Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Did Arlington's Slaves Rise Up To Fight Robert E. Lee?

Most students of the American Civil War are familiar with the story of how Arlington National Cemetery was created – in the spring of 1864 when the need arose for a new burial ground near the nation’s capital, Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs sought to kill two birds with one stone. By locating the cemetery on the grounds of the Arlington estate, Meigs found ample ground for new grave space and had the opportunity to ensure that his prewar acquaintance -- Robert E. Lee – would not be able to come back to the place he had called home for 30 years. A lesser-known but equally compelling story related to Civil War Arlington is that of Freedman’s Village, where newly-freed slaves came by the thousands to work government farms and receive a rudimentary education. Sojourner Truth worked at Freedman’s Village for one year during the war, and many Northerners eagerly followed the accounts of the famous contraband camp on the grounds of the Custis-Lee Mansion.

Freedman's Village, 1864.
The tale of Union war dead (many of whose deaths could be traced back directly to Lee’s army) being buried at Lee’s home and a contraband camp situated on the site where approximately 60 slaves had toiled is rich in irony.

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.
 However, it seems safe to say that Camp Casey was very near – possibly on – the estate that Lee lived at for over 30 years. If Camp Casey can be pinpointed to be on the Arlington site it would add yet poignant and significant dimension to a place already steeped in Civil War lore.

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…


  1. That would be quite an interesting discovery if you found a Custis slave in the 23rd. The possibility is certainly there.

    As for Camp Casey, the best document I have found is available on the Valley of the Shadow archive linked here:
    It places the camp at the foot of the "Long Bridge" which is approximately where the modern 14th Street bridge is today. Arlington House would have been very easily seen from this region since it is about 180 feet higher to the northwest of the foot of the bridge. Roughly the area includes the site of the Pentagon or the new "Long Bridge Park". This makes the camp in the area of a mile to a mile and a half from Lee's mansion, and easliy within your proposal.

  2. Hi John,

    Thanks for the link! Judging from your source and the other sources I've been able to find, I'm guessing Camp Casey was roughly between where the Pentagaon parking lot is and the Air Force Memorial.

    Still looking for the "smoking gun" though!



  3. Thoughtful exploration of an obviously overlooked - yet clearly important - aspect of the history of Arlington during the Civil War. This (plus other facts you’ve uncovered and written about in this blog) would be an excellent subject(s) for your 2nd book. Good stuff.

  4. If I can compile enough about Camp Casey to write a book, believe me I will!

  5. An interesting question! (and nice to see you posting again!)

  6. I was raised in Arlington Va and worked cutting grass during the summer at Arlington Cemetery. I was always told that it was part of Arlington Cemetery. Champ Casey had developed its own graveyard. The land was eventually incorporated into AC. There are graves of civilians and soldier who are of African American decent.

  7. Interesting, but you miss the point about Lee and his slaves. You need to read "Reading the Man" about Lee and his slaves. While the author tries very very hard to glorify Lee, read it closely. SHe admits Lee's slaves hated him, and he had the "troublemakers" whipped and sold. He had violent pushbacks from his slaves.

    He regularly used bounty hunters, and apparently even paid bounty hunters for the capture of dark skinned women and children in the North who had NOT be his slaves, or may anyone's slaves.

    Lee also regularly used torture on his slaves, including young female slaves. In one famous case, according to newspapers at the time, Lee had a particular girl hunted down, paid far extra for her capture, and was there upon her return. SHe and two other slaves were whipped --per his orders. But the overseer refused to whip the girl, we don't know why. Lee immediately found someone else to whip her, and yelled at her during her torture. Yes, he did.

    Pryor, who wrote the book Imentioned, relates this very carefully, she was not out to trash him. But in his own account books -- his slave ledgers really -- she found evidence of this whipping, and payments to the men mentioned in the newspaper accounts, from before the war. Futhermore, after the war, an ex slave was interviewed, and confirmed the story, giving specific facts and names that Lee himself wrote down in his slave ledger.

    If that's all confusing, the bottom line is this -- Lee was a very cruel slave owner, that nonsense from Douglas Southall Freeman was just that -- nonsense. Lee's own papers show he was almost eager to have slaves whipped, and whipping was his "preferred" method of discipline. He also purposely send slave mothers to deep South, as punishment, and kept their children.

    To make things even more bizzare, Lee's slave children were astonishingly LIGHT -- to the point of whiteness.

    Don't expect to read "READING THE MAN" to see tantilizing graphic narrative of his cruelty. Pryor uses every euphamism known to man, and has parts of it that are Orwellian. For example she says Lee's slaves "did not appreciate Lee's labor management theories". SOme times you think she is kidding. She is not, she is just soft selling some very cruel behavior.