A Camp in the Wilderness: Civilian Conservation Corps Camp MP-4


From Mink:

As mentioned in previous posts, FRSP benefited greatly from the help provided by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Four individual CCC camps operated in the Fredericksburg area between 1933 and 1942. Three of these were located on FRSP lands – one each on the battlefields of Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.

Camp MP-4 was built in Saunders Field, on the north side of State Route 20, of the Wilderness Battlefield. The initials “MP” stood for Military Park. Later the designation and number was changed to NP-24, denoting that the camp served a national park. Camp MP-4 was established October 14, 1933 and until its closing in 1941 five CCC companies rotated through the camp.

The camp’s layout covered nearly all of the northern half of Saunders Field, where on May 5, 1864 the Battle of the Wilderness began.

ca. 1938 aerial photo of CCC Camp MP-4 on Wilderness Battlefield.

The aerial photo shows the camp around 1938, when it was occupied by Company 2329. The red square to the lower left in the photo indicates the current location of the Wilderness Exhibit Shelter. The building in the upper left corner of the photo (marked by the red arrow) is the Camp MP-4 Utility Building, constructed in 1937. It still stands in the woods north of Saunders Field and serves the NPS as a storage building for maintenance equipment.

Built in 1937, the Camp MP-4 Utility Building still stands on the northern edge of Saunders Field.

The original cautionary sign about open flames still hangs on the Utility Building.

A recent aerial image, courtesy of Google Earth, reveals that some landscape impressions remain from Camp MP-4. Marked by the red arrow, the Utility Building sits in the woods north of the current configuration of Saunders Field. The blue arrow points to the visible evidence of the circular entrance for Camp MP-4.

Aerial view, via Google Earth, of Saunders Field.

A walk through the field east of the current exhibit shelter reveals not only the remaining drainage culverts for the entrance, but also the concrete letters that greeted visitors to the camp.

Although they have sunk into the ground, the concrete camp letters can still be seen. They read, left to right: "MP 4-VA"

In addition to their daily work routines, such as building the park tour roads and establishing walking trails, the CCC boys also attended vocational and educational classes. Sports activities often filled the their leisure time and at Camp MP-4 baseball was a favorite. Often the different local camps played each other and the competition was high.

1935 newspaper from Camp MP-4. The box score from a game played against Camp SCS-11 in Stafford County is published.

Finding a place to practice at Camp MP-4 proved rather difficult. NPS property only included that area north of State Route 20 and the buildings and camp facilities filled nearly all of the available open space. The boys opted to set up their ball field in the clearing across the road, as evidenced in the camp photo.

Note the baseball backstop across from the entrance to Camp MP-4.

A problem arose from the fact that the south side of the road was not owned by the government, but was instead the property of Mr. James P. Dempsey. Mr. Dempsey did not approve of the use of his land and engaged in heated exchanges with Captain Leo Poindexter, Camp MP-4 commander. In a February 1938 letter written to Major General Albert J. Bowley, commander of the CCC Third Corps Area, Mr. Dempsey outlined one of his encounters at Camp MP-4:
 
“For your information, I will state that Captain Poindexter has allowed the enrolled men of his Company to use my land as an athletic field since occupying this camp early last fall without my permission.
 
About three weeks ago, I instructed him to keep the men off this property, and yesterday I found several of the men playing games on it. I went to Captain Poindexter’s office and protested against their being there and was told by him that I would have to post trespass notices and keep the men off myself and that he could issue an order but it was impossible for him to keep them off. I advised Captain Poindexter that I was notifying him as Commanding Officer of the Company to keep the men off my property.
 
After leaving his office, he called me back and said, ‘As Commanding Officer of this Company, I order you off this Military Reservation – and stay off.’” – Letter, dated February 28, 1938, from James P. Dempsey to Major General Albert J. Bowley, National Archives and Records Administration.

 

The following month, a special investigator had this to say about the friction between Mr. Dempsey and the camp:

“Since the opening of the camp the boys have had the use of a field opposite camp grounds. Here they could play baseball, basket ball, tennis, volley ball. Lately, the owner of the property has forbidden the use of the grounds unless they pay $10 a month. Efforts are now being made to get the use of another field further along the road.

There is a little point in connection with this situation that is of interest. The other day a call came to the camp that a house was on fire and requested assistance. The boys of the camp went to the fire and saved the building. The house was that of the owner of the land that is denied the boys.” – Supplementary Report, dated March 3, 1938, by Patrick J. King, National Archives and Records Administration.

Although the CCC boys saved Mr. Dempsey’s house, the farmer continued to refuse use of his land for athletic activities. By June, Camp MP-4 had secured free use of a field about a mile from camp. Captain Poindexter was relieved of duty in April, upon the expiration of his term of service, and relationships between the camp and Mr. Dempsey eventually improved.

Camp MP-4 (aka NP-24) closed in April 1941. Most of the buildings were razed or removed, while the NPS continues to maintain and use the Utility Building. Saunders Field disappeared as the woods reclaimed the clearing. The NPS eventually built the current exhibit shelter in 1963 and eighteen years later the field was reopened. Despite NPS efforts at scene restoration, physical remnants of the CCC-era are still visible.

Eric J. Mink

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13 thoughts on “A Camp in the Wilderness: Civilian Conservation Corps Camp MP-4

  1. Great post, Eric. The Central Rappahannock Heritage Center (in the old Maury School) has a set of aerial photos from the 1930s (1937, I believe) that show the CCC camps, the park roads they were building, etc. They were taken for use by the Department of Agriculture, but they also reveal a changing landscape in and around Fredericksburg. The farms and their various crops are evident, which was apparently the point, but the park work indicates a growing visitor economy and many factories can be seen in Fredericksburg, representing the industrial and manufacturing base that helped the area recover from the Civil War.

    • Thanks, Erik. That’s good to know. The CRHC certainly does have a lot of good material. I was not aware of the 1930’s aerials. I’ll plan to go down and take a look.
      – Eric

  2. The CCC did some wonderful things. If it wasn’t for the CCC, we wouldn’t have several of the parks that we have here in Maryland today. I work for one of those parks that the CCC was at, reconstructing the very first Washington Monument that was dedicated to his memory. Great photograph of the camps.

    • You’re so very right, John. The CCC was instrumental in the development of many parks. I remember well your discussing some of this when a group of us visited Washington Monument State Park last year.

      – Eric Mink

  3. Very interesting topic. One of the confusing things on the Spotsylvania Battlefield are the remains of the CCC camp there. While walking the battlefield there with the late Bill Matter about 10 years ago, we were confused by some depressions in the McCoull field. As well as a large excavation in the woods behind Doles Salient.
    Bill later found a sketch of the layout of the CCC camp which apparently explained everything. But it would be interesting to see some information, not only on the camp, but a state police pistol range which I understand was also on the property.

    • Russ,
      My upcoming book on Spotsylvania County includes a chapter on the CCC, and features many images from the NPS archives. The Bloody Angle CCC Camp was vacated in April 1936. In May, the Virginia State Police recruit school moved into the facility. Fifty positions were to be awarded from one hundred twenty-four aspirants. An expanded curriculum was introduced that year. Graduation was held on June 6, 1936. One photograph I use shows the newly formed Virginia State Police Pistol Team on the firing range.

    • As part of the park’s History at Sunset series, one of the programs for 2011 will focus on the CCC. I do believe that this program will be offered at Spotsy. The schedule should be released soon.

      Eric Mink

      • Eric,
        That’s wonderful news. I hope you will be leading it, as you certainly have put a great deal of time into researching this vital part of the F&SNMP’s formative and developmental history. The archived posts on this site certainly attest to your diligence.

  4. Out of curiousity, has it been determined what the purpose of the large excavation (back in the day some jokingly called it “Edwards hole”) behind Doles Salient was used for? At that time I think we assumed it was a CCC burn pit. And that debris from the torn up road or camp site may have been deposited there. Just curious.

  5. I must have walked Saunders field a dozen times and never noticed the remains of the circular drive or the HUGE concrete letters from the CCC camp. Found them a couple of weeks ago. It is kind of nice to see that piece of the park’s history has been preserved. I also noticed a couple of very large excavations north of the camp site near the tree line. Were these from mining operations? One of the pits has to be 4 – 5 deep!

    • Mark – We aren’t quite sure what purpose those pits served. They are on the edge of the CCC camp and similar depressions exist around the edge of the Chancellorsville CCC camp. I suspect they are not related to mining activities, but are related to the CCC operations. Again, for what purpose remains a mystery.

      – Eric Mink

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