Union soldiers' letters offer insight about Civil War camp in Ellicott City

Camp Johnson: Tales of the war by soldiers of the 12th New Jersey

  • An 1862 ledger from Talbott & Armstrong lumber company shows entries from Union officers of the 12th New Jersey Volunteers who were acquiring supplies while stationed in Ellicott Mills during the Civil War.
An 1862 ledger from Talbott & Armstrong lumber company… (Nate Pesce )
February 01, 2011|By Lisa Kawata

As the nation prepares to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, new information has been discovered about a Union encampment high on the hill above Ellicott City.

Throughout the war, Union soldiers camped on both sides of the Patapsco River to guard the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, but the 12th New Jersey Volunteers was the first out-of-state regiment to stand guard over the town, known then as Ellicott's Mills. They came after the local unit, the Patapsco Guard, moved on to other parts of Maryland in May 1862.

Camp Johnson, named after the 12th's commanding officer Col. Robert C. Johnson, was home to nearly 1,000 soldiers from Sept. 8 to Dec. 20, 1862. Through original letters in the possession of two New Jersey historical societies, local historians are getting a clearer picture of Howard County and its divided loyalties during the War between the States.

"We knew there were troops here; we just never heard of Camp Johnson," says Travis Harry, site manager for the B&O Railroad Museum in Ellicott City.

Based on descriptions in the soldiers' letters, researchers believe the camp was located either near the courthouse or up above the Patapsco Female Institute.

"The fact that the camp had a name makes it so much more important," says Ed Lilley, manager of the visitor information center for Howard County Tourism, who is researching the new information with Harry and Karen Griffiths from the Howard County Historical Society Museum.

In the letters, the soldiers describe camp life, picket duty, and daily drills that involved marching down the hill for at least three miles before finding flat ground on which to practice. They speak of uneasiness among so many "secessionists," and there's a reference to an attempt to poison the soldiers. Some soldiers wrote home about going to Sunday services at Emory United Methodist and St. Paul's Catholic churches.

One private, Andrew Hann, a cook for H Company, wrote to his wife and daughter about the food he prepared. "We have beef and sweet potatoes for dinner," he wrote to his wife in October, and "it takes 80 lbs of beef and two bushels of potatoes." Hann also told his wife that the regiment was arresting Confederate sympathizers around the county. "They get prisoners every day and they keep them till they get 40 or 50 and take them to Baltimore," Hann wrote.

One sergeant, Charles Lippincott, wrote home to a friend about his arrival: "I believe I've never seen a place quite so hilly as this" and "there's just room on the top for our tents." He also shared that the "slaves would bring out to us anything we want, not wishing to take anything in return." After a day drilling at a nearby plantation where the owner had left to fight for the Confederacy, Lippincott wrote that "the master's name was Dorsey" and that "there is no white person on the farm since their master left. Only the slaves are running it." The plantation owner was Jonathan Dorsey.

Only six soldiers died from disease in the four months that the 12th was encamped here but sickness was on the minds of many. Hann hoped for Christmas leave and seemed concerned about staying on the hill through the winter.

Snow came in November that year, and the soldiers weatherized their tents by purchasing lumber from Talbott & Armstrong Lumber Co. to build wooden floors to keep out the cold. By mid-December, the 12th New Jersey pulled out and headed toward campaigns in Virginia.

The timing of the discovery of these letters has reinvigorated the search to verify the exact site of Camp Johnson and fit together more pieces of the town's role in the Civil War. After the 12th New Jersey left, regiments from Pennsylvania, then Maine, moved into town temporarily, yet there are no monuments to mark their presence. The only monument, on Court Avenue, honors Confederate soldiers. Perhaps this new information will justify erecting another monument. At the least, the county's Office of Tourism will apply for a Civil War Trails marker to be installed, says Lilley.

To learn more about Camp Johnson and Howard County during the Civil War, visit the B&O Railroad Museum's Civil War exhibit, opening in April and lasting through 2015. Each year the exhibit will change, reflecting events of the war, from the mustering of the Patapsco Guard and the formation of the "colored troops" to the retreat of soldiers from the Battle of Monocacy into Ellicott's Mills and what happened in the town after the war ended.
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