veterans. When he recorded his memories of Camp Convalescent 25 years later, he wrote, “In recalling these scenes even at this late day, my heart sickens as those pale faces and gaunt forms again rise up before me.”[4] He estimated ten to fifteen thousand men occupied the indescribably filthy camp. Each day, he observed a long line of wagons from Washington bringing more. While on guard duty, he studied them with shock:

Some had lost a leg, some both legs, some an arm, and some both arms. Others had an eye gone, an ear torn off, a jaw which had been crushed into fragments. The wounds were of every conceivable sort, and in every part of the body, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot. They had been shot in the head, in the face, in the neck, in the shoulders, the arms, the legs, and the feet. They had been shot through the chest, through the lungs, through the hips and through the thighs.[5]

The sick were less evident than the walking wounded as they lay inside tents on the muddy ground, unable to get up, or huddled in small groups. The looks on their faces, Nickerson remembered, “plainly indicated that they realized that there was but a step between them and death.”[6]

What the 11th Rhode Island marched into was, in fact, the beginning of the “new” Camp Convalescent, established to replace the “old” Camp Convalescent on the outskirts of Alexandria. This new camp, relocated to healthier ground, would eventually become a vast improvement over the old. However, the state of things in January 1863 did not yet show much promise. Nickerson did not know that the overall numbers, at least, had been considerably reduced by the time he saw it. The old camp at Alexandria had been even worse—more crowded, more disorderly, and with only the scantiest shelter provided in the form of an inadequate number of rotting tents. Its unfortunate inmates referred to it as “Camp Misery.” Mary Livermore, a nurse and agent of the United States Sanitary Commission, called Camp Misery “a perfect Golgotha.” The army, she wrote, had gathered “fifteen thousand feeble men, all of them unfit for duty, and sent here to recover. Recover! This was the governmental fiction which glossed over the worst condition of things I had ever beheld.”[7]

Camp Misery is sadly demonstrative of the army’s mentality during the early years of the war when it came to sick and wounded men. In 1862, when the camp was established, the army deliberately pulled men from military hospitals (mainly in Washington but also from more distant cities, some from as far as far north as Philadelphia) and held them in this hellish environment to make way for the wounded of the summer and fall campaigns. For half a year, the officials of the Army of the Potomac, the Army Medical Bureau and the War Department ignored this problem and refused to deal in any comprehensive way with the reality that they lacked efficient mechanisms to send ailing men home. Rather than reckon with this fact, army officials instead prioritized the opposite—keeping men in loathsome reservoirs with intentions of getting them back in the ranks. To make matters worse, within the army there was widespread stigmatization of convalescing soldiers as cowards and deserters.

In the case of the Washington area, the resulting humanitarian crisis was most visible in the sprawling squalor of Camp Misery but also could be found in the streets of Washington City. Eventually, the army’s failure at Camp Misery jarred the public into action as civilians became aware of the army’s inhumane policies. A Congressional investigation into Camp Misery ensued and civilian relief organizations marshalled resources. Camp Misery played a role in focusing the attention of both the army and the northern public on the need for better procedures in terms of getting men home. Exactly how this problem came about and how it was rectified is a story that I devote a large portion of a chapter to in my dissertation.

[1] Ansel D. Nickerson, A Raw Recruit’s War Experiences, (Providence, RI: The Press Company, 1888), 29. Private Nickerson recorded some of the high praise they had received on the character and conduct. John C. Thompson, History of the Eleventh Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteers, in the War of the Rebellion, (Providence, RI: Providence Press Company, 1881), 89. Thompson recorded the compliments of an officer who called the regiment “a model of cleanliness and good order”, a fact which he believed may have earned them the undesirable post at Camp Convalescent.

[2] Thompson, 83.

[3] Thompson, 86.

[4] Nickerson, 30-31.

[5] Nickerson, 30.

[6] Nickerson, 30.

[7] Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, My story of the war: a woman’s narrative of four years personal experience as nurse in the Union army, and in relief work at home, in hospitals, camps, and at the front, during the war of the rebellion, (Hartford: A. D. Worthington & Co., 1889), 253.

Published by Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate

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