|Freedman's Village, 1864.|
But what if the irony went even deeper than that?What if thousands of United States Colored Troops were taught the rudiments of being a soldier on the grounds of Arlington as well?
Enter the tantalizing mystery of Camp Casey.
I first ran across the story of Camp Casey when I joined the recreated 23rd USCT last year. The original 23rd was organized at Camp Casey in late 1863 was sent south from there in 1864, just in time for the Overland Campaign. But the 23rd was far from the only African American unit trained at Camp Casey. The 2nd, 28th, and 29th USCT (to name a few) spent time at Camp Casey as well.
So where exactly was Camp Casey? Well, that’s the question I’ve been trying to answer for quite some time now. Here is a sample of what I’ve been able to piece together so far:We know that you could see Arlington House from it. A soldier in the 1st Battalion, New York Sharpshooters wrote in late 1863 that Camp Casey was “in sight of Rebel General Lee’s residence.” Robert Hamilton, a correspondent for the Weekly Anglo-African, wrote that Camp Casey was “situated on Arlington Heights not very far from the late residence of the far-famed rebel Gen. Lee.”
A further piece of the puzzle comes into clarity from the chronicler of the 29th USCT, Edward A. Miller, Jr. who places Camp Casey “near Fort Albany, one of the installations built to defend the capital.”
Circumstantial evidence comes from a War Department document from November of 1864 authorizing Charles Syphax to sell food and other items “to the soldiers within the limits of Camp Casey, Va until further orders.” Charles Syphax oversaw the dining room at Arlington and lived on property adjoining the original 1,100 acre estate. Given the fact that Syphax was in his 70’s in 1864, Camp Casey must have been near his residence.
Confusing matters is the fact that there were at least two other camps in the nearby area named after Silas Casey – one in Bladensburg, MD and another near Shooter’s Hill in Alexandria. Both are too far away to see Arlington House and nowhere near the location of Fort Albany. This makes sense because Casey commanded the Provisional Brigade, which unbrigaded USCT units were a part of.I have examined at least a dozen different maps of Arlington and the surrounding area and Camp Casey doesn’t appear on any of them.
|Defenses of Washington. Note the location of Ft. Albany and its proximity to Arlington House.|
It also leads to a very tantalizing question – if Camp Casey was on the Arlington estate and many slaves from the nearby area came to the camp to enlist in the Union army, did any of the Custis slaves whom Lee would have known very well take up arms and fight against him?
To illustrate how amazing this possibility could prove to be, let me illustrate by giving a hypothetical. Let’s suppose that one of the male slaves at Arlington ventured into Camp Casey and joined one of the units that would soon be embroiled in the Battle of the Crater. By some miracle, he survives the battle and is taken prisoner. As he is being marched to the rear, he walks by Lee and some of his staff who have ridden up to take in the situation.
And then it happens.
Their eyes meet.
Lee is utterly taken aback by that fact that he recognizes one of the black faces being paraded by him.It may seem far-fetched, but we do know that nearby slaves did wonder into Camp Casey and enlist. We even have records of the commandant of Freedman’s Village complaining that members of the 23rd USCT were going into the contraband camp and forcing young male slaves to join the army (the 23rd took the highest casualty rate of any USCT unit at the Crater). We may have even found a Custis slave who joined a USCT unit (more on that later).
As far-fetched as it may sound, my mind starts to race when I contemplate the significance of such a hypothetical encounter!My search for Camp Casey and the underlying implications of its location, then, will be a major feature of my research as my stint as a Park Ranger at Arlington House continues. Any breakthroughs will be reported on The Sable Arm, and if anyone out there has any insights on this matter, please shoot them my way.
Until then, the quest continues…