Local farmers called the rural promontory above the Schuylkill River “Break Neck Hill.” At the time of the Civil War, the land belonged to farmer Joseph Kirkner whose old stone farmstead sat on the wooded slope. Beyond the bluff were fields of crops and grazing land; Merion Square (Gladwyne today) was two miles to the southwest. The site was isolated, and to military eyes that made it useful.
The Army Moves In
In June 1864, the War Department ordered that a special camp be established near Philadelphia to house up to two thousand Pennsylvania troops. The war was still raging in the South, but there was another urgent concern. Tens of thousands of Pennsylvania men had volunteered back in 1861 for three-year enlistments—and their discharge dates were coming due.
While some of them would re-enlist, most were eager to be mustered out and return home. A site team selected the Gladwyne locale for the mustering-out camp because its very remoteness would limit the soldiers’ access to taverns and other urban temptations, and prevent “camp diseases” like smallpox and typhoid from spreading to the general public. Plus, the Reading Railroad line abutted the property along the river flats, guaranteeing ready access to Philadelphia.
The Army leased the land and erected a quarter-mile-square campus of buildings enclosed by a high stockade fence. Local workers provided the materials and labor. A command staff and a force of garrison guards were brought in, and in October 1864, Camp Discharge was officially opened. By then, scores of weary young servicemen had already arrived for muster-out. They were the first of 1,118 soldiers from 89 Pennsylvania regiments who would transit the camp during the eventful coming year.
The Problems Begin
Most of these servicemen were different. Unlike other “three-year men” who were being mustered out en masse with their regiments, the soldiers sent to Camp Discharge were “strays”, separated from their units in the field due to capture, hospitalization or detached duty. Unfortunately, that also meant separated from their officers and paperwork. Finding and finalizing paperwork to officially clear an individual for muster-out was a slow, arduous process.
As the strays waited in administrative limbo, performing make-work tasks and killing time, their restlessness could turn to anger. One man wrote his congressman to blast Camp Discharge as “without any exception the most miserably conducted camp I ever saw.” The barracks quickly became “a growler’s paradise.” As men went AWOL to local saloons, or to visit their families in Philadelphia and elsewhere, the camp guards increased their patrols and the guardhouse filled up with violators. Fortunately, the steady outflow of men who’d been successfully discharged helped to keep hopes up for the others.
The Physical Wrecks
According to the book Back From Battle, more than three hundred of the stray men had straggled north after being released from the wretched Andersonville prison in Georgia. Many of them were at death’s door, and had seen comrades succumb at Andersonville and other Confederate prisons.
Camp Discharge had an understaffed hospital that would log in more than eight hundred patients—”a collection of broken down men who required a great deal of work,” wrote staff doctor Joseph K. Corson, of Plymouth Meeting. Ailments ranged from pestilent smallpox and typhoid to an assortment of lingering lung, skin and intestinal diseases. Other men, especially the camp guards, showed up with venereal diseases. Medical treatments of the day were often ineffective (castor oil), dangerous (mercury) or addictive (opium). A few ailing soldiers died at the camp, while others would go on to lead woefully curtailed lives.
In the Thick of It
The daily train brought a flow of new arrivals and carried away more and more of the discharged during the winter months of 1864-65. The camp commandant, Col. John Hancock of Norristown, endeavored to improve the camp’s operations and morale. At the same time, Hancock undertook some pet projects to dress up the camp—and his own quarters—that caused friction with his staff officers. Military records chronicle outbreaks of squabbling at the camp headquarters. One supply officer actually faced a court-martial for insubordination. Hancock pressed on with his projects, even though an Army inspector criticized them as costly and indulgent. Meanwhile, North-South prisoner exchanges were resuming in full, resulting in ever more woebegone arrivals at the camp and its hospital.
The Turning Point
April 1865 saw dramatic events. Confederate commander Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox and the camp’s decorative brass cannons were fired across the valley in celebration. Six days later, President Lincoln was assassinated. As Lincoln’s bier traveled from city to city, a contingent from the camp served as an honor guard in Philadelphia. The war’s end brought an order to quickly demobilize the Union’s huge volunteer army and cut costs. Military hospitals cleared out as many patients as possible. Newer enlistees were mustered out even before their one-year and two-year terms were complete. Camp Discharge went from discharging 68 soldiers in April to 85 in May to 252 in June. In July the camp was ordered closed. Hancock and his team departed, replaced by a small caretaking force. The Army held a public auction of all the camp contents—every board, shingle and horse trough—that efficiently cleared the premises.
Some of the camp’s wooden structures were moved to mills in nearby Conshohocken and put to new use. The Balligomingo Woolen Mill erected the camp’s huge flagpole on its site, where it towered until a fire consumed it in 1889. The Camp Discharge acreage reverted to its owner, who put it back to farm use.
The property would change hands several times over the next century but would keep its bucolic character as a mix of crop land, pasture and woods. In the 1880s, iron magnate Howard Wood built a summer estate on an adjacent point on the ridge and dubbed it “Camp Discharge” to keep the name alive. For years his son Clement put the land to renewed military use by holding encampments of his First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry unit.
By the mid-1960s the Wood estate house was gone and the old Camp Discharge grounds had become the private property of the Philadelphia County Club. Today the club’s Centennial Course runs across the camp’s upper end. The slope down to the Schuylkill—the old Break Neck Hill—is a wooded buffer, its history unmarked.