Editor's note: Camp Cameron was located outside present-day Davis Square. Today marks the 150th anniversary of its opening.
Somerville and Cambridge are cities with long histories. When we think about local history the Civil War is not the first thing that comes to mind.
In this first year of the American Civil Wars’ 150th anniversary, it is important to remember that North Cambridge and West Somerville also have a very important Civil War history. On the Somerville and Cambridge line, in the area of Cameron Avenue, was a camp of rendezvous and instruction called Camp Cameron. From June 13, 1861 through late January 1863, thousands of recruits went through Camp Cameron on their way to the war.
The original belief was that the war would be over very quickly. One battle would end it. When the Union came to realize that the original three-month recruits would not be enough they began enlisting men for up to three years. One of the first three-year regiments was the Massachusetts First Infantry. This regiment was organized at Faneuil Hall in Boston. This location proved too small to house a thousand men and the city environment gave no space for drilling. They quickly moved to an old icehouse on the shores of Fresh Pond in Cambridge, named Camp Ellsworth. The Commonwealth’s optimism for this site quickly waned. Anyone who has tried to run or play golf on the shores of Fresh Pond during rainy New England springs, knows it can be a very wet area. Camp Ellsworth was quickly deemed “unhealthy.”
The solution was a 140-acre parcel of farmland, offered by Gardner Green Hubbard and the Union Horse Railroad, about a mile away. Here is a contemporary description of the camp from Andrew J. Bennett’s history of the Massachusetts First Light Battery:
“This was a Farm extending from the Old Lexington Pike, (now Holland St., Somerville) … south to North Avenue (now Massachusetts Ave) in Cambridge … the southern half of the farm in Cambridge was a plateau of perhaps ten acres, extending back from the Cambridge road, and falling off quite abruptly to a meadow through which ran a little brook, a branch of the Alewife (Tannery Brook). On the Northern border of this plateau, extending with intervals between them, clean across the plain, were barracks. About midway in the range of buildings, and between the two middle barracks in the range a road passed from the Cambridge road, north dividing the plain in two, and crossing the little brook and the sloping field beyond, which was in Somerville, (were) the barracks… Between the barracks and the Cambridge road was the drill ground, and a fine one it was.”
Camp Cameron was leased by the Commonwealth for six months at a time. The “First” moved into Camp Cameron on June 13, 1861 and stayed for all of two days before being ordered to the “seat of the war.” The camp would not be empty for long. The Eleventh Infantry moved in immediately. Over the next twenty months eleven different organizations spent time at “Old Camp Cameron.” These groups included infantry regiments, parts of regiments and artillery batteries.
Camp Cameron had thirty wooden structures. Fifteen of which were troop barracks. Each of these barracks housed a hundred men or one company. They were long and narrow “bowling-alley in proportions, having the entrance at one end, a broad aisle running through the centre, and a double row of bunks, one above the other, on either side.” Recruits came from all over the state and according to new recruit Thomas Kirwin they represented a broader mix of the population than most were used to. The noise, unfamiliar languages, and proximity overwhelmed many.
In the Civil War, training was quick and uneven as very few men had any experience. As soon as a regiment was full, it was sent to the front and another replaced it almost immediately. Camp Cameron often had multiple groups organizing at the same time and was rarely vacant.
At the beginning of the war, the United States had a very small army and most of it was scattered throughout the western territories. Washington would give each state’s Governor a quota of recruits to meet. It was also the governors’ duty to appoint officers. In the summer of 1861, General Butler was sent back to Massachusetts to help recruit troops for a force he would lead in the Gulf. He began to recruit troops in a way that they did not go toward the MA state quota and he began appointing his own officers. A power struggle soon began. Governor Andrew protested to Washington and Butler accused the Governor of treason. That Andrew was a Republican and Butler a Democrat only exacerbated the situation. In any century, this does not lend itself to cooperation. This would not be the last of the friction between the state and the U.S. Army. In June of 1862, Lt. Col. Hannibal Day was appointed the military commander of the Boston area. With this appointment, Camp Cameron passed to federal control and became the main camp in the state for recruiting men as replacements for regiments already in the field. Misunderstandings between Day and Andrews’ office over transportation issues led to more conflict.
The biggest problem at the camp was the practice of bounty jumping. As it became more difficult to find new recruits, the government began paying "enlisting" bounties. Many men made a career of collecting these bounties. One would enlist; collect the bounty and then desert, move on to another town, and do it all over again. In response, Hannibal Day began to push for the closure of the camp soon after taking command. Gardner Green Hubbard, who would later become Alexander Graham Bell’s father in law, offered to help build a fence around the barracks though this offer was never accepted. In late January 1863, the camp was closed and the recruits were moved to Ft. Independence in Boston, a more secure location.
Camp Cameron may not be the first thing that every Somerville or Cambridge resident thinks of when it comes to local history, but it has left its mark on the neighborhood. Camp St. and Cameron Ave. are named after the camp; Fair Oaks St., Seven Pines Ave., Glendale Ave., Malvern Ave., and Yorktown St. are all named after Civil War battles. The camp was crossed by Tannery Brook. The brook was redirected underground in 1896 and is now part of the drainage system. Tannery Brook Row marks part of its path. The Union Horse Railroad owned the camp. It had a depot nearby and ran trolleys down North Ave., now Mass Ave. The MBTA’s trackless trolley still has a station in North Cambridge and continues to run down Mass Ave. to this day.
The camp had one more embarrassing brush with controversy. This problem came from its name. The camp was named after Simon Cameron. He was President Lincoln’s first Secretary of War. Cameron had a history of corruption. The camp was formally renamed Camp Day in August 1862; a name locals used in honor of the Day family who had originally owned most of the farmland the camp occupied. This is the same Day family that Day St. is named after.
What we would now call boot camp is not what most historians or readers would consider a noteworthy part of any war’s history. Without the sacrifice of the thousands of men who went through Camp Cameron/Day and the other camps throughout the north, this country would not have survived the 1860s.