Friday, February 10, 2012

The 1st US Colored Troops at Roosevelt Island

Theodore Roosevelt Island,  a small island located in the Potomac River between Rosslyn, VA and the Georgetown waterfront, is maintained by the National Park Service in honor of our nation's 26th president. However, during the Civil War, the 80 acre island, then known as Mason's Island or Analostan Island, served as a training camp for the 1st United States Colored Troops (1st USCT), an infantry regiment of African American soldiers recruited in the District of Colombia in 1863.  The island was occupied by Union troops at the outset of the war and used for various purposes.

Photograph of the 1st U.S. Colored Troops in camp circa 1863.  The regiment's white officers can be seen in the foreground.  (Library of Congress)

With the abolition of slavery in the District in April 1862, the number of fugitive slaves, known as "contrabands," taking up residence in Washington soared.  On July 17, 1862, Congress authorized the enlistment of African-Americans in the army, but official enrollment did not begin until after September 1862.  Two white Army chaplains, J.D. Turner and W.G. Raymond, secured authorization from President Lincoln to raise a regiment from the District's contraband population. (Click here for  Raymond's April 25, 1863 letter to Lincoln)    Recruitment and formation of the 1st District of Colombia Colored volunteers began in May 1863.

Turner and Raymond initially struggled to fill the ranks of the new regiment, the 1st U.S.C.T.  Of the able-bodied African-Americans residing in the District, many were already employed by the Government as laborers and teamsters.  Furthermore much of the local white population, including Metropolitan Police officers, were openly hostile to the idea of black soldiers.  On several occasions, African American recruits were assaulted on the streets of Washington.  However, enlistments picked up and the regiment eventually comprised ten companies totaling about 700 men.       

Late 19th century photo of the ruins on Mason's Island of John Mason's self-contained summer estate.   James Mason, author of the 2nd Fugitive Slave act and one of two Confederate  commissioners detained in the Trent Affair, was born here. By1861, the once fine home was dilapidated and the island had passed into the hands of William A. Bradley, a former mayor and postmaster of Washington.
The island's relative seclusion--  linked to Georgetown by ferry and Virginia by a causeway-- provided  an ideal location to train and house freed blacks. On May 22, 1863, the Washington National Republican reported that two companies of the District colored regiment were now "encamped on Analostan Isand, where they now are in full sight and under the very noses of the secessionists of Georgetown."

Washington National Republican, May 22, 1863.
The training camp of the 1st USCT was known as Camp Greene.  At Camp Greene, the newly enlisted soldiers learned to march in formation and to fire their rifles.  The poet Walt Whitman visited the camp in July 1862 and recorded his observations:

"After reaching the Island, we get presently in the midst of the camp of the 1st Regiment U.S.C.T.  The tents look clean and good; indeed, altogether, in locality especially, the pleasantest camp I have yet seen.  The spot is umbrageous, high and dry, with distant sounds of the city ... A hundred rods across is Georgetown.  The river between is swelled and muddy from the late rains up country.  So quiet here, yet full of vitality, all around in the far distance glimpses, as I sweep my eye, of hills, verdure-clad, and with plenteous trees... The scene, the porch of an old Virginia slave-owner's house, the Potomac rippling near, the Capitol just down three or four miles there, seen through the pleasant blue haze of this July day... These, then, are the black troops,- or the beginning of them.  Well, no one can see them, even under these circumstances-their military career in its novitate-without feeling well pleased with them..."
 
In late summer 1863, the regiment was ordered to the Department of Virginia where it served at Norfolk, Portsmouth and Yorktown until April 1864.  In May and June 1864, the 1st USCT participated in General Bulter's operations south of the James River including action at Wilson's Wharf on May 24th.  The regiment next saw service at Petersburg, VA  and participated in the July 30, 1864 Battle of the Crater.  The war's end found the regiment in North Carolina where it was present for the surrender of Johnson's army, the last major Confederate command in the field.  The regiment mustered out of service on September 29, 1865.   Overall regimental losses were 185 with 4 officers and 67 enlisted men killed and mortally wounded and 1 officer and 113 enlisted men dying of disease.

Circa 1865 photograph of soldiers on Mason's Island with a small ferry in the background.  The Aqueduct Bridge can be seen in the background.  In addition to the ferry, a temporary pontoon bridge was also put in place during the war to link the island to Georgetown.   (Library of Congress)


In May 1864, the "contraband department" assumed control of the now vacant army camp on Mason's Island.  The intention was to use the island, which was closer to potential jobs in Washington, as a "general depot for hiring out Contrabands."  Some of these former slaves were employed by the government to farm corn and potatoes on the island.

Map and architectural drawing of contraband quarters on Mason's Island.  The drawing shows the layout of living quarters and location of hospital facilities, stables, laundry, school house, and teacher and employee quarters.  The Union Army built at least 20 structures on the island including a a pontoon bridge connecting it with Georgetown. (Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library, Dickinson State University)


The island remained a freedman's refugee camp through June 1865.   A July 1865 advertisement for the sale and relocation of government buildings on Analostan Island gives some idea of the infrastructure that had been built there during the war:

8 Barracks, each 20.5 by 110 feet
2 Hospital Wards, 24 by 190 feet
Hospital Messhouse, 24 by 65 feet
Stable, room for 50 horses
Ice-house, 140 by 26 feet.

Today, there are no visible remains of the 1st USCT's encampment or that of the freedman's camp on Roosevelt Island.


Sources:

Clark-Lewis, Elizabeth.  First Freed:  Washington, D.C. In the Emancipation Era.  Washington, D.C.:  Howard University Press, 2002.
Curry, Mary E.  "Theodore Roosevelt Island:  A Broken Link to Early Washington, D.C. History."  Records of the Colombian Historical Society.  Washington, D.C.:  Vol 71/72, pp. 14-33.
Dickson, Paul and Douglas E. Evelyn.  On This Spot:  Pinpointing the Past in Washington.  Capitol Books, 2008.
Dobak, William B.  Freedom by the Sword:  The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-67.  Washington, D.C.:  Government Printing Office, 2011.
Harrison, Robert.  Washington During Civil War and Reconstruction:  Race and Radicalism, Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Leech, Margaret.  Reveille in Washington, 1860-65.  Simon Publications, 1941.
Washington National Republican, May 22, 1863, July 26, 1865.

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