• Jake Wynn

Carver Barracks - A Civil War encampment in Washington with deep ties to Pennsylvania

I’ve been seriously missing my occasional visits to Civil War sites and battlefields in this lost spring of COVID-19. So recently, I’ve endeavored to start trekking to Civil War encampment and hospital sites close to my apartment in Washington, DC. There will be more of these posts to come. – Jake Wynn

On the morning of December 25, 1861, the officers and soldiers of the 104th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry set out on a mile-long march to occupy their newly constructed winter quarters on the outskirts of the Union capital. The regiment woke early and had struck their tents by 8 AM, loaded wagons with the regiment’s gear, and assembled for inspection before its march began. This was how the men of the 104th Pennsylvania were to spend their first Christmas at war.

Soldiers of the 104th Pennsylvania regimental band, 1861 (Bucks County Historical Society - PA Civil War 150)


The regiment moved from its original campsite on Kalorama Heights, about 2 ½ miles from downtown Washington to a newly constructed series of buildings on the campus of Columbian College along the 14th Street Road. The camp was atop an eminence known as Meridian Hill and provided views of the yet-unfinished US Capitol Building. The camp spread out along the east and west sides of 14th Street atop the heights. The camp had been laid out by Colonel William Watts Hart Davis of the 104th Pennsylvania and the construction of the barracks buildings by Lieutenant James M. Carver of Company C. These barracks and the massive military hospital that later occupied the site were named in honor of Lieutenant Carver.

Colonel W.W.H. Davis of the 104th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry (Aztec Club)


In this encampment, the men of the 104th Pennsylvania would spend their first winter at war. They were later joined at Carver Barracks by the 52nd Pennsylvania, the 56th New York, and the 11th Maine.


The following documents tell the story of the construction of Carver Barracks and about life in this well-organized military camp above the Union capital.

Carver Barracks in 1862 (Library of Congress)


Colonel W.W.H. Davis, 104th Pennsylvania – From the regiment’s history

“As cold weather approached, and it became evident that the army must spend winter in Washington, I determined if possible, to have my brigade under cover…


The plan I fixed upon was that of a Mexican town, the huts to be built around a large open courtyard, or plaza, each regiment to occupy one side of the square… General McClellan approved the plan and ordered the quartermaster to issue the requisite amount of lumber and other materials upon proper requisition.


I selected Meridian Hill, on 14th Street, immediately in the rear of Columbia College, as the site for the barracks. It was two miles from Washington and a healthy location."

Columbian College on Meridian Hill in Washington in 1862. (Library of Congress)

Letter from “M.S.R.,” December 9, 1861 – Published in the Reading Times

“We expect to into Winter quarters on Meridian Hill, near Columbia College, on 14th Street, 1 ½ miles from the Capitol. Our quarters are being put up there by the carpenters in the regiment of Company H. [Solomon] Seiders, [Edward] Maicks, Corporal John Housum, Thomas Bowers, Nathaniel Gay, James Quimby, and Samuel Leiby, are engaged on ours…


It is rather a disappointment to the boys to have to go into Winter quarters here, as we all expected to go South to spend the Winter on a scene of more active operations, but we must swallow our chagrin and stay or go as the Government says – those in command, no doubt, know their business, and we must bide our time, though many of us would much rather leave here and get into secessiondom, to have, at least, a chance for a skirmish with the enemy.”

Colonel W.W.H. Davis, 104th Pennsylvania – From the regiment’s history

"The barracks consumed a million feet of lumber… Sergeant Mattis was detailed to attend to the delivery of the lumber and other materials. The erection of the quarters was superintended by Lieutenant Carver, and after him the establishment was called 'Carver Barracks.'"

From the Philadelphia Inquirer, January 10, 1862

“All this work was commenced and finished and within three weeks and without any assistance from outsiders… These barracks are far superior in workmanship and design to any erected by contract at a far greater expense.”

Letter from Colonel W.W.H. Davis, December 27, 1861 – Published in the Doylestown Democrat

“We made our exit from Camp Davis on Christmas Day. We struck our tents at eight o’clock, A.M., and in a little while we had all our camp equipage and baggage ready to move… As soon as the wagons had been loaded, the regiment was drawn up in line of battle, in marching order, that is, the men having the whole of their outfits on their back. It was afterwards formed in column, by company, and was thoroughly inspected, which is customary for breaking camp for a march. This having concluded, the regiment took up the line of march for this place [Carver Barracks], the colors flying and the band playing their most cheerful tunes…


The quarters were without windows or stoves; but we managed to get along with them for a day or two. Yesterday a portion of the stoves were delivered, and today the balance, so that the men now have their barrack rooms well warmed. This afternoon, late, we received our window-frames and sash, and tomorrow they will all be put in, which will complete our winter quarters…


Our winter quarters for the brigade have been named, in public orders, 'Carver Barracks,' Meridian Hill, after Lieutenant James M. Carver, of Company C, 104th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers.


This is an honor well deserved, for he has not only had the superintendency of the all the buildings of the whole brigade, but discharged his duties with a diligence worthy of all praise; and we are probably more indebted to him for the early completion than anyone else.


I can already see a beneficial effect upon the men; they are much more cheerful in their warm quarters, than in their shivering canvas tents, and if you will go through their quarters, you will hear them at almost all hours of the day, when off duty, singing and laughing, and chatting, with a gaiety and lightness of heart, that bespeaks contentment and quiet happiness.


In order to be prepared in case of fire, an order will be issued tomorrow, for the Captain of each Company to place a barrel at each corner of his building, and keep it constantly filled with water…"

Close up showing the barracks that were laid out by Lieutenant James M. Carver in December 1861. (Library of Congress)

Colonel W.W.H. Davis, 104th Pennsylvania – From the regiment’s history

"The quarters of the officers were generally papered with wall-paper, while those of the men were covered with Harper’s Weekly and other pictorials, which presented them with an illustrated history of the rebellion as far as it had progressed. Contributions from home enabled many of the men to add a few delicacies to the government ration. A plump turkey, a present from a lady of Bucks County, graced the table of the commanding officer at Christmas dinner…"

Letter from Captain W.F. Walter, Company H, 104th Pennsylvania to the Ladies Aid Association of the City of Reading, January 20, 1863 – From the Reading Times


To Mrs. Maria C. Brooks, Secretary of the Ladies Aid Association, Reading, Berks Co., Penna.


"Madam: Your letter of the 14th inst., communicating to me, that the Ladies Aid Association of the City of Reading, has forwarded a box containing a supply of woolen mittens and socks for the Company which has been received and distributed to and among the members of the Company.


The officers and privates of the Company wish to express to you and the members of the Association their grateful acknowledgments for the gift, and we wish to express to the Ladies who fair hands have done so much for us the recipients of their bounty, that as we look upon these reminders of what we have left – home and its endearments – for which we are now periling our lives – that they, the Ladies of Berks County, may have the consciousness of knowing that they too have contributed their portion toward making the solider comfortable in the field, and that Company H of the 104th Regiment, Penna. Volunteers, will not dishonor those who have been so thoughtful as to provide for their wants, and in the hour which tries the heart, when danger comes we will think of those whom we have left at home, and that will never our hearts to bear all for the sake of our friends at home, and to strike the foes of our once happy country.


We hope a kind Providence may soon bless us with the joys of Peace and Union.


In behalf of the members of the Company,

I am Madam, respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

W.F. Walter"

Colonel W.W.H. Davis, 104th Pennsylvania – From the regiment’s history

"In some respects the winter of 1861 and ’62 was the most unpleasant that had been known at Washington City for many years. It was mild in temperature, and wet, and almost the whole country in the vicinity of the army was reduced to a state of mud. The roads were in such condition, that at times travel was almost impeded. Some days it took six mules to draw an empty wagon out 14th Street and up Meridian Hill. It was with difficulty my command could supplied with rations and fuel…


The bad weather was against the drill and discipline of the army. For weeks at a time there was not drilling. Our barracks yard became almost a sea of mud, and for a week or two at a stretch we could not even have dress parade…


On the 5th of February, a flag-staff, 75 feet high, was erected in the middle of the barracks yard, and the first clear evening afterward, the stars and stripes were run up and unfurled amid the cheers of the troops, and the music of the bands playing the 'Star-Spangled Banner' in concert."

The 75 foot flag pole at Carver Barracks (Library of Congress)

Colonel W.W.H. Davis, 104th Pennsylvania – From the regiment’s history

"Whisky was the most troublesome enemy the army had to fight during the winter. The proprietors of groggeries were almost legion in number, and were found located on every side. Through the instrumentality of 'red eye' and 'tribulated tanglefoot,' many a good fellow was brought to grief. Armed parties were now and then sent out to put an end to these intolerable nuisances in the vicinity of the camps, and not unfrequently the barrels and kegs were rolled out of the shanties, and the contents turned into the gutter. I was told, that on one occasion the officer in charge of the party detected some tin-cans of whisky protected by the enormous hoops of a woman, who stood over them in the middle of the room.


When she saw that she was detected, she exclaimed almost with tears in her eyes: 'Ah, dear captain, you are not going to take away the livin’ of a poor lone woman, with six small children, and three of them blind!' The pathetic appeal had no effect on the hard-hearted officer, who emptied the contents into the street.


Friends at home sometimes sent the men whisky in boxes that contained pies and cakes. To break up the practice, all boxes were ordered to be opened and searched in the presence of an officer before delivery to the owner. But the most watchful care could not entirely prevent whisky being smuggled into barracks.


One day a private in Company D received a box, which was duly inspected by an officer and pronounced all right, and turned over to the owner. He had no sooner received it, then he cut open a loaf of bread, and took therefrom a square tin-box filled with whisky. Parents were even known to send whisky to their children in this clandestine way, and sometimes got them into trouble."

Colonel W.W.H. Davis, 104th Pennsylvania – From the regiment’s history

"The news of the surrender of Fort Donelson created the most lively joy throughout the Army of the Potomac and the citizens of the federal capital generally… There were hilarious rejoicing at the barracks, in which both officers and men participated Information of this important victory reached us about the middle of the afternoon, and soon afterward Regan’s battery came into the barracks yard and fired a national salute. The reins of discipline were somewhat loosened and the soldiers were allowed to give vent to their patriotic impulses in their own way.


In the evening the barracks were handsomely illuminated, and the men indulged in bon-fires, torch-light processions and transparencies. The regimental bands made the air vocal with their patriotic strains, and in response to serenades a few patriotic speeches were made. Our readers will remember how much the victories of Dranesville, Mill Spring, and Donelson cheered the poplar heart that dreary winter."

Letter to the Reading Times written by Sergeant Spangler and Sergeant Bechtel, Company H, 104th Pennsylvania, March 2, 1862

"Dear Times; I write these few lines to let you know that Company H, Lauer Infantry, of Reading, have made up a song and sent it to you; and if you please you can put it in your little sheet.


It is a Parody on the 'Happy Land of Canaan,' and was composed and sung by Elhanan S. Bechtel and Charles A. Spangler of the 104th Penna… The Reading boys are all right side up with care, and we have only one man sick and so you see ware in good spirits.

Song.

Air: - Happy Land of Canaan.

Come all ye freemen bold, together young and old,

Arise and let us be a going;

There’s confusion in our land, brought on by a traitorous band.

Who are striving to destroy our glorious Union.

Chorus – Then come, come away, let us not delay,

But onward let us be a going;

We’ll brave the storm together, and we’ll yield to traitors never.

There is our glorious Flag, bought by our fathers’ blood,

The traitors have taken it down;

The Stripes they torn asunder, and the Stars they’ve trampled under,

And stuck up the Rag of Disunion.

Chorus

But we will these wrongs revenge, with our gallant Union men,

Who together like brothers are joining;

We will forward without fear, and leave all that’s near and dear,

For we are bound to defend our glorious Union.

Chorus

Gallant sons of Pennsylvania, are as brave and bold as any,

For thousands and thousands have gone on

With others to unite, and raise the Stars and Stripes

Where now floats the Rag of Disunion.

Chorus.

They say the men are better drilled, and fight with a better will.

Than any of our forces now at Washington’

But they hadn’t time to tarry down at Harper’s Ferry,

To face the Defenders of the Union.

Chorus.

Then in a warlike manner, we’ll fling out our Starry Banner,

And to the field we will march on;

We’ll desert our Flag, O! never, but our Stars and Stripes shall float forever.

The emblem of our great glorious Union.

Chorus."

Colonel W.W.H. Davis, 104th Pennsylvania – From the regiment’s history

"March brought more pleasant weather. The mud now began to dry up, and a few days of warm sun upon it made the ground dry enough to drill upon. In the simple matter of drill, the troops were hardly as efficient as they were when they went into barracks. But the winter had not been passed entirely without profit. In the intervals of mud, when the ground was hard enough, there was occasional target practice.


Two or three times a week the officers recited tactics, going through the various schools, and explaining the movements on the blackboard. The field officers also held weekly meetings to recite, discuss, and explain movements of the line.


Our drill ground was on what had been the old Washington race course, out 14th Street, just beyond Columbia College, and within a few hundred yards of the Barracks. As soon as the ground was dry enough the brigade drill was commenced and continued twice a day, when not engaged in other duties, until the army took the field."

Regiments on the parade ground at Carver Barracks (Library of Congress)

Colonel W.W.H. Davis, 104th Pennsylvania – From the regiment’s history

"The order to march, which all had been waiting for with so much anxiety and impatience, came at last. Our division marched the 29th of March. The brigade had been out drilling all the morning, as we did not expect to receive the order that day, and the regiments had been dismissed for dinner, and were returning to their quarters, when an order was put into my hands for us to be ready to march that afternoon at 2 o’clock.


This created great enthusiasm among the troops, and in a moment all was hurry and bustle to get ready. Dinner was swallowed in a twinkling, and the small quantity of surplus baggage still on hand quickly disposed of. The regiments, in full uniform, were in line soon after two, but the wagons did not arrive until about four. At this hour were we under arms, and at the bugle signal from headquarters, took up the line of march down 14th Street, followed by the artillery and baggage. The 104th led the division.


As the troops marched down this broad avenue to the sounds of martial music from numerous bands, and the rays of the declining sun reflected back from the glittering bayonets and polished equipments of 12,000 men, the spectacle was unusually fine. The men had put on their best uniforms to march through the city, and appeared clean and neat in every particular. A large crowd of persons assembled at Willard’s, and along the street elsewhere, to witness our passage.


We continued down 14th Street to the Long Bridge, which we crossed, and passing the fortifications which cover it on the Virginia side, turned to the left into the road that leads to Alexandria. "

The soldiers of the 104th Pennsylvania were bound for combat in the Peninsula Campaign later that spring. They would never return to Carver Barracks as a unit. But over the following three years, several 104th Pennsylvania soldiers would be treated at Carver General Hospital that opened after the soldiers of Casey’s Division vacated in the spring of 1862.[1] The barracks constructed for the 104th Pennsylvania in December 1861 became one of Washington’s largest military hospitals.

A hospital ward at Carver General Hospital during the Civil War (Library of Congress)


A tent field hospital was attached the pre-existing Carver General Hospital for overflow in the aftermath of major battles. Columbian College stands in the background. (Library of Congress)


Colonel Davis, in the 104th Pennsylvania’s regimental history, remarked how the name of Lieutenant James M. Carver of Company C became forever attached to the history of Washington in the Civil War. “When vacated [Carver Barracks] in the spring the government fitted them up for a general hospital, for which they were well adapted with slight alteration,” Davis wrote. “They were then called ‘Carver General Hospital.’ How easily was the name of an unknown lieutenant made historic!”

Carver General Hospital in 1864 (Library of Congress)



[1] Various hospital reports accessed in the National Republican newspaper of Washington, DC.

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