Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Giesboro Point Cavalry Depot, Parking for 30,000 Horses

The area once known as Giesboro Point is now occupied by the Department of Defense's Joint Base Bolling-Anacostia.  The installation's major tenant organization, the Defense Intelligence Agency, is observing its 50th anniversary this year.  However, nearly 150 years ago, this parcel of land was not a military intelligence headquarters, but the logistics hub of the Union Army's cavalry in the Eastern Theater.  By providing a ready supply of mounts to the Army of the Potomac, Giesboro Cavalry Depot made an important contribution as the army slugged it out in Virginia.  Over 200,000 horses were received, issued, died or sold at Giesboro during the war.

Wartime photo of stables at the Giesboro Cavalry Depot.  (Library of Congress)

On the eve of the war, the 624 acre Giesboro (sometimes spelled Giesborough) tract was owned by George Washington Young, who had the dubious distinction of being the District's largest slaveowner.  (In 1862, when the Federal Government instituted compensated emancipation in D.C., Young received $17,771.85 for the release of the men, women and children he held in servitude.)  The Giesborough Manor plantation, whose primary product had been tobacco, dated back to the colonial period.

A section of an antebellum period map of Washington, DC superimposed on modern commercial imagery of Bolling Air Force Base shows what the terrain looked like at the start of the Civil War.  The DIAC is  marked by a black arrow.  The area to the north, which by 1917 was filled in and eventually become NSF Anacostia, was part of the Anacostia River, then referred to as the Eastern Branch.  The first military presence, albeit temporary, at Young's farm occurred in May 1861 when Colonel Ellsworth's New York Zouaves camped there before crossing the Potomac to occupy Alexandria.

 In July 1863, the Cavalry Bureau was established to "systematize and regulate the purchase and supply of horses to the cavalry. The Secretary of War directed the bureau's new chief, Major General George Stoneman, to establish six cavalry depots including one near Washington.  Stoneman selected Young's farm at Giesboro Point as the most suitable site, likely due to its flat terrain and easy access to river transportation, and the Army took possession on August 12, 1863.   Young offered the property to the government for $100,000, but was rebuffed.  Instead, he was paid an annual rent of $6,000 from 1863 to 1866.  The seizing of property for military purposes in and around Washington was quite common during the war as hospitals, camps, warehouses, and a network of fortifications were established.  As part of the Defenses of Washington, Forts Carroll and Greble were constructed on the high ground above Giesborough Manor.

The army quickly built wharves along the property's Potomac shoreline, 32 stables,  buildings, and other necessary infrastructure. Young's brick manor house served as the depot's administrative headquarters.  Barracks, mess houses, storage buildings, wharves, and a church sprung up.  Constructions costs were estimated to have topped one million dollars.  No comparable cavalry depot in the world matched the scale of Giesboro.  The Depot was designed to hold up to 30,000 horses, although the largest number present at any one time was about 21,000.  From January 1864 to the end of the war, Giesboro handled 170,622 cavalry horses; issuing 97,580 for use by the Army and selling 48,721 as unfit for military service.  Waterworks consisting of a reservoir, steam pumps and 27,000 feet of piping were installed.  The Depot's staff of nearly 1500 grew its own vegetables, slaughtered its own beef and milled its own wheat. The  horseshoeing shop alone employed over 100 blacksmiths.  The Depot's steam grist mill grinded grain and cut hay and straw.  At full capacity, the Depot was estimated to generate 700 tons of manure a day. (And some people think today's nearby Blue Plains Treatment Plant smells on a summer afternoon). 

The installation's veterinary hospital had stalls for treating 2,500 invalid horses.  The unprecedented concentration of horses did contribute to equine disease outbreaks, such as glanders, and more than 17,000 horses were lost to disease between January 1864 and April 1865.  With thousands of horses grouped in corrals, there was also a constant danger of stampedes.  The Alexandria Gazette reported of one stampede in 1863, which resulted in nearly 1,000 horses drowning in the Potomac River and Eastern Branch.  With each horse costing the government at least $150, the staggering financial cost of these losses brings to mind Lincoln's statement that "I can make more generals, but horses cost money."

Camp Stoneman, named after the chief of the Cavalry Bureau, was established adjacent to the depot to house cavalry troopers as they waited remounts.  When Jubal Early's Confederate army threatened Washington in July 1864, several hundred dismounted troopers from Camp Stoneman participated in the capital's defense.

Giesboro Cavalry Depot made an important contribution to the Army of the Potomac's cavalry arm, which had previously been outperformed by Southern horsemen.

Horses in a corral at Giesboro Cavalry Depot in 1864.  Each corral was approximately 15 acres and could support about 1,000 horses. (Library of Congress)

 The location of the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center (DIAC) is annotated by an arrow on this 1865 map..  Where the DIAC is now situated appears to have been part of a floodplain in the 1860s.  The red outline represents the Shepherd Parcel.   Fort Carrol is shown just to the east.  As in other locales hosting large numbers of troops, much of the timber on Young's property was cut for use in army construction, fortifications and as firewood.  The Army Quartermaster estimated that over $13,000 in timber had been cut at Giesborough Farm.

This May 1864 photograph was taken from a ridge overlooking Camp Stoneman.  The  photo looks towards the Anacostia River and the US Capitol can be discerned in the distant right center. (Library of Congress)

A view of the wharf at Giersboro Cavalry Depot where boatloads of horses and hay were loaded.  Note the crane affixed to the wharf and what appears to be a track--with a push cart in the background-- running adjacent to the wharf.   (Library of Congress).

November 1864 drawing of "The Great Horse Depot at Giesboro on the Potomac Below Washington" by Edward Lamson Henry.  (New York State Museum)

Decommissioning of the Depot

With the end of the war, the Government began the process of decommissioning the Cavalry Depot.  The country's small peacetime regular army had no need for thousands of mounts.  Over 50,000 surplus horses, including many that had not been fit for military service,  were sold at public auctions held at Giesboro.  Dr. Samuel Mudd claimed that he attended one of these auctions, but did not purchase a horse as they were all in poor condition.  These equestrian sales brought $1,251,722 into the Treasury.  Other depot supplies were also sold off including thirteen frame building and $9,000 worth of manure.

Upon the army's return of his property in February1866, George Washington Young unsuccessfully tried to sell the tract.  An ad placed in a local newspaper extolled its virtues and proximity to Washington:

"625 acres... with a front of mile and-a-half; the greater part bottom land, and acknowledged to be the finest soil for gardening in the vicinity of Washington.  At present there are upon the place immense improvements erected by the Government which will afford great facilities for founding at once a town that would prove to Washington what Brooklyn is to New York."

Young died in 1867, but his estate received $2,640 by the government as compensation for any damages the estate may have suffered during the war, far less than he $41,488.75 that his widow had requested.  In rejecting the request for greater compensation, a government official noted that the Youngs should be happy for all the improvements that Uncle Sam had made at no cost to them:

"The land has been greatly enriched by the thousands of animals kept upon it; miles of drainage pipes have been laid, thereby reclaiming fifty acres of swamp land to garden land, a large amount of new fencing has been constructed; valuable and costly wharfage built; the mansion house, barnes and outbuildings repaired and remodeled; new buildings erected and left upon the premises- all of which improvements made by the Quartermaster's Department of the Army of the United States inured to the benefit of the owner of the property without any immediate compensation being made on his part to the Government."

Although Giesboro Point never realized its potential, at least in George Washington Young's mind, to become Washington's "Brooklyn," the landscape has changed dramatically over the years.  In the years after the war, Young's heirs subdivided the Giesboro tract.  Starting in the 1870s, the plantation was used as a summertime resort for Washingtonians.  The main plantation house burned in a fire in 1881.  Later, the Firth Sterling Steel Company maintained a large mill on part of the property around the turn of the century.  The natural shoreline along the Anacostia, which originally terminated near the present-day NSF Anacostia-Bolling AFB boundary, has been extensively altered over the years through man-placed fill.   Around World War One, a military airfield was established on this filled in land comprising what became NSF Anacostia.

Today, there are no extant vestiges of the Cavalry Depot or Camp Stoneman.  The 2010 Master Environmental Assessment for Joint Base Bolling Anacostia noted that archeological surveys on base are "exceptionally difficult given the depth and extent of fill deposits across most of the base.."  But, the spirit of service to the defense of the nation lives on through the soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians who each day serve their country at Joint Base Bolling-Anacostia.


  1. A very interesting post about a truly hiddden aspect of Civil War history in the DC area! Thanks for bringing this to light.


  2. This is an amazing point! Thanks for doing this research and sharing!

    What's your email? I'd like to include you on the email list for the DC Historical Studies Conference. Thanks.

  3. Bill Howard (weh8 at 11, 2012 at 7:55 AM

    The name Guisborough originated in Yorkshire and, in colonial times, the land was owned by the Dent family. Peter Dent (abt 1600-1674) who married Margaret Nicholson lived at Ormesby, Guisborough Manor in Yorkshire. They had a son Thomas (1630-1676 - St.Mary's Co.,MD) who married Rebecca Wilkinson. They were my 8G Grandparents. When Thomas died, Rebecca married John Addison. The Maryland Guisboro property passed from the Dents, through Rebecca, to the Addisons, and then to the Youngs. Addison Road may trace to those Addisons, and the Guisborough name came from the Yorkshire Dents.

  4. Was there ever a cemetery located for soldiers that passed away at Giesboro Cavalry Depot? Distant ancestor did die of disease on 3 Nov 1863 at Giesboro Point. Thank you,

    1. I am not aware of a cemetery being located at Giesboro for soldiers who passed away at the hospital. However, St. Elizabeth's (Lunatic Asylum) had a cemetery where some soldiers are buried and it is just up the hill from Giesboro. So, it is possible that soldiers who died at Giesboro may have been buried there.

    2. Most soldiers who died in the area from 1861 - 1864 were buried either in Alexander, or on the grounds of the old soldiers home. From 1864 on soldiers started to be buried at Arlington.

  5. My 4th great-grandfather died at the hospital at Geisborough. In his official military record it states that his body and possessions were taken by friends. He was with the 2nd PA Cavalry and died of chronic diarrhea as a result of a sabre wound to his belly. Must have been an horrifically painful and drawn out death. Does anyone know if photos of the hospital building exist?

  6. I am a direct desendent of Notley Young and have a painting of the Gisborough house dated 1861

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  8. Does anyone know the history of the old stone house (south capitol and mlk) in the Geisboro parcel that now is the US Park Service office?

  9. Hi Steven. Thanks for the very interesting article. My great grandfather, Reuben Franklin, served as a "horse guard" after his medical discharge from the army (93rd New York Volunteers) in December 1864. My great grandmother was living at Giesboro Point at that time and met Reuben there. I have written a family history and would like to update it with an extract from your article with credit to you. Can you please tell me your full name? Thanks, Don Roddy

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  11. Thanks for a great history article unknown to many today. There is a cavalry barn still standing but abandoned on the ground of St. Elizabeth hospital east ground. Hope someone can restore that historic stable. I have visited the site and took some photos myself. I believe the Washington DC police Horse Mounted Unit wanted establish their unit there but the funding was never approved by the city to rehabilitate the facility. Sad to see a beautiful historic stable just abandoned. It's a beautiful stable. Need to be restored in my opinion.

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