Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Irish Brigade Goes into Winter Quarters at Camp California outside Alexandria

December 1861 found the New York 69th Infantry, the original component of the famed Irish Brigade, settling into winter quarters at Camp California just outside Alexandria and along the Little River Turnpike.  The 69th had  previously been encamped at Camp Corcoran on Meridian Hill in Washington.  But, at the start of the month it was ordered to this area of rolling farmland and hilltops overlooking the Little River Turnpike several miles west of Alexandria.  The area is now urbanized and there is no vestiges of the encampment.  However, historical records  help illuminate what camp life was like for the 10,00 men of Sumner's Division, including the Irish Brigade's 69th New York, who spent the winter of 1861-62 there.

Drawing, from a wartime photograph, of the 57th Ne York on Dress Parade at Camp California that appears in the 57th's regimental history published in 1895.
The 69th New York had its roots in the 69th regiment of the New York Militia, a largely Irish 90 day unit that had participated in First Bull Run.  After the militia's term of service expired, the unit was reformed in New York City in the fall of 1861 and arrived in Washington in mid-November.  Its companies were made up of recruits from New York City, Buffalo, Albany, Brooklyn, Jersey City and even Boston and Chicago.

The 69th, and other arriving elements of the Irish Brigade, were soon assigned to Brigadier General Edwin Sumner's divisional command.  Camp California was named in his honor as he previously commanded the U.S. Army's Department of the Pacific before the war.  Camp California was occupied principally by units from New York, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island that were part of Sumner's Division including the famed 69th New York, the 63rd New York, the 57th New York, the 5th New Hampshire, the 53rd Pennsylvania, the 8th Illinois Cavalry, the 52nd New York and the 88th NY "Connaught Rangers ."   By February 1862, there were 9,859 men, including 383 officer, stationed at Camp California.

This Civil War period map shows the area where Camp California was located between the Little River Turnpike and the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.  (Detailed Map of Part of Virginia from Alexandria to the Potomac River above Washington, D.C., Library of Congress)
In a December 12, 1861 letter, the 69th's commanding officer, Colonel Robert Nugent, provided a glowing description of Camp California:

"We are located on a very fine hill, overlooking a magnificent valley, studded with white tents, and presenting a view of some ten miles in every direction.  The location is exceedingly healthy, the soil is dry, firewood abundant, in fact inexhaustible, and the men getting wise by experience, have not only put up their tents scientifically, cut drains round them, but have been able to put in substantial floors, and glean as much straw in the neighboring fields as to make themselves beds."

Another 69th soldier wrote home that "the place selected for our encampment is a fine sloping hill, and when you ascend to the top your a presented with a grand view of the many tented fields on our right and left." An 1866 history of the Irish Brigade provided a similar description of the landscape:

"The camp commanded a splendid panoramic view of a long stretch of country. It was situated on a rising ground, near the Seminary, between two and three miles from Alexandria. At first it was covered with trees and dense brush: these being cleared away, except some shade trees, a pretty camp soon sprung up, like a canvas city. Here the three regiments were pleasantly encamped, occupying the brows of two hills, between which lies the road leading from Alexandria to Fairfax. On the right of the road, as you go from Alexandria, were the tents of the Sixty-ninth and Sixty-third, and on the left those of the Eighty-eighth. From this position there was a very fine view. A perfect amphitheater of hills girds the plains, looking picturesque with their waving forests of trees and innumerable white tents. Some rich valleys of land lie beneath, and the red brick walls of Alexandria glow in the distance. There is a slight view of the waters of the Potomac, while distinctly beyond it rise the hills of Maryland. About ten miles on the right is Mount Vernon, the home and grave of the immortal Washington."

The remarks about an abundance of firewood was already ringing hollow as the large number of soldiers encamped in the area soon resulted in the once wooded heights becoming "destitute of trees," in the words of the Alexandria Local News.  A soldier recalled that this "secesh fuel" helped keep his comrades warm and were also used to build fine regimental cook houses.  Mr. Felix Richards, a slave owning Unionist whose Volusia Farm was adjacent to Camp California, lost his whole forest to axmen from the 5th New Hampshire.  (The estate of Felix Richards would have to wait until 1915 to receive compensation of $5,300 from the U.S. Congress for damage done to the property by Union Soldiers.)

The author has placed a black arrow in the general area where Camp California was located.  The map is an 1861 map of the Defenses of Washington reprinted in the "Atlas to Accompany The Official Records of the Union and confederate Armies."  Camp California was under the shelter of nearby Fort Worth (misspelled as Ft Woth on this map).  Referring to Fort Worth, one Irish Brigade soldier wrote home that "in our front there is a very strong fort that would send very destructive messengers to any approaching enemy if they were to come within range of its long and heavy guns."  General Sumner reportedly camped in a Sibley tent near Mr. Watkins' home.

Captain Gilbert Frederick of the 57th New York Volunteers stated that when it became evident that Camp Gilbert was to be their home for the winter, "streets were laid out in military fashion, each company being assigned to its, place.  Then began the pitching of tents, the pairing of comrades, the building of bunks, putting up clothes racks, making tables, and getting to rights for general housekeeping."

Lieutenant James B. Turner, an Irish Brigade staff officer, described an average day in camp as "damp, dull disagreeable, the rain is pouring, the sky is overcast and gloomy, the earth beneath your feet is a vast, treacherous, terrible sea of muddy matter."  Commenting on the muddy conditions of the company streets and parade ground, C.P. Griffin of the 69th's Co. K wrote home in February 1862 that "... so soft is the sacred soil of the Old Dominion, that we have been excused from drill the last two weeks... the slimy mess of mud around here is of a very adhesive nature..."  A cavalryman, who also focused on the seemingly endless mud at Camp California that winter in his memoirs, noted that he and his colleagues likened their suffering to that "of our revolutionary fathers at Valley Forge and Brandywine, which gave us courage to endure our trials."

An officer in the 57th New York later recalled that it was a particularly cold winter and some soldiers had stoves and hot coals in their tents to stay warm at night.  Of course, this practice could be dangerous:  "One morning a tent of Company A was discovered unopened, and on examination its occupants were found to be stiff and unconscious from breathing coal gas during the night."  Fortunately, these soldiers were revived.  However, there were deaths at the camp from disease and mishaps.  The New York Herald reported the death at Seminary Hospital of Captain Maxwell O'Suilivan, of the Irish Brigade's 88th NY Volunteers, who died as a result of burns sustained when his tent caught fire at Camp California. 

Life at Camp California that winter generally focused on drilling, drilling, and some more drilling, an unpleasant and monotonous activity even in the best weather. However, there were respites from camp life, such as obtaining a pass to go into Alexandria where alcohol-- despite its sale technically prohibited to soldiers in 1862-- flowed liberally.  Soldiers from the 69th were also regularly detailed to perform picket duty in the area around Edsall's Hill where they occasionally exchanged shots with Confederates.  There were also some leisure activities in camp that winter such as visits from friends, hurdle races, foot races, wreslting matches, greased pig games, and festivals.  Letters and packages from home represented another pleasant diversion.

Officers of the 69th New York Infantry (Irish Brigade) posing in front of their camp.  Date and location unknown, but sometime between 1862 and 1865.  The Irish Brigade was distinguished by its insignia, its red trefoil, and its green feather, (Library of Congress)

General Edwin Sumner (left) commanded the Union Division that camped at Camp California.  In a December 1861 letter, Col. Robert Nugent, commander of the 69th New York, exclaimed that General Sumner "has a very high appreciation of Irish bravery and military spirit and it will be our own fault if we do not become prime favorites with him." (Library of Congress)


Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher, a noted Irish patriot, formally assumed command of the Irish Brigade in a ceremony held on a snow covered field at Camp California on February 5, 1862.  This was followed by a large feast in camp.  Meagher's brigade headquarters at Camp California was decorated with a jaguar skin and other trophies he had otained on a Central American hunting trip.  Writing from Camp California on March 7, 1862, Meagher expressed his soldiers' fidelity to their adopted homeland-- some reputedly enlisted upon arriving at the Castle Garden immigrant landing point in New York City-- while maintaining optimism that Ireland would someday also be free:

"You perceive that, although you have invited me to celebrate the birthday of Ireland's Patron Saint, yet the perils of another land, and the means and certainty of dissipating them, have been uppermost in my mind.  The country must again be tranquil and united.  We, adopted citizens owe to her our first duty.  Upon her destiny depends the fate of Democracy, the world over."

Photograph showing Ben Brenman Park, which occupies land that made up part of Camp California during the Civil War.  The Little River Turnpike can be seen in the bottom of the photo.  In the 20th century, Cameron Station, a U.S. Army Supply Depot, was located on the ground where Camp California had once stood.  Cameron Station was decommissioned in the 1990s as part of the BRAC process and has been developed into a residential neighborhood.  (Photo by author)

In mid-March 1862, after a brief foray to Centreville to inspect abandoned rebel positions,  the  69th and other elements of the Irish Brigade departed Camp California and marched into Alexandria with the rest of Sumner's Division.  There, they embarked on the steamer Ocean Queen, which transported them to Fortress Monroe as part of General McLellan's Peninsula Campaign.  The 69th New York would serve in almost all of the Army of the Potomac's campaigns and earn a reputation for gallantry while suffering horrific casualties in battles such as the Seven Days, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.

Modern map with an arrow pointing to the location of Ben Brenman park, which occupies land that was once utilized for Camp California.


Alexandria Local News, October 15, 1861, January 9, 1862 and February 10, 1862.
Bertsch, Amy, "Volusia:  A farm and the people who lived there during the Civil War," The Alexandria Chronicle, Spring 2011.
Bilby, Joseph G.  The Irish Brigade in the Civil War:  The 69th New York and Other Irish Regiments.   Da Capo Press, 2001.
Conyngham, David Power.  The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns.  1866.
 Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg (New York at Gettysburg) by the New York] Monuments Commission for the Battlefields of Gettysburg and Chattanooga. Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Company, 1902, Excerpted online
Hard, Alvert.  History of the Eight cavalry regiment, Illinois volunteers, during the War of the Rebellion.
Gilbert, Frederick.  The Story of A Regiment Being A Record of the Military Service of the Fifty-Seventh 
New York Herald, April 14, 1862.
New York State Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion.
New York Times, "Letters from the Irish Brigade, December 12, 1861.
Syriacuse NY Daily,  February 11, 1862.
The War of the Rebellion:  A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.  Series 1, Vol. 5.


  1. just a suggestion: you may want to embed a google map at the end of the article so tourists like me can easily find it.

  2. Pat. Thanks and a good point. I have updated accordingly with a modern map showing Ben Brenman park and Cameron Station neighborhood, where most of Camp California was situated.

  3. Steven, FYI, there will be a lecture on Camp CA and Alexandria's Crimean Ovens at Fort Ward Museum on May 12, 2012 at 1pm. There is a fee. It will feature information on the Irish Brigade. You provide great information but historian Wally Owen spoke at Friends of Fairfax archaeology program this past weekend and documented the location of Camp CA about 3/4 mile to the east of Ben Brenman Park and the old Cameron Station site.

    1. Thanks. I would say Wally Owens info is probably more accurate. T

  4. Great article. Thanks for sharing all this fascinating material. I found this site when I Googled "Camp California" for info to supplement a transcription I'm writing from my great-great grandfather's Civil War diary from 1862. He starts the year in Camp California and then gets sucked into the war....

    Doug Kirkpatrick

  5. Ive been metal detecting in the area and think I found where part of the main camp was. Buckles. Lots of eagle buttons. Both infantry I and cavalry C's. Large cents that all pre date the war. And of course three ringers and musket balls galore.

  6. I have bookmarked your article on Camp California as I was stationed at Cameron Station from 1972-73, and was very interested in civil war encampments then, exploring Fort Worth and other nearby CW camps, but had no idea that C.Sta. was a campsite that far back. - jerry adams, specialist 4, US Army Recruiting Support Center

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