Soldier Health at a Camp of Instruction for the U.S. Colored Troops in Charles County, Maryland
Updated: Apr 13
Matthew M. Palus, The Ottery Group
Camp Stanton was a major Civil War recruitment and training camp for African American infantry, most of whom had been taken out of slavery prior to statewide emancipation in Maryland occurring on November 1, 1864. The camp operated outside of Benedict in Charles County between October 1863 and March 1864. Nearly 9,000 African Americans were recruited by the Union in Maryland during the Civil War and more than a third of them were trained at Camp Stanton, forming the 7th, 9th, 19th, and several companies of the 30th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiments. The Ottery Group assisted the Maryland State Highway Administration in locating Camp Stanton and assessing the integrity of the site. Dr. Julie Schablitsky served as this project’s Principal Investigator.
Fieldwork in 2011 and 2012 resulted in the discovery of four small rectangular shelters that housed recruits over the winter of 1863-1864. Structures are consistently eight by six feet in approximate interior dimensions, and three have distinct hearths on the east end of the structure. Joseph Califf, an officer at the camp described these structures in his 1878 memoir: “The tents first issued were… soon replaced by the “A”, or common tent. These were raised upon… rails or timbers, which were plastered with mud. The chimneys were made of sticks laid up cob-house fashion, and treated to a coat of the same material, and surmounted by a barrel.” This evidence, and also an assemblage of militaria resulting from metal detection survey, firmly established the former location of the camp. I link these finds with 19th-century discourses on race, and the anticipation of its transformation in new and emergent figures of freed men.
A farmer in Benedict named John Dent wrote in a diary, transcribed by historian Howard Post: “I saw last night two soldiers, who were just from Benedict, who told me that the Negroes were dying like sheep there - that they had some disease, he didn’t know what, that killed them very fast.” Illnesses plagued Camp Stanton and were a severe problem throughout the African American regiments recruited by the Union army, causing numerous deaths among recruits. Together, pneumonia and dysentery or diarrhea were the cause of 60 percent of deaths due to disease among African American Union troops. Pneumonia subsequent to measles infection was especially dangerous and accounted for nearly a third of all deaths from disease. Joseph Califf wrote in his memoir: “A great deal of sickness prevailed during the winter. The measles broke out in camp the latter part of November, and soon after congestive chills appeared, and together they made sad havoc in the command. The great mortality was no doubt attributable to a variety of causes; to the radical change in the habits of life of the men; to the exposure they were subjected to during the building of the camp, and to the unhealthy location.” Soldiers struck by illness were moved to a camp hospital in Benedict; those that did not survive were interred in a burial ground in Benedict, and later reburied at Arlington National Cemetery.
Much hinges on what is meant by “a change in habits” in these discussions. Is it referencing a shift in diet, from pork, corn and foraged foods to the beef and bread that fed the Union army? A shift from conditions under which recruits were quartered as enslaved men, to the experience of camp life and its crowding, potentially its filth? Does it comment on the transition to emancipated life that they may enjoy, should they live so long? Racial ideology always shaped the general understanding of illness in the United States, even among staunch abolitionists in command of the camp, and losses to disease reflected on the suitability of African Americans as soldiers and even free people in American thought and military doctrine. It was the general policy of the United States Army to keep African American infantry out of combat, with some important exceptions, and instead have them garrisoned and assigned to other duties during the Civil War. Because of this, most casualties resulted from disease, and the long term costs of infectious disease, malnourishment, and other circumstances of life at military garrison or camp represents a wastage of human potential that was likely consequential to the progression of the Civil War.
There was a deficiency of physicians available to treat the African American troops service-wide, and historian Margaret Humphries notes that many Union doctors observed that African American soldiers struck with illness grew hopeless when hospitalized, seeming to give up on their own recoveries and doubt the sincerity of care that they received. There were only ten African American physicians who served in the Union army, and one of these was assigned as a surgeon for the 7th Regiment trained at Camp Stanton. Doctor Alexander Augusta was born to a free woman in Norfolk in 1825 and earned his medical degree in Toronto in 1860. In 1864 as the 7th Regiment was preparing to depart from the camp, white physicians under Augusta’s command petitioned for him to be removed from his commission, and he was detailed to a recruitment center in Baltimore for the rest of the war.
What knowledge regarding maintenance of health and overcoming disease did recruits at Camp Stanton bring out of slavery? The winter shelters and hearths, improvised and fueled through their own labor, should not be discounted as austere but important measures for preventing respiratory infection. The hearths maintained dry conditions inside of the shelters and gave recruits a chance of combating pneumonia, while remaining in the community of the camp and out of the camp hospital.
This essay draws heavily from Margaret Humphries book Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War (2008). Historian George Howard Post also shared personal research now published in his book, Benedict on the Patuxent: From its Beginnings to its Tercentenary (2014).