A Confederate Winter Camp

The First Winter of the War

These historic photographs show Confederate camps near Manassas and Centreville.
These historic photographs show Confederate camps near Manassas and Centreville.


On the day after Christmas, 1861, the men of Cadmus Wilcox's Brigade shouldered their packs, gathered up whatever belongings they had with them, and marched to new homes near the Manassas battlefield. The men—Alabamians, Virginians, and Mississippians—spent that winter in huts they built in wooded groves around the site of the war's first great battle. In those huts they ate their meals of corn bread and fried pork, slept off the fatigue of guard duty on the frozen picket lines, talked, sang, gambled, and waited for news and food packets from home. When spring came they shouldered their packs again and marched off to the south, to the Peninsular campaign and the battles in which they would bring glory and honor to their regiments, but also see their comrades shot beside them.

Today the site where one of those units spent the winter is part of the Manassas National Battlefield Park. Piles of stone in the woods mark the locations of the chimneys soldiers built against their huts, and holes show the damage done by metal-detector-wielding collectors digging for bullets, buttons, and other artifacts. Manassas National Battlefield Park acquired this land in 1985, and the site of the camp runs up to the park boundary. In fact less than half of the camp is now within the park. The rest has disappeared under buildings and parking lots.

Traces Left Behind

The pile of stones (above) marks the location of a hut built by Civil War soldiers.
The pile of stones (above) marks the location of a hut built by Civil War soldiers.


In December 2000, 139 years after the Confederate soldiers broke camp, the National Park Service sponsored an investigation of the Confederate Winter Camp Site by professional archeologists. The archeologists found the remains of 20 Civil War-era structures. Most of the them are stone piles left by the collapse of a stone and mud chimney, each representing a Civil War soldier's hut. There are a few hints of stone walls on the site, defining huts that range in size from 8 feet square to 20 by 12 feet. Two structures of a different type are also present; these two have no chimneys, but have stone wall foundations measuring 10 by 12 feet.

The huts were not arranged in the neat grid specified by military regulations. The largest group of huts is laid out in two rough lines with a street running between them, but others are randomly placed. The largest group is on top of a ridge well back from the stream that runs through the site; others are on low-lying ground. Despite a thorough metal-detector survey and extensive excavations by the archeologists, fewer than 70 artifacts were found at the site, and most of these were nails or bits of rusted metal. The only military artifacts found were two Minié balls, two musket balls, small shot, a small iron buckle, and a vent pick. Most of the objects left by the soldiers had already been carried off by collectors. A few collectors have come forward and told what they found, but most of the objects turned up in the past have simply disappeared, leaving many gaps in the historical record.

Who Camped Here?

While archeologists were mapping and excavating the site, historians were trying to identify the unit that camped there. This detective work took them through the Official Records of the war and to diaries and letters written by the soldiers. The camp was only a few hundred yards from a house shown on maps of the battlefield as the Lewis residence (also known as Portici). This house, because it appears in many documents, was a key clue in identifying the occupants of the camp.

Thomas Hobbs, an officer in the 9th Alabama Infantry who served as judge advocate for Wilcox's brigade, wrote in his journal on December 26, "Court met again, but as all of the Reg's composing it are moving to the vicinity of the Lewis House we adjourned to meet January 4th." Hobbs later reported that the court met at the Lewis House, so the house may have served as the brigade headquarters. Wilcox's Brigade was made up of an artillery unit and five infantry regiments, the 9th, 10th, and 11th Alabama, the 38th Virginia, and the 19th Mississippi. The brigade missed the first battle at Bull Run but would see plenty of action later in the war, taking heavy losses at Gaines Mill in 1862, at Salem Church and Gettysburg in 1863, and during the siege at Petersburg from May 1864 to March 1865.

Colonel Christopher Mott of the 19th Mississippi described their winter camp as being "near the Pringle House, about 6 miles west of Centreville," so the unit at the Confederate Winter Camp Site was probably not the Mississippians. According to the muster rolls, the camp of the 38th Virginia was "near the Lewis house," a description that certainly fits this site. The diary of George Griggs of Company K, however, described the location of their camp as a "pine thicket," and the very detailed Harris map shows the location of the Confederate Winter Camp Site as "oak woods."

The bulk of Wilcox's brigade was made up of Alabamians. A letter home from an officer of the 11th Alabama is dated "Camp Bull Run near the Louis House," making it clear that this regiment at least was quartered near the site. Bailey George McClelen, a soldier in the 10th, wrote this account of his regiment's winter quarters:

After moving from Cub Run, we pitched camps near the Manassas battle ground. Here we built winter quarters of log cabins on the same plan of tenting. Our cabins 16 x 16 feet covered with oak boards. Cracks were chinked and daubed with sticks and mud; a wide chimney at one end made of sticks and dirt, and a dirt floor—one door in the side facing our company street. Eight men to each cabin and two double-story bunks in the two respective corners on the opposite sides of the door. Our bunks were framed out of split timber. We used straw for our underbedding. Our cabins were comfortable warm as we kept a good fire nearly all the time.

Collectors have reported finding Alabama buttons at the Confederate Winter Camp Site. The reports of button finds, along with the written evidence, make it most likely that the unit at the Confederate Winter Camp Site was an Alabama regiment.

A Dull, Hard Time

George Griggs and Lem Harris, a soldier in the 11th Alabama, agreed that it was a harsh winter. Griggs wrote in his diary that it was very cold and that it snowed and sleeted often. Harris wrote home that he was doing "as well as could be expected in this polar regeon." On January 16 he reported,

We have not got into our houses yet the weather being so that we could not work much outdoors but we are cold all the time just having our tents and at this time there is a coat of snow and sleet over them three inches thick. . . . We carry all the wood that we burn about a mile and then it is not plentiful. It is a dull hard time here now.

McClelen also complained about the cold, especially when he had to do picket duty, "where we would be exposed to the bleak winds. It is sure enough cold weather during the winter in Northern Virginia." The cold weather worsened the sickness that stalked all camps in the war; Colonel Lamar of the 19th Mississippi complained that his regiment "has suffered severely from sickness; had improved greatly until out on picket in bad weather without tents or fires, the number of sick increased again." Beyond a few comments about food, whisky, and the frozen drudgery of picket duty, the soldiers left little record of what they did during the winter.

The Battleground of Manassas

Marching On

By March 8, 1862, the brigade had received orders to break winter camp. On March 7 Patterson of the 9th Alabama wrote that "orders came down from Headquarters this morning for us to cook up what rations we had on hand, and be ready to move tomorrow morning." The 38th Virginia, at least, set fire to their cabins before they started to march.

Behind them the men of the Confederate Army left log towns, some of them charred by fire. For miles around the camps almost every tree had been cut down for building or for firewood; Bailey George McClelen wrote of his regiment's fall camp that "it was not many days until our company grounds were denuded of growing timber." By the end of the war much of northern Virginia had been marched over and camped on in this way. As soldiers cut trees and scavenged fence rails for firewood and building material, weeds reclaimed the abandoned fields, army wagons tore up the ground, buildings succumbed to vandalism, neglect, or fire, and the desolation of war spread across the once peaceful countryside.

After the war, life resumed its rhythms. Human effort and nature's healing powers gradually restored the landscape. In the ground, though, evidence of the war endured, as it did in the memories of the soldiers and in the collective memory of all Americans. On this spot one can stand where the young men of Wilcox's Brigade camped and try to imagine the lives they led here in the first winter of America's Civil War.

Manassas National Battlefield Park

Last updated: March 15, 2024