On May 28, 1941, headlines report that the Nazis have gained the upper hand on the island of Crete in Greece and are closing in on the Suez Canal. Britain has met in open combat with France, which is collaborating with Germany.
And this is the scene in Virginia’s Caroline County:
“One passes fields of waving grain, blooming orchards, corn that is just above the surface of the sun-baked earth, newly clipped lawns, and fully expects to see people at work in the fields or sitting on the huge porches of the stately homes that were built by their forefathers years ago, but there is not a human being to be seen, not even a cow nor a dog,” The Free Lance–Star reported at the time.
The Army was scheduled to move in in four days to occupy part of the 70,000 acres of prime farmland the government had just acquired for the purpose of creating a training ground, soon to be named Fort A.P. Hill. More than half of the families in the section north of U.S. 301 had already moved, with 200 more planning to leave in the next few days. There were about 50–100 families, though, who had not found a place to live and would move into prefabricated units near Milford or Corbin. The materials for these homes had yet to arrive.
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Caroline residents had had an inkling of what was to come ever since a large group of army officers and enlisted men spent several weeks in February making surveys and testing water. On Feb. 26, the War Department asked Congress for $1,650,000 to acquire land in Virginia for a training site, but didn’t specify where. Rumors flew.
On March 6, a group of citizens paid a visit to their representative, Otis Bland, in Washington. Bland told them that no official announcement would be made until the bill appropriating the money was approved, but that an army facility in Caroline was a “moral certainty.” Residents, said the paper, “were agog at having to give up their farms, some of which had been handed down for generations.”
A week later, a letter appeared in The Free Lance–Star from Mrs. Gordon Conway of “Mount Scion” in Caroline protesting the action. She pointed out that her property didn’t even have a deed because it had been in the same family since the original land grant was given to her ancestors, and she promised to do “everything in my power to keep the old places intact.” Her family’s 284 acres was purchased for $1,000.
It was a time of great uncertainty. For weeks, farmers waited for the official announcement, and when it came in early April, the exact boundaries had not been decided. More waiting followed. Meanwhile, James Gray of the Soil Conservation Service, which was put in charge of the land acquisition, met with farmers at the courthouse and urged them to go ahead and plant their crops since not all land would be taken until September. He reassured them that the government would compensate them for seed and fertilizer. Farmers left the meeting scoffing at the idea of planting crops to be trampled under by the army.
Meanwhile, real estate agents were “thick as flies in midsummer,” offering to help the displaced families find new places to live. The government said it was taking steps to prevent profiteering at the expense of those losing their homes. A resettlement committee set up offices in Bowling Green.
Years later, the Caroline County Historical Society collected memories and published them in a book titled “Wealthy in Heart: Oral History of Life Before Fort A.P. Hill.” Cleopatra Kay Coleman remembered, “Many of the white families around us dashed off to Washington, D.C., in gloves and a fur coat saying, ‘Look, this plantation has been in my family for three generations and it’s historic land, and ... please draw your boundaries around us ...’ But that was certainly not an option that was open to my people.”
The boundaries were redrawn to exclude some historic homes, and the original acreage requested was reduced from 110,000 to 70,000 acres. It was about one-third of the county.
On April 14, the map of the land to be acquired was printed in the paper and the boundaries announced. Three days later, the departure date was set for June 1. Families living in the section south of U.S. 301 had until Sept. 1 to leave.
On April 24, the coordinator of resettlement efforts expressed concern at the “slow pace” of evacuation, because only 10 percent of the people in the affected area had moved or made arrangements.
The government made efforts to help farmers. Loans were made available to purchase livestock through the Farm Security Administration and to purchase farms from the Federal Land Bank. County officials worked with the resettlement committee to compile lists of farmers in other parts of the county wishing to sell or rent farms. The Civilian Conservation Corps would provide trucks to move families if their new location was within a day’s drive.
Nevertheless, farmers were in a bind. They didn’t know how much they would get for their land, because appraisals were going on all way through the month of May up to about a week before the June 1 deadline to vacate. They also wouldn’t receive their money for one to six months after it was sold. They were told to “come to an understanding” with the sellers of their new homes that they would be receiving their money later.
“Everybody was devastated, but they couldn’t do anything about it,” remembered Nancy Bullock Napier. “And my dad, I know he wanted to stay in Caroline County ... so he found this place that was more run down that what we were accustomed to, but he made a living here and raised children here.”
As farmers were searching for new homes and moving out, the Army was already coming in. In the middle of May, about 1,200 officers and men of the Fifth Engineers from Fort Belvoir arrived to construct sanitary facilities, a water supply, tent floors and mess halls in the area north and west of Rappahannock Academy.
Children’s mouths gaped to see all the trucks and soldiers in Bowling Green; some said they had never seen so many people in their lives. The engineers saved some farmhouses to use as officers’ quarters, while most were later torn down to be used for lumber. Cows from G.L. Broaddus’ dairy farm surrendered their stalls, which became showers.
William Taylor, who was 9 at the time, remembered, “They had an airplane on Sundays used to fly and write in the sky. And it used to say ‘U.S. Army May 31.’ ... That was the date we had to be out.” The first troops were set to arrive the next week.
Though most people complied with the order, albeit with tears, there were a few holdouts at the end.
Ethel Waugh Sanderlin said, “Everybody had left except this one man, Boyd Childs. He said he wasn’t going anywhere because they were not going to put him out of his house. ... He went to bed one night, and he woke up in the morning, they had broke into his house and there were soldiers sleeping everywhere. That’s how Mr. Childs left.”
Others remembered hearing of bulldozers and trucks going through homes.
Many more people were dissatisfied with the amount of money they received, which ranged widely from $5 an acre to over $100. At least a third of property owners refused the initial purchase price, forcing the government to acquire it through condemnation.
Churches held farewell services, their cemeteries moved elsewhere. Families took final photographs in front of the old homestead. Many possessions were left behind for looters; others were thrown down the well. People scattered to the surrounding counties, while those who were able to stay had to adjust to a new life as well. Though many never got over the loss, a few did find their lot in life improved with running water and electricity.
In six months, the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the war. Caroline residents threw their full support behind it like everyone else, though many had already made a great sacrifice.
Wendy Migdal is a freelance writer in Fredericksburg.