Monday, April 11, 2016

Giesboro Point Cavalry Depot, Parking for 30,000 Horses

From: civilwarwashingtondc1861-1865.blogspot.com, 8-17-11

The area once known as Giesboro Point is now occupied by the Department of Defense's Joint Base Bolling-Anacostia.  The installation's major tenant organization, the Defense Intelligence Agency, is observing its 50th anniversary this year.  However, nearly 150 years ago, this parcel of land was not a military intelligence headquarters, but the logistics hub of the Union Army's cavalry in the Eastern Theater.  By providing a ready supply of mounts to the Army of the Potomac, Giesboro Cavalry Depot made an important contribution as the army slugged it out in Virginia.  Over 200,000 horses were received, issued, died or sold at Giesboro during the war.

On the eve of the war, the 624 acre Giesboro (sometimes spelled Giesborough) tract was owned by George Washington Young, who had the dubious distinction of being the District's largest slaveowner.  (In 1862, when the Federal Government instituted compensated emancipation in D.C., Young received $17,771.85 for the release of the men, women and children he held in servitude.) The Giesborough Manor plantation, whose primary product had been tobacco, dated back to the colonial period.

In July 1863, the Cavalry Bureau was established to "systematize and regulate the purchase and supply of horses to the cavalry. The Secretary of War directed the bureau's new chief, Major General George Stoneman, to establish six cavalry depots including one near Washington.  Stoneman selected Young's farm at Giesboro Point as the most suitable site, likely due to its flat terrain and easy access to river transportation, and the Army took possession on August 12, 1863.   Young offered the property to the government for $100,000, but was rebuffed.  Instead, he was paid an annual rent of $6,000 from 1863 to 1866.  The seizing of property for military purposes in and around Washington was quite common during the war as hospitals, camps, warehouses, and a network of fortifications were established.  As part of the Defenses of Washington, Forts Carroll and Greble were constructed on the high ground above Giesborough Manor.

The army quickly built wharves along the property's Potomac shoreline, 32 stables,  buildings, and other necessary infrastructure. Young's brick manor house served as the depot's administrative headquarters.  Barracks, mess houses, storage buildings, wharves, and a church sprung up.  Constructions costs were estimated to have topped one million dollars.  No comparable cavalry depot in the world matched the scale of Giesboro.  The Depot was designed to hold up to 30,000 horses, although the largest number present at any one time was about 21,000.  From January 1864 to the end of the war, Giesboro handled 170,622 cavalry horses; issuing 97,580 for use by the Army and selling 48,721 as unfit for military service.  Waterworks consisting of a reservoir, steam pumps and 27,000 feet of piping were installed.  The Depot's staff of nearly 1500 grew its own vegetables, slaughtered its own beef and milled its own wheat. The  horseshoeing shop alone employed over 100 blacksmiths.  The Depot's steam grist mill grinded grain and cut hay and straw.  At full capacity, the Depot was estimated to generate 700 tons of manure a day. (And some people think today's nearby Blue Plains Treatment Plant smells on a summer afternoon).

The installation's veterinary hospital had stalls for treating 2,500 invalid horses.  The unprecedented concentration of horses did contribute to equine disease outbreaks, such as glanders, and more than 17,000 horses were lost to disease between January 1864 and April 1865.  With thousands of horses grouped in corrals, there was also a constant danger of stampedes.  The Alexandria Gazette reported of one stampede in 1863, which resulted in nearly 1,000 horses drowning in the Potomac River and Eastern Branch.  With each horse costing the government at least $150, the staggering financial cost of these losses brings to mind Lincoln's statement that "I can make more generals, but horses cost money."

Camp Stoneman, named after the chief of the Cavalry Bureau, was established adjacent to the depot to house cavalry troopers as they waited remounts.  When Jubal Early's Confederate army threatened Washington in July 1864, several hundred dismounted troopers from Camp Stoneman participated in the capital's defense.

Giesboro Cavalry Depot made an important contribution to the Army of the Potomac's cavalry arm, which had previously been outperformed by Southern horsemen.

As in other locales hosting large numbers of troops, much of the timber on Young's property was cut for use in army construction, fortifications and as firewood.  The Army Quartermaster estimated that over $13,000 in timber had been cut at Giesborough Farm.

Decommissioning of the Depot
With the end of the war, the Government began the process of decommissioning the Cavalry Depot.  The country's small peacetime regular army had no need for thousands of mounts.  Over 50,000 surplus horses, including many that had not been fit for military service,  were sold at public auctions held at Giesboro.  Dr. Samuel Mudd claimed that he attended one of these auctions, but did not purchase a horse as they were all in poor condition.  These equestrian sales brought $1,251,722 into the Treasury.  Other depot supplies were also sold off including thirteen frame building and $9,000 worth of manure.

Upon the army's return of his property in February1866, George Washington Young unsuccessfully tried to sell the tract.  An ad placed in a local newspaper extolled its virtues and proximity to Washington:

"625 acres... with a front of mile and-a-half; the greater part bottom land, and acknowledged to be the finest soil for gardening in the vicinity of Washington.  At present there are upon the place immense improvements erected by the Government which will afford great facilities for founding at once a town that would prove to Washington what Brooklyn is to New York."

Young died in 1867, but his estate received $2,640 by the government as compensation for any damages the estate may have suffered during the war, far less than he $41,488.75 that his widow had requested.  In rejecting the request for greater compensation, a government official noted that the Youngs should be happy for all the improvements that Uncle Sam had made at no cost to them:

"The land has been greatly enriched by the thousands of animals kept upon it; miles of drainage pipes have been laid, thereby reclaiming fifty acres of swamp land to garden land, a large amount of new fencing has been constructed; valuable and costly wharfage built; the mansion house, barnes and outbuildings repaired and remodeled; new buildings erected and left upon the premises- all of which improvements made by the Quartermaster's Department of the Army of the United States inured to the benefit of the owner of the property without any immediate compensation being made on his part to the Government."

Although Giesboro Point never realized its potential, at least in George Washington Young's mind, to become Washington's "Brooklyn," the landscape has changed dramatically over the years.  In the years after the war, Young's heirs subdivided the Giesboro tract.  Starting in the 1870s, the plantation was used as a summertime resort for Washingtonians.  The main plantation house burned in a fire in 1881.  Later, the Firth Sterling Steel Company maintained a large mill on part of the property around the turn of the century.  The natural shoreline along the Anacostia, which originally terminated near the present-day NSF Anacostia-Bolling AFB boundary, has been extensively altered over the years through man-placed fill.   Around World War One, a military airfield was established on this filled in land comprising what became NSF Anacostia.

Today, there are no extant vestiges of the Cavalry Depot or Camp Stoneman.  The 2010 Master Environmental Assessment for Joint Base Bolling Anacostia noted that archeological surveys on base are "exceptionally difficult given the depth and extent of fill deposits across most of the base.."  But, the spirit of service to the defense of the nation lives on through the soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians who each day serve their country at Joint Base Bolling-Anacostia.

Image 1:  November 1864 drawing of "The Great Horse Depot at Giesboro on the Potomac Below Washington" by Edward Lamson Henry.  (New York State Museum)

Image 2: A view of the wharf at Giersboro Cavalry Depot where boatloads of horses and hay were loaded.  Note the crane affixed to the wharf and what appears to be a track--with a push cart in the background-- running adjacent to the wharf.   (Library of Congress).


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