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Uncovering Camp Meade: D’Agostino tracks artifacts from 1890s post in Lower Swatara, Middletown

Posted 1/31/19

Dustin D’Agostino began searching for Camp George Gordon Meade artifacts without really knowing it.

He started using metal detectors about five years ago. The first place he used one was at …

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Uncovering Camp Meade: D’Agostino tracks artifacts from 1890s post in Lower Swatara, Middletown

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Dustin D’Agostino began searching for Camp George Gordon Meade artifacts without really knowing it.

He started using metal detectors about five years ago. The first place he used one was at a home on Blue Raider Lane behind Middletown Area Middle School.

Lo and behold, D’Agostino began uncovering bullet shells. He already knew about Camp Meade, which was part of Middletown, Highspire and Lower Swatara Township in 1898 and 1899, during the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War. He became excited when the homeowner told him that his property was part of the camp, which was named for George Gordon Meade, the Union Civil War general who commanded troops during the Battle of Gettysburg and was commander of the Army of the Potomac.

The camp was bordered roughly by the current landmarks of Eisenhower Boulevard to the west, Route 441 to the north, Union Street to the east and the Susquehanna River to the south.

At its peak, D’Agostino said as many as 30,000 troops were at the camp. President William McKinley visited and reviewed the troops in 1898.

D’Agostino has searched Camp Meade sites and found a number of items — buckles, buttons, horseshoes, marbles, coins, bullet casings, a Pennsylvania National Guard badge and a ring he suspects is from the 1600s.

His favorite find, he says, was the Pennsylvania National Guard badge that he found on a local farm, in part because of how rare it is.

The badge reads, “Camp Meade Middletown.” The badge, he said, was generally given out at the end of an enlistment and the soldier was getting ready to leave.

At first he thought it was a coin or a button based on the metal detector reading. When he dug it up and brushed off the dirt, he realized it was a badge. It wasn’t until he took it home, cleaned it off and did his research that he realized what he had.

“They’re nonexistent anywhere,” he said.

He found the badge along with a National Guard button and tent tie fastener.

“That’s all you need to know that they were camped right there,” he said.

Love of history

D’Agostino was born and raised in Harrisburg. He attributes his love of history to teachers at Bishop McDevitt High School and his father’s love for Western history.

He’s used a metal detector in places outside of the Middletown area. Locally, he’s found artifacts from outside of the Camp Meade time period, including a colonial buckle and a toy soldier he believes is from World War I.

He shared the history of the camp and some of the artifacts he’s found during a presentation put on by the Lower Swatara Historic Preservation Society at the Lower Swatara Fire Hall on Jan. 22.

Society Treasurer Nancy Avolese said D’Agostino reached out to the society after learning about its formation last year. He was their first speaker; the next will discuss the Alleman family at 6 p.m. March 21 at the fire house.

“His pictures brought us a better understanding of the camps, the local economic and social effects, and showing his artifacts that he metal-detected helped bring the history to life,” she said.

War history

War was declared against Spain in April 1898, and McKinley called for volunteers. According to the National Park Service, the reasons for war were many, but there were two immediate ones: America’s support of the ongoing struggle by Cubans and Filipinos against Spanish rule, and the mysterious explosion of the battleship U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor.

“It was kind of like the beginning of the Civil War where everyone was patriotic, except this time everyone was patriotic together, not just for the North or South. Our whole country united behind this,” D’Agostino said.

The Second Army Corps was stationed at Camp Alger in Virginia when there was a breakout of typhoid, which D’Agostino said was caused by dirty water and crowded conditions. Army Corps of Engineers assessed locations across the country. Middletown, he said, was a good location because of the open fields and water.

“As they look at the area, they’re looking at where they can put all of these guys without a lot of the impact around them,” he said.

According to D’Agostino, the camp was occupied by the Army on three occasions — the start and the end of the Spanish-American War and during the Philippine-American War, all in 1898 and 1899. Some of the Camp Meade soldiers did serve in the Philippine-American War, D’Agostino said.

In the Spanish-American War, Spain surrendered in just over three months. After the war ended, the soldiers were sent to other camps. Some were mustered out, and some went to Florida.

People made money off the camp, mostly from selling food and wares. D’Agostino found a bread token and learned that the baker was only in business from 1898-1900.

The soldiers would put up their tents and dug trenches. D’Agostino said troops built piers along the river to bathe. Land near the Middletown Area School District campus was used for a shooting range.

A local resident told D’Agostino that the troops used to steal chickens from the coop.

“It’s kind of the history that I think these organizations are trying to preserve, not just material things, but the memories as well,” D’Agostino said.

Sometimes they occupied houses in the area, such as Harmony Hall at 1400 Fulling Mill Road. D’Agostino said the headquarters of the First Division was at the house.  He found a number of items such as buttons and a horseshoe.

“I was really shocked when he came in and spread it out,” said Karen Taylor, who has owned Harmony Hall since 1999. “I think it’s amazing.”

Maps for sale

Highspire Historical Society has a map for sale that shows where the camp was located, although D’Agostino said he’s found items at places not listed on the map.

It indicates the camps were in areas such as Middletown Area Middle School, Jednota, warehouses on Fulling Mill Road, Penn State Harrisburg and local farms, such as the Williams farm. It is available at www.highspirehistory.org/maps.html.

D’Agostino has permission from the First Catholic Slovak Union to search for artifacts on what is known on the Jednota property.

D&H Distributing is proposing to build two warehouses on the property. Company officials are working to get the land rezoned.