Jamestown Historical Society 100 years: The Civil War at home
For most Jamestowners, the effect of the Civil War was closer than the battlefield. There were two Civil War military installations in Jamestown: Camp Meade (sometimes spelled Mead) in the village, and Camp Bailey on Dutch Island.
The 16-acre Camp Meade was situated south of Narragansett Avenue between Green Lane and Howland Avenue. About 1,000 3rd Rhode Island Cavalry recruits – none of them from Jamestown – trained at Camp Meade between July 1, 1863, and Nov. 25, 1865.
From the beginning, Camp Meade was a source of irritation to the town. The men in the camp far outnumbered the residents of the village and lived in their own separate world. In October 1863, the Jamestown Town Council appointed a committee to call on the officer in command to require him to prevent the horses stabled at the camp from “going at large on the public highways of Jamestown.”
The following month, the council complained to the governor that the soldiers were “taking indiscriminately poultry and sheep and throwing down fences” and requested that the camp be fenced and guarded or removed to a more suitable place. Time took care of most of the problems as the main body of the 3rd left Jamestown in late December, although new recruits continued to be trained at the camp for another year.
The 3rd Rhode Island Cavalry traveled – sometimes by boat, but most often in cavalry formation – the 1,500 miles from Rhode Island to New Orleans, fighting Confederate forces along the way. They arrived, the Rhode Island adjutant general’s office reported in 1866, in sorry state. “The horses had been poorly fed and often suffered for water, numbers of the best ones had died by the road side from sheer exhaustion. ... Accordingly, June 23, the order was issued to turn over all cavalry horses, arms and equipment, and to report to the General Commanding Defenses of New Orleans, for temporary service as infantry.”
The 3rd Rhode Island Cavalry was remounted in September. From then until it was mustered out of service at New Orleans on Nov. 29, 1865 – over six months after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox – the regiment was engaged in scouting for guerrillas and bushwhackers or in picket duty protecting plantations. It was not, the report continues, “a service attractive to men ambitious of military glory, but was none the less important as a feature of the great plan for subduing the rebellion; and the part taken therein by the 3rd Rhode Island Cavalry, has given it a record honorable to itself and to the state it represented.”
After the war, the town used a remodeled Camp Meade Army hospital near Clinton Avenue as a temporary Town Hall. When the building burned down, the remains of Camp Meade vanished, leaving no tangible trace.
Camp Bailey on Dutch Island was built by the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored), Rhode Island’s black regiment. The War Department authorized formation of the company on July 19, 1863, and 1,800 black soldiers from Rhode Island and other Northern states were recruited for three-year enlistments. The 14th, commanded by 77 white officers, officially ceased to exist when the designation of the regiment was changed to 8th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery on April 4, 1864. It then became the 11th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery on May 21, 1864, and was mustered out of service Oct. 2, 1865.
The federal government started construction at Camp Bailey in 1863 and bought Dutch Island the following year. The first units of the 14th arrived on the island in early September. They quickly constructed an eight-gun earthworks south of the center of the island. The lower battery, about 700 feet north of the Dutch Island light, was built next but was never armed because the site flooded.
An outbreak of smallpox during the winter of 1863-64 took the lives of 15 of the men building the Dutch Island fortification, and one died of gangrene after hitting his thumb with a hammer setting up his tent. The bodies were buried in a small cemetery on the northeast shore of the island.
The regiment left the island for the front lines early in 1864, serving primarily in Texas and Louisiana. Camp Bailey – while remaining an Army outpost – was practically deserted.
On Oct. 28, 1873, a 7-foot granite obelisk was erected to mark the graves of the soldiers buried there. At the dedication, the speaker spoke of the men who had died and others he had met from the black regiments: “A man who has once been a soldier could not again be a slave.”
In 1948, after the military left Dutch Island for good, the remains of the Civil War soldiers buried on the island were removed and reinterred in a single grave at the Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, N.Y. The site of the earlier burial ground has recently been designated Jamestown Historic Cemetery No. 13.
This is the 13th in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society.