The First Camp Lee

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Within weeks after the United States declared war on Germany in the spring of 1917, the War Department acquired a vast tract of farmland in Prince George County, Virginia (between Petersburg and Hopewell) for the purpose of building here one of 32 military cantonments. Construction of Camp Lee began in June. By September more than 1,500 buildings and over 15 miles of on-post roads had been completed. Soon members of the 80th “Blue Ridge” Division – made up of troops from Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia – began arriving for training.

Before long Camp Lee became one of the largest “cities” in Virginia. More than 60,000 doughboys trained here prior to their departure for the Western Front, and fighting in France and Germany. Included among the many facilities here was a large camp hospital situated on 58 acres of land. One of the more trying times for the hospital staff was when the worldwide influenza epidemic reached Camp Lee in the fall of 1918. An estimated 10,000 Soldiers were stricken by flu. Nearly 700 of them died in the course of a couple of weeks.

Camp Lee continued to function as an out-processing center in 1919-20 following the First World War. In 1921 the camp was formally closed and its buildings were torn down, all save one – the so-called “White House.” During the war, this two-story frame structure served as 80th Division Headquarters and as temporary residence for its Commander, Major General Adelbert Cronkhite. Years later it became known as the “Davis House” in honor of the family that lived there in the 1930s and 40s.

Except for the Davis House (which is still in use today) and a handful of overgrown training trenches, there are no other visible signs of all the training and other activities that took place here during World War I. During the interwar years the property reverted to the Commonwealth of Virginia and was used mainly as a game preserve. The only evidence of persons in uniform was the Civilian Conservation Corps camp that opened at nearby Petersburg National Battlefield in the 1930s era Great Depression.


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