Friday, August 24, 2012

Camp Ford, Texas: The Largest Civil War Prison Camp in the West

Troy D. Smith, author and historian
 Camp Ford, Texas:
The Largest Civil War
Prison Camp in the West
by Troy D. Smith
Copyright © 2012 Troy D. Smith

[Note: be sure to visit Monday's interview with Troy and read an excerpt of Blackwell Unchained.]

During the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides wound up in prison camps. Conditions were, obviously, less than ideal –and they got worse as the war dragged on, especially in the South. It is estimated that more than 50,000 men died from captivity in Union and Confederate prisons. It was not necessarily a matter of deliberate mistreatment –by the end of the war, the Confederacy was having trouble providing food for its own troops, let alone prisoners.

The worsening condition of Union prisoners is demonstrated by the story of Camp Ford, near Tyler, Texas. It was established as a training camp in 1862, but became a prison camp in August of the following year. At first it was only meant for captured Union officers and naval personnel. The prisoners were kept in an open field, with Confederate troops on hand to guard them. There were only a few hundred inmates, and they had access to lumber and tools; New Yorker A.J.H. Duganne recalls the ten by ten foot log cabin which the other prisoners helped him build, and noted that tools were put to various good uses:

“In spite of all obstacles, Yankee ingenuity finds means to assert itself, and the long hours of our imprisonment are whiled away by many shrewd workers, with no small returns of pecuniary profit to themselves.”

After a mass escape attempt in November, 1863, the camp was enclosed by a palisadea wall made of sharpened wooden poles. There was also a guard-house, and prisoners had to contend with sadistic guards. Duganne recalled one instance where an especially cruel guard ordered a Union lieutenant to approach him, then shot the man fatally through the bowels for crossing the guard line.

The camp quadrupled in size in the spring and summer of 1864, after the battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill. The population peaked at over 5,000, most of them enlisted men. It was the largest prison camp west of the Mississippi River. While the imprisoned Union officers had their small cabins, the other 5/6 of the prisoners had to contrive whatever cover they couldmaking “shebangs,” or improvised shelters, out of blankets, tree limbs, leaves, cast-off odds and ends of lumber, and mud. The enclosure was expanded, but the captives still had the same water sources that had supported a fraction of their number before.

The prisoners resisted in whatever ways they could. Tunnels were attempted. Once a prisoner, having been struck by a guard, hit the Confederate in the head with a rock and then melted into the crowd. On another occasion a Confederate officer’s pipe was stolen, only to show back up in his own pocket the next day—with a U.S. flag carved into the bowl. Messages were passed back and forth to prisoners who were locked in the guard-house for various offenses by means of a “police telegraph—other prisoners would volunteer to malinger or show up late for roll call, punishable by a short stint in the guard-house, on which occasion they would deliver the messages.

Duganne told of one especially daring escape attempt. Fifteen prisoners stole into the courtyard in the dead of night, risking discovery by the night watch. Duganne and others who met regularly as a “musical club” started singing at the top of their lungs, attracting the guards’ attention—even taking requests from the Confederates, including “Dixie.” While the watchmen were thus distracted, the fifteen Union men worked together to pull one of the palisade stakes out of the ground and slipped, one by one, through the space. They were not missed until the next morning, whereupon the guards pursued them with bloodhounds. Thirteen of the fifteen were recaptured, while the other two escaped to Union lines.

The guards would sometimes whip naked female slaves within sight of the Union captives, to taunt them—as if to say “here is what you are allegedly fighting to stop, what can you do about it?” Local citizens also lynched runaway slaves and pro-Union Texans near the prison camp, often hanging them and sometimes burning them alive.

As Duganne reported, “Burning men and women at the stake is a relic of aboriginal amusement. A negro was thus executed at Tyler, while our prisoners tarried at Camp Ford. The occasion furnished a gala-day for all the good people of Smith County, our guards included.”

Kate Stone, a young lady from Lousiana who lived near the camp during the war and sometimes wrote about it in her journal, was occasionally moved to sympathy by the prisoners’ pitiable condition. But, she concluded, “we cannot help them. They should have stayed in their own bountiful country instead of coming down here to kill and destroy.”

The Camp Ford prison site is now a public park.
Troy D. Smith's Blackwell Unchained is available at Amazon and Smashwords.

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  1. History is brutal, isn't it, Troy? It's hard to imagine that people would come and watch such a thing--I'd be 5 counties away, if I could. This is so interesting. I have lived in OK all my life, with TX so nearby, and never knew any of this. Once again, a great post!

  2. What a nightmare! Troy, your gripping account reminds us of the desperate and dehumanizing horrors of war, which should not be forgotten. A fascinating and very moving post. ~ Lorrie

  3. My favorite part of this info, though, is when the prisoners stole an officer's pipe and carved a U.S. flag into it!

  4. Wow! I didn't know about this prisoner camp either. And it brings back an idea I had for a story while watching a History Channel program about the prisoner of war camps (there was one in nearly every state in the US) during WWII. Thanks so much for sharing this fascinating yet brutal slice of our history.

  5. Have any records ever been found that were kept by the Confederates that made reference to individual prisoners? An ancestor of mine who was in the 36th Iowa spent months at this camp after his capture at Marks' Mills.


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