Camp Convalescent: First Person Accounts

Letters home from soldiers from New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin further describe conditions at Camp Convalescent. The work of Nurse Amy Bradley, a Special Relief Agent of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, was recounted in a publication in 1867, just two years after the war ended.

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Camp Convalescent

Pennsylvania Soldier William Taylor

Letter from William Taylor, 100th Pennsylvania Regiment, to his wife Jane. The Regiment, according to his letters in the William & Mary Digital Archive , soon went to “Camp of Recruits” nearby for guard duty. This letter was written from the first Camp Convalescent, near Shuter's Hill in Alexandria.

Camp Convalescent  Sept. 28, 1862 
Alexandria, VA 

Dear Jane 

A Sabbath in Virginia….We got here last night after dark. Came from Balti in the morning and had about 6 miles to march to this camp. It is on the corn field alongside of Fort Ellsworth where I was in last year with D. Wallace. We were advised to select the softest spot one could find and make ourselves comfortable.  No one said supper. Henderson, Willie and I spread our blankets together and slept very soundly.  We put a gum blanket on the ground a wool one over it, and that made the bed: then we put two wool blankets; next two gum ones and crept in. It rained during the night but we just pulled our heads in like a turtle in its shell and felt none the worse; we woke up in the morning as dry as if we had been in the house.  The gum blankets are excellent things and we fear no wet.

If we can hold out against the cold as well, we are all right. 

Our fare is very plain, but we have plenty, and very good appetites and I am as well as ever I was in my life, and likely to continue so.

My greatest fear is for lice. I have kept clean so far, but some of them have not. As to taking care, of course we will do all we can, and will be able to take care to a great extent of everything except bullets shells, etc.  But of these things we have seen nothing yet.  When they do come I hope I will have help to take care of me than I could of myself, and if I fall may it be at may post and in a way that my wife and children may never be ashamed to hear of it….

My knapsack is the heaviest one in our party.  Many of the things I have are not worth the trouble of carrying, but as I can do it with ease I wont throw them away yet.  It is very warm today.  When you write direct to the "100 Regt Burnside's Division to be forwarded" as I don't know were we will be tomorrow.  I will write again as soon as I get time. With much love and many kisses.

Yours ever

Wisconsin Soldier William Wallace

These letters from William Wallace were written at the first Camp Convalescent, in Alexandria. The letters ceased in December, 1862. According to the Wisconsin Magazine of History, it is believed that he was furloughed and got an official medical discharge on Feb, 4, 1863, during an effort to reduce the numbers of patients before the move to the new Camp Convalescent. William reenlisted after his recuperation. Earlier, Wallace wrote letters from Grace Church Hospital.

Published in “William Wallace's Civil War letters: the Virginia campaign" Wisconsin Magazine Of History . Volume: 57 /Issue: 1 (1973-1974). 

Post Hospital near Alexandria
September 18th, 1862

Dear Sarah

All the sick and wounded that are able to walk at all was sent from Washington and Alexandria to this camp to make room for those that has been wounded in the late fights in Maryland [South Mountain, Crampton’s Gap, Antietam]. I left along with the rest but is very sick yet, though I am able to walk round through camp, and as poor as a rake. I think there must be as many as 6000 convalescents in this camp. As they are able they are sent off daily to their regimens. I don’t know when I will get to mine if ever, for my complaint is such that I maybe a long time before I get better. Our doctor in the regiment said long ago that I was effected with disease of the heart [rheumatic fever]. The Drs in the hospitle in Grace Church said so too, but said I might get better by proper treatment. I would have told you before of it but I did not like to worry your mind about it, neither now need you trouble yourself for it will do no good. I left Grace Church Hospital on the 16th along with 33 more. We are about one mile out along side of Fort Elsworth. We are all in tents but has nothing to lay on but dirty blue clay, but very little to eat, but it is the best Sam can afford just now after losing so much about Manassas at the late fights….


Post Hospital near Alexandria
October 15th, 1862

Dear Sarah,

I hope you will not be offended at me not writing to you oftener, The truth is I was not able to write I was so sick but thank God I am able to walk around with the aid of a staf. I had a sore spell of rheumatic pains in my head for ten days but has got quite rid of them now….I am so thin of flesh. We get very bad attendance here. I have not seen the Dr. in five days but I begin to think I get along better without him. We don’t get any vegetables of any sort at all. From 3 to 4 dies here daily. We are in tents, five in each tent, no beds, has to lay on the hard ground, which is not a very comfortable bed for sick folks, but we must put up with it now.

Post Hospital near Alexandria
October 22nd, 1862

Dear Sarah,

…I feel considerably better from what I have been when I was confined to my tent. Now I can walk about a little. The weather is very cold, especially at nights. I got two blankets over me, and I sleep warm…



Post Hospital near Alexandria
October 27th, 1862

Dear Sarah

I am on the mending scale all the time but not near well yet as our food is not the best to recruit sick folks. For dinner today I have one pint of bean soup with a little vinegar in it and some dry bread but still after all I mend. It is a pitiable sight to see 62 men waiting at the kettles, waiting for their meals in single file, some on crutches, some on stafes and mostly all looking like death wet and cold. It is enough to make a well man sick looking at them. But they can’t keep us long here for it is to cold. Better quarters must soon be provided for us.


Post Hospital near Alexandria
October 31st, 1862

Dear Sarah,

I am getting better from the effects of the fever. My hair is all coming out. Yesterday and all the night before I was awful sick. I eat nothing for this last 24 hours….

William Wallace

Post Hospital near Alexandria
November 24th, 1862

My Dear

I have not been half well all last week. I was confined to my tent for a few days but yesterday and today I am able to be out and doing something, This is Monday and of course wash day. I got my washing done and dried. It consisted of two shirts, 2 handkerchiefs, one pillow case, one towel and one pair of socks. Let me be well or ill I have to keep clean. So long as a man is able to walk he has to do his own washing or else be eaten up with lice which is very plenty in camp, in fact it is the plentiest thing we have. We dont get our cooking done not half the time for want of wood but who is to blame I am unable to say. But one thing I do know it is one of the meanest places I have come across in my travels. They need not talk of the misery of the rebels, let them come down here and it will open their eyes.

We had a great deal of very heavy rain all last weak and cold too which don’t agree very well with sick folks. If we get wet it has to dry while the clothes on us. Then at night it freezes. Great Guns! This morning our canteens was all froze tight so that we could not get a drop of water out. Had to wait till there was a fire kindled. We had coffee this morning at 8 and no dinner at all. We may get a little bit for supper if the wood comes. If not we will have to go to bed supperless as usual.


New York Soldier Oliver Ormsby

Letter from Oliver Ormsby, 149th New York State Volunteer Infantry, to his parents. This letter was written after the camp was moved out of Alexandria.

Camp Convalesant, Va.
June 20, 1863

Dear Parents;

.... All of the paroled prisoners are living now in Sibly tents. They sent 2 to 3000 convalescents from the hospital at Washington the other day so we had to leave the barracks and put up the tents. They put 4 of us to a tent. Our tents are round Sibly tents. They are about 16 feet across and 14 feet high.
We draw and cook our own rations now and the men like it better than when they had to eat at the mess house. Col. McKelvy who commands here has the contract for feeding the men at 37 cents a day. What he gives them doesn't cost him over 20 cents so you can see the profits amount to something as he has the contract for 5000 men.

.... you needn't send any towels for I have one good one. I can buy paper and envelopes for a penny each.


Nurse Amy Bradley 

Amy Bradley, Special Relief Agent, U.S. Sanitary Commission, was assigned to Camp Convalescent in December 1862 and helped improve conditions after the camp was moved out of Alexandria.

She had entered the Civil War as a nurse with the Maine Volunteers, attached to the 5th Maine Regiment. Her efficiency and skills were noted and she eventually took on more responsibility. When the Maine troops moved south to the Peninsula, she offered to work for the Sanitary Commission. First, she served aboard the Ocean Queen, then in Washington, until December 1862, when she was asked to go to Camp Convalescent.

From Women’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism, and Patience , by L.P. Brockett and Mrs. Mary Vaughn (1867):

Numerous attempts had been made to improve the condition of the camp, but owing to the small number and inefficiency of the officers detailed to the command, it had constantly grown worse. The convalescents, numbering nine or ten thousand, were lodged, in the depth of a very severe winter, in wedge and Sibley tents, without floors, with no fires, or means of making any, amid deep mud or frozen clods, and were very poorly supplied with clothing, and many of them without blankets.

Under such circumstances, it was not to be expected that their health could improve. The stragglers and deserters and the new recruits were even worse off than the convalescents. The assistant surgeon and his acting assistants, up to the last of October, 1862, were too inexperienced to be competent for their duties.

….In December, 1862, while the men were yet in Camp Misery, Miss Bradley was sent there as the Special Relief Agent of the Sanitary Commission, and took up her quarters there. As we have said the condition of the men was deplorable. She arrived on the 17th of December, and after setting up her tents, and arranging her little hospital, cook-room, store-room, wash-room, bath-room, and office, so as to be able to serve the men most effectually, she passed round with the officers, as the men were drawn up in line for inspection, and supplied seventy-five men with woolen shirts, giving only to the very needy. In her hospital tents she soon had forty patients, all of them men who had been discharged from the hospitals as well; these were washed, supplied with clean clothing, warmed, fed and nursed. Others had discharge papers awaiting them, but were too feeble to stand in the cold and wet till their turn came. She obtained them for them, and sent the poor invalids to the Soldiers' Home in Washington, en route for their own homes. From May 1st to December 31st, 1863, she conveyed more than two thousand discharged soldiers from the Rendezvous of Distribution to the Commission's Lodges at Washington; most of them men suffering from incurable disease, and who but for her kind ministrations must most of them have perished in the attempt to reach their homes. In four months after she commenced her work she had had in her little hospital one hundred and thirty patients, of whom fifteen died….

On the 8th of February, 1864, the convalescents were, by general orders from the War Department, removed to the general hospitals in and about Washington, and the name changed from Camp Distribution to Rendezvous of Distribution, and only stragglers and deserters, and the recruits awaiting orders, or other men fit for duty were to be allowed there. For nearly two months Miss Bradley was confined to her quarters by severe illness. On her recovery she pushed forward an enterprise on which she had set her heart, of establishing a weekly paper at the Rendezvous, to be called "The Soldiers' Journal," which should be a medium of contributions from all the more intelligent soldiers in the camp, and the profits from which (if any accrued), should be devoted to the relief of the children of deceased soldiers. On the 17th of February the first number of "The Soldiers' Journal" appeared, a quarto sheet of eight pages; it was conducted with considerable ability and was continued till the breaking up of the Rendezvous and hospital, August 22, 1865, just a year and a half. The profits of the paper were twenty-one hundred and fifty-five dollars and seventy-five cents….