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Huts and History: The Historical Archaeology of Military Encampment During the American Civil War

edited by Clarence R. Geier, David G. Orr and Matthew B. Reeves, University Press of Florida, 2006, 279 pages, $65.

Most students of the Civil War today spend their time in the field visiting battlegrounds. But soldiers in the war spent most of their time in the field marching to, or living in, various forms of encampments. To appreciate how the war shaped the lives of the men who fought it, it is critical to understand how they lived as well as how they fought.

For this reason, the richly informative essays brought together in Huts and History are valuable additions to the historiography of the Civil War. The authors make a strong argument for the concentrated study and preservation of the war’s archaeological remnants and architectural footprints, most of which have long been buried and too often neglected by historians and preservationists alike.

The greatest threats to these storied locations and the important artifacts they contain are the developer’s bulldozer and the relic hunter’s metal detector. Prominent National Park Service historian Robert Krick makes this clear in his foreword when he warns “the campsites in which hundreds of thousands of Americans lived for millions of man-months during the 1860s are being destroyed even more rapidly than the battlefields.”

The 10 essays in this anthology provide the reader with a general introduction to the study and interpretation of Civil War encampment sites. They describe how historical archaeologists are reinventing traditional methodologies in order to extract important data about where armies camped and for how long; the type of structures in which soldiers, officers and civilians lived; what they ate; the diseases that struck them down; and the problems associated with preserving the remaining traces of these scarce surviving resources in an age of growth and development.

Bryan Corle and Joseph Balicki, archaeologists with the Alexandria, Va., firm of John Milner Associates, admit that relic hunters—long the archenemies of archaeologists and preservationists—often know the most about the location and contents of Civil War encampments. Working mostly in northern Virginia, Corle and Balicki describe how they have incorporated techniques long used by relic hunters to find and evaluate these encampments. They persuasively argue that both sides can benefit from mutual cooperation, especially in limiting unregulated development.

Balicki goes on to describe work done at the 193-acre Evansport Cantonment on the banks of the Potomac below Washington, D.C. The cantonment supported batteries of Confederate artillery used to blockade the river from September 1861 through March 1862. More than 3,500 men lived in four large encampments that included living quarters, a magazine, picket posts, a target range and defensive earthworks.

Combining an analysis of archaeological remnants, surface features and written documents, Balicki describes the locations of the camps and their various types of housing. He also answers important questions about why the camps are located where they are and why they sometimes diverged from the 1861 U.S. Army regulations governing camp layouts that were familiar to many officers in both the Union and Confederate armies.

More detailed insights into Civil War housing are available from Stephen W. McBride, director of Camp Nelson Heritage Park in Jessamine County, Ky. Working with his wife, Kim, a historical archaeologist, he investigated the many types of housing provided for a large and diverse military and civilian population at Camp Nelson, as well as a huge commissary depot, recruitment and training center, hospital facility and, during the spring of 1864, a center for the recruitment and training of regiments of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). This site, which has escaped the worst ravages of relic hunters and developers, provides an important window into the daily lives of its inhabitants. The original camp covered more than 4,000 acres, and its multiplicity of uses generated a variety of structures. These included houses for the officers, barracks for the enlisted men, stables, warehouses, hospital wards, civilian businesses, administrative offices and quarters for the African-American women and children who were USCT family members.

Dean Nelson’s fascinating essay describes the architectural ingenuity displayed by soldiers when building the many types of winter camp structures used to temporarily house more than 3 million men during the war. Matthew Reeves and Clarence Geier then present a detailed analysis of the fieldwork done at a single Confederate winter encampment on the grounds of Montpelier Plantation, the former residence of James and Dolly Madison in Orange County, Va.

The Orange County site was home to three brigades of the Army of Northern Virginia. Nearly 4,600 men were housed there during the harsh winter of 1863-64. The area occupied by General Samuel McGowan’s Brigade of South Carolinians had never been plowed or disturbed by development, so hut and tent surface remains and other features were still clearly evident when the site was surveyed in 2002. The camp was designed so it could be hurriedly abandoned, and when Union General Ulysses S. Grant began the Overland Campaign on May 4, 1864, it was.

Not all encampments were located in rural areas. Garrett Fesler, Matthew Laird and Hank Lutton examined the archaeology of Civil War camp-life in the urban setting of Yorktown, Va., a small city occupied at various times by both Confederate and Union forces. David Orr’s essay follows the remarkable odyssey of Grant’s headquarters cabin at City Point, Va., the building from which he commanded the Army of the Potomac during the last four months of the war. This historic structure survived the war, after which it was dismantled and moved to Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, where it languished for more than 120 years. Finally, with the help of historical archaeologists and the National Park Service, it was returned to its original foundation at City Point. It still stands there today.

The quality of the writing varies from essay to essay, and this is not the kind of book that is meant to be read from beginning to end at one sitting. In the concluding essay, Orr and Geier clearly state their goal: “We hope that this book will raise the national consciousness as to the true significance of these campsites and will lead to appropriate actions in which this data can be left for scientific study.” Read this book, and you’ll likely agree with them.


Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here