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Archaeologists visit Civil War encampment site in Stafford

Last week archeologists visited Stafford County to dig at the site of a Civil War encampment on Clift Farm Road where roughly 1,500 Union soldiers spent the winter of 1862 and 1863.

Excavations at Camp Misery, Stafford County. “Camp Misery” or “Camp Starvation,” as it was known at the time got its name from the soldiers who were stationed there after the Union’s defeat in the Battle of Fredericksburg.

“Some of the men wrote letters home indicating that, initially at least, the provisioning here wasn’t as adequate as they might have liked,” said Sate Archeologist Michael B. Barber, who was at the site last week to oversee the dig by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and James Madison University.

The camp held rows of crude huts lined up along “streets” where soldiers were aligned in communities according to divisions, companies and regiments.

Earlier digs unearthed champagne bottles, beer bottles, personal smoking pipes — some carved with regimental insignia — and percussion caps for pistols.

The artifacts indicate that the area of the most recent dig, where archeologists found the site of several of the huts, was designated for officers, Barber said. The pistol percussion caps gave it away.

“Civil war officers weren’t issued rifles,” he said.

The log huts that housed two to four officers were 12 to 15 feet long by 8 to 10 feet wide and were partially underground with canvas roofs. Each hut had a small hearth at one end to keep the men warm.

The archeologists were at Camp Misery site to gather as many artifacts as possible before a new high school is built there, Barber said.

A volunteer inspects an artifact from the Union winter campsite in southern Stafford. “This is the ultimate research gathering phase. This is the excavation. This is the end product where we try to get at least a representative sample of data,” he said. “We hope to get an adequate sample.”

A dig where so many people were encamped for so long provides insight to life during the Civil War, Barber said.

The camp broke in the spring of 1863 and most of the men wound up at Chancellorsville, Barber said.

“What’s interesting about this kind of thing is that you can really relate to the individual people, which is what we want to deal with,” he said. “You can just imagine a soldier here from the North not knowing what will happen next. It’s cold. It’s snowy. It’s wet. He’s hungry. You get a real feel for the personality of the unit.”

Celia Isbrecht, a member of the Archeology Society of Virginia, came from North Carolina to Stafford to help out at Camp Misery.

She said she most often volunteers at Virginia sites.

“I come up here from North Carolina because there’s a lot more archeology going on in Virginia,” Isbrecht said.

Camp sites interest her the most, she said.

“I like to find out about how people lived in the past,” she said. “To me this is interesting because it was a camp. I’m not crazy about battlefields, but this is where they lived.”

Barber said a lot of Civil War artifacts are lost to folks with metal detectors who find them and take them away without referencing where they were found and cataloging what they took

The dig at Camp Misery will help put things in context, Barber said.

“A lot of data that’s gathered in Stafford is gathered by folks with metal detectors. What we’re trying to do is relate the articles in place to one another and give the overall regional design here,” he said. “This particular endeavor is to gather them in a scientific manner so that we can interpret them in the context of the Civil War.”

Author: Keith Walker | Source: Stafford County Sun [October 15, 2010]


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