Civil War Wednesday: Camp McDonald

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1917 Version of wartime map of Camp McDonald

On May 29, 1861, President Jefferson Davis issued a call to Georgia Governor Joe Brown, “Troops, armed and equipped, ammunition included, are much needed. Please urge forward with all practicable dispatch.”[1] The governor wasted no time in establishing Camp Brown, located near Smyrna, and calling General William Phillips to command the soldiers assembling there. A few days after receiving the request from Davis, Brown replied, “I have General Phillips Brigade in camp of instruction.”[2] The volunteers trained at this installation until moving to Camp McDonald; the new, 60-acre facility opened on June 11, 1861. Phillips, founder of the famed Phillips Legion, named the camp in honor of his former law mentor and governor of Georgia Charles J. McDonald.

General William Phillips, (Photo Credit: Civil War Times Illustrated).

General William Phillips, (Photo Credit: Civil War Times Illustrated).

The soldiers struggled with their newfound discipline, exposure to disease and the rigors of camp life. One private described conditions in a letter to his wife, “I am enjoying health…we have plenty of beef and flour…but some of the boys says it’s mule beef but it goes by the name of old buck.”[3] Governor Brown received $20,000 from the Georgia Railroad and Bank Company to provide subsistence for the men in training, and they evidently enjoyed abundant supplies, as one volunteer later recalled, “We wasted enough at Big Shanty in one week to have lasted us very well two weeks the latter part of the war.”[4]

Forty cadets from Marietta’s Georgia Military Institute, under the direction of Major Francis W. Capers, assisted in training the volunteers, and as June 1861 ended, Brown could proudly exclaim to Confederate Secretary of War Leroy Pope Walker, “I have a fine brigade of state troops now in camp at this place. It is a fine body of men, consisting of two regiments…also a battalion of cavalry…well armed and on good horses.”[5] The Southern Confederacy reported on the front page of their July 2, 1861, edition, “A few hours spent at the encampment is very well ‘put in,’ and we advise every citizen, who can spare the time, to lay over one train at Big Shanty and see the soldiers. Though one may not get much idea of war, yet he will see something of the preparation and the machinery by which it is perpetrated.”

Wartime photo of Camp McDonald, (Photo Credit: Kennesaw State University’s Civil War Center).

Wartime photo of Camp McDonald, (Photo Credit: Kennesaw State University’s Civil War Center).

Phillips and the other officers scheduled a “Grand Review” for July 31, 1861. Governor Brown and citizens from across northwest Georgia attended, producing the largest mass of people gathering in Kennesaw until the return of the General during the 1960s centennial! A soldier participating in the parade later recalled the spectacle, “Gov. Brown made a most fiery and eloquent speech, as only a man who is not about to be shot at can make.”[6] One of the GMI Cadets considered the review repayment “…for their diligent instruction, for it furnished an object lesson in the evolution of troops in line of battle, which could not then be seen elsewhere and whetted a desire for the actual encounter of the field, for which they had earnestly longed. ‘Hope long deferred,’ was at last gratified.”[7]

The initial group of soldiers occupying Camp McDonald departed for Virginia in mid-1861; future requests for additional regiments produced a beehive of activity around the camp again in 1862 and 1863. A volunteer from one of the responding companies, the “Jackson Farmers,” described the conditions in a letter for the June 2-3, 1862, edition of the Southern Watchman. “The name of camp McDonald, familiarly known as ‘Big Shanty,’ has been generally a terror to ‘our boys,’ and upon our arrival here, we were agreeably disappointed by finding it a fair, open country; the camps being situated upon elevated eminences, where the pure air of heaven can reach from all quarters. Water is good and plentiful, and with a proper degree of cleanliness, I can see no reason why this should not be as healthy as any location in Georgia.” A vigorous camp produced brave fighters, a fact Governor Brown proclaimed in a message to the state legislature. “They were a noble, patriotic, chivalrous band of Georgians, and I hazard nothing in saying, military men being the judges, that no brigade in the Confederate service was composed of better material, or was better trained at that time for active service in the field.”[8] During the course of Camp McDonald’s existence, an estimated 13,000 to 16,000 soldiers learned the art of war in Big Shanty.

Today, the Friends of Camp McDonald work to preserve, protect and interpret this ground. Visit their website, www.campmcdonaldpark.org, to learn how you can help.


[1] The Confederate Records of the State of Georgia, comp. Allen D. Candler (Atlanta, Ga.: C.P. Byrd, State Printer, 1910), 2:90.

[2] Ibid., 96.

[3] Erwin E. Addy, Erwin Addy to Wife and Children, March 28, 1862, MS 1510, Georgia Historical Society, Savannah.

[4] Hugh W. Barclay, Reminiscences of Hugh W. Barclay, http://196thovi.tripod.com/23rdgeorgiainfantry/id34.html (accessed May 14, 2013).

[5] The Confederate Records of the State of Georgia, 101.

[6] James Lile Lemon, Feed Them the Steel: Being, the Wartime Recollections of Capt. James Lile Lemon, Co. A, 18th Georgia Infantry, CSA (Acworth, GA: Mark H. Lemon, 2013), 15.

[7] Gary Livingston, Cradled in Glory: Georgia Military Institute, 1851-1865 (Cooperstown, N.Y.: Caisson Press, 1997), 52.

[8] Georgia: Confederate Military History: A Library of Confederate States History, ed. Clement A. Evans (Secaucus, NJ: Blue & Gray Press, 1960), 53-54.

Andersonville Trip 2013 068Michael K. Shaffer is the Assistant Director and Lecturer for Kennesaw State University’s Civil War Center , a Civil War historian, newspaper columnist, and author of ‘Washington County, Virginia in the Civil War.’ He is a member of the Society of Civil War Historians, Historians of the Civil War Western Theater, Georgia Association of Historians, and the Civil War Round Table of Atlanta. Michael also serves on the boards of the Civil War Round Table of Cobb County and the River Line Historic Area, and as a Civil War consultant for the Friends of Camp McDonald.

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