By Lesley MaceyakJuly 6, 2016
"The contest for location of cantonments was one of the most spirited ever occurring in Washington," read the Petersburg paper.
Within weeks after the U. S. declared war on Germany in the spring of 1917, the War Department acquired a vast tract of 25 farms, forests, swamps and vacant land in what is now Prince George County (between Petersburg and Hopewell) for the purpose of building one of 16 military cantonments. The central tract acquired was known as Lakemont Park to the local residents.
"The camp will be a permanent one with wooden buildings instead of tents for quartering the men," the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote on June 9.
Building a military encampment during the summer in Petersburg presented obstacles. Engineers and construction crews had to deal with weeks of rain and swamps filled with mosquitoes. Also, they faced shortages of lumber needed to construct more than 1,500 buildings in a narrow window of several months and had to establish and maintain a transportation network to gain materials rapidly.
In addition, the E.I. DuPont Company, which had a large gun-cotton plant in what is now Hopewell, raised serious objections to the War Department for its plans to create a new city of 35,000-60,000 just three miles away. This led to some misfires by the War Department.
"Petersburg Gets Training Camp" read a large front page headline June 9, 1917, in the Richmond Times Dispatch. "Positive announcement - Petersburg has been selected as the site for one of the sixteen training camps for the new national Army - was made yesterday afternoon by Gen. J. Franklin Bell, commander of the Department of the East," read the opening paragraph.
The article stated upwards of 35,000 men would be trained and "a city in itself will be erected."
Plans were made to build new roads and hotels, local businesses eagerly made preparations to expand and the region celebrated for several days. Then, Gov. Henry C. Stuart and area elected leaders were shocked June 12 by a second War Department announcement. "Virginia Loses Cantonment Site" read the headline streaming across the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
"Secretary of War Baker today revoked the order issued by the War Department on Saturday locating one of the sixteen Army cantonments at Petersburg," the first paragraph read.
The announcement did not include reasons for the rejection. Newspaper articles from the Richmond and Petersburg newspapers, however, cited objections from DuPont related to workforce and transportation concerns. The company might lose employees and its shipments of products could be delayed due to an overload on the railroads.
By all newspaper accounts, Petersburg was the prime location for locating the cantonment site for draftees from Virginia and three other states. It offered nearby transportation from two rivers, a deep water route to the Atlantic, double-track railways and rail yards capable of handling a large volume of rail cars, a climate advantage and proximity to the nation's capital.
"Petersburg and Hopewell were horses of a different color in the first decade of the 20th century," noted Jeanie L Langford, assistant librarian and archivist for the Appomattox Regional Library System. "Everything is still recovering from the Civil War - even though it was a considerable length of time. Petersburg has managed to grow and rebuild the railroads, and it has become a major outlet for peanuts, tobacco and other goods. City Point is kind of a sleeping little port town where goods could go out on ships because of the deep water."
Langford said, "In the spring of 1912, DuPont was looking for a place to build a little dynamite factory, and it bought about 800 acres of land at Hopewell Farms and then another 1,600 acres from the Eppes family of Appomattox Manor."
When the company was called up by the Army to produce gun-cotton, its workforce jumped to 40,000 in a matter of years. "So, overnight you have this giant plant and people came here from all over the United States, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere to work at this factory. Many employees lived in Petersburg and DuPont was concerned about workers being able to get to work on time with expected disruptions in the transportation system."
Following the June 12 announcement, a Virginia delegation headed by former Gov. Richard H. Mann, Petersburg and Richmond officials, and members of the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce met with DuPont management in Delaware. They then traveled to Washington, D.C., and held subsequent meetings with War Department officials. Their efforts prevailed and the department on June 14 approved a cantonment for Petersburg.
"CAMP FOR PETERSBURG; BIG STREET PARADE HELD; WORK BEGINS TODAY," read the banner headline in the June 15 Petersburg Daily Index-Appeal.
"Seldom has a more enthusiastic parade been seen in this city than held last night shortly after the first news the camp had been decided by the War Department. By the time the parade and bands started to the railroad station to meet the local committee, it numbered 1,000 carrying torches and red lights." This was the opening paragraph of a another front page story in the same paper under a headline "Committee Greeted by Hundreds."
"This is the greatest event in the history of Petersburg," read the Petersburg paper.
Construction began immediately. By its opening in early September, the cantonment had been named Camp Lee, 15 miles of on-post roads had been completed and plans were made to expand the camp. Members of the 80th "Blue Ridge" Division - made up of troops from Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia - began arriving for training.
"As Virginia more than a century ago, gave Washington to fight for American freedom, so Virginia yesterday gave the first quota of her sons to the new National Army to fight for universal freedom. And when the sun descended on Camp Lee last night, 230 youths from the pick of her manhood between the years of twenty-one and thirty-one, had given themselves to their country."
The opening paragraph from the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Sept. 6 appeared under the headline "VIRGINIA'S FIRST QUOTA ARRIVES AT CANTONMENT."
The new Soldiers were escorted to the camp by the governor, Richmond mayor and other local officials. Camp Lee was the largest of the cantonments constructed and only one other - Ayers, Mass., - opened ahead of Petersburg.
The article continued, "In speaking of the men, Col. Waldron said, 'Our Army is the most democratic in the world. We feel each man is really a man, and we know more can be accomplished by intelligent kindness than by brutality or hardness.'"
The two local newspapers carried daily stories of the construction progress as well as articles when Camp Lee opened to the end of 1917.
"The massive deeds and great feats of Uncle Sam's engineers this summer was to take an open space of about 5,400 acres of 'My Country Tis of Thee' lying three miles east of Petersburg and covered with forests and fields of growing crops and convert the same into a modern city for habitation of Uncle Sam's new Army," read a paragraph from another article in the Petersburg newspaper supplement under the headline, "How a City of Fifty Thousand Was Built in Sixty Days."
The articled continued, "Rome was not built in a day but Uncle Sam has a couple of engineers on his payroll with the rank of major who performed a feat that takes its place in the annals of American history as one of the most remarkable achievements of the world's greatest Republic. This is an engineering enterprise of modern times rival the work of Gen. (George Washington) Goethals in building the Panama Canal.
"With nearly 50,000 young men assembled at Camp Lee from many sections of the country. This camp has brought Petersburg into such prominence as it has never before enjoyed. It is a new community established on old and substantial foundations. Aside from the advantageous location of Petersburg for manufacturing and distributing, the prosperity of this section is based on the soil and its strength and the capacity, and the people and their energy and force of character.
An equally glowing article appeared on Sept. 29 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch headlined "MAGIC TRANSFORMATION ABOUT CANTONMENT SITE. Newspapers in that era included "decks" or multiple subheads under headlines, and these followed - "City Accommodating 50,000 People Erected at Camp Lee in Less Than Three Months, PERFECT IN EVERY DETAIL, Buildings Spread Over Miles of Territory - Amount of Materials Used Almost Beyond Imagination - Hospitals and Warehouses Numerous."
The correspondent wrote, "Three months ago, the site on what now stands Camp Lee consisted of fields of growing crops and acres of wooded lands. Much of it was ground, which had remained unused for years. With trees whose size bespoke their age and thick underbrush that told its own story of neglect. Today, the same fields ... have been converted into a city ... almost double the population of the town of Petersburg. Nothing has been overlooked in the way of comforts that any city in the country affords. Within two months after the first blow of the ax ... rows of substantial buildings had been erected, a water system installed, electric lights provided for, and a post-office erected for the handling of mail in excess of that handled in the majority of the cities of the state. All on such a gigantic scale and so rapidly done it appears almost as though the magic of an Aladdin's lamp had been used."
"The impact on Petersburg was huge," noted Langford. "All sorts of businesses expanded and the Soldiers and their family members needed many goods. Building Camp Lee also improved the areas mosquito problems since the swamps were drained."
Prior to official naming of Camp Lee, the War Department called it a cantonment and others often referred to it as a training camp, a reservation and even a concentration camp.
Virginia officials and residents were thrilled on July 14 when the announcement was made to officially call the massive site Camp Lee.
"The American War Department, for the first time since the War Between the States, officially paid a tribute to the military genius of noted Confederate war chieftains when it announced today that four of the training camps, where the selective draft Army and National Guardsmen will be prepared for service in France, will be named for Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. Joe Wheeler, Gen. John B. Gordon and Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard."
This opening paragraph appeared under the headline "Southern Military Heroes Are Honored by War Department," on the front page of the July 15 Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Construction of Camp Lee was a regional project. "It is being created by Richmond men. Allen J. Saville and H.A. Claiborne, forming a Richmond engineering firm, are in charge of all building operations," read a paragraph from the Times Dispatch.
When completed, the following facts outlined the enormous scale of the camp.
The camp was about nine square miles in size built like a horseshoe - two miles tip-to-tip and five miles around the perimeter.
• There were more than 11,000 work men in 700 teams and 37 three-ton motor trucks engaged in construction.
• In addition to 1,500 barracks, the camp had a hospital with 40 buildings, 10 warehouses were constructed, the Young Men's Christian Association had seven buildings, there was one building for recreation purposes by the Knights of Columbus and the camp's civic center had a post office, bank, telegraph office and telephone exchange.
• More than 42 million feet of lumber was used and 100 railcar loads were received during heavy construction days. Twenty carloads of nails were used.
• Fifty-two miles of ditches for water and sewerage systems were dug.
• There were 400 acres of roofs within the camp buildings.
• More than nine miles of gravel roadways were laid.
Editor's Note - With the kickoff of the 100th Anniversary celebration year for Camp Lee/Fort Lee in July, this article looks back on the Petersburg region just prior to 1917, the selection of the city for the cantonment site and the make-up of the vast camp and its impact locally. As a guide in telling the story, the Traveller researched several newspapers of the era - the Petersburg Daily-Index Appeal and the Richmond Times Dispatch. The Traveller also appreciates the assistance of Jeanie L. Langford from the Appomattox Regional Library System, Hopewell, the Virginia Historical Society, the Library of Virginia and the Richmond Times Dispatch.