"Camp Misery" August 1861


Ever seen a Civil War encampment at a reenactment? Not bad. Wanna know what an average encampment is really like? Let’s take a look at one of the most despised camp the 18th New York Infantry ever had. It only lasted thirteen days, but was quickly coined by the men, “Camp Misery.”

In August 1861, the 18th New York set up an encampment in Alexandria, Va, on the slope of Shuter’s Hill. Atop this hill was Fort Dahlgren, which was also connected to Fort Ellsworth. [Today, it is the site of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, see image above]. The 18th pitched their tents on the hillside on August 15. The hillside was vastly different than the pristine manicured lawn it is today. For them, the hillside was mud. Ankle-deep mud. Two nearby abandoned homes believed to be owned by secessionists were stripped to their skeletal frames instantly by the soldiers, and its wood was used as floorboards to sleep on, which then ushered backaches. Most men slept on the bare ground, and only one company had rubber blankets. Then came the rains, and did it ever on August 19. The deluge lasted for 24 hours. The hillside was more like a waterfall, stirring up the mud worse. The 18th shared the hillside with the 15th New York, who were below them, that is until this particular downpour. The 15th was flooded out and forced to pack up during the storm in order to find somewhere else, but there was no better place to be found.

The 18th New York tried to make it work, as this camp was only temporary. They were waiting to be assigned a new spot in Alexandria to construct a new fort [later, Fort Ward]. With impeccable timing at such an abysmal encampment, the Sanitary Commission paid a visit to inspect the regiment’s condition on August 20. The 18th N.Y. had a strength of 760 men, but 20 were hospitalized, and 39 others were confined to their own tents that day. Malaria seemed to be the biggest plague, blamed on a nearby swamp. Privies were dug 100 yards from their camp, but were since filled in by rain. Without an adequate place to bathe, men skipped getting clean. Tents were closer together, now three-feet apart. One tent shared an average of 4 to 6 men. The camp streets and drains along the edges of the tents and the space between them were neglected and littered with food, bones, and other rubbish. 450 men did not even have blankets – oh - but they all had good overcoats! Moral was low, and there lacked organized games, amusements, and mutual benefit societies which usually bolstered moral in other regiments. The colonel appointed a regimental sutler for the men, but the sutler proved to be a crooked businessman and ignored fixed prices on items, setting them high. Food rations seemed tolerable, as fresh meat was available three times a week, but the unskilled company cooks were said to have cooked food badly. Rations of tea were often served instead of coffee, but a surface spring did provide drinkable water. As for uniforms, the regiment looked quite embarrassing. They cleaned up as best they could for a particular dress parade that General McClellan watched. The men’s first issue of uniforms were ragged and falling apart. Some men were barefoot, some without pants, just their drawers, some without coats, and some with straw hats. McClellan asked the colonel to what regiment he was watching, and the colonel responded, “The 18th New York Volunteers of Albany.” McClellan responded, “You have a fine regiment of men, I see you have them well drilled and I will see that they have better clothes.”

Finally, on August 27, the regiment received the welcoming news to relocate. One soldier in Company A exclaimed, “Never was better news received by us, who had been camped in a very unhealthy place for some time.”

The 18th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment History Website

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© 2020 by Ryan A. Conklin