In the following essay by Chuck Shoemake, we learn about the wretched conditions at Camp Morton, Indiana’s federal Civil War prisoner of war camp. In the course of telling the story, Chuck also discusses eight or more former members of the pro-Union guerrilla band headed by Newt Knight of Jones County, Mississippi, who spent the final year of the war imprisoned at Camp Morton. A striking monument dedicated to the memory of Confederate soldiers who suffered and died there does not mention, however, that Southern Unionists were among them, likely because the memory that such men existed had largely been buried.
Like the vast majority of Confederate monuments, Camp Morton’s was built in the early twentieth century, during an era in which national leaders, in the name of “reconciling” the nation, introduced the “Lost Cause” version of Civil War history that insisted that Confederate secession from the Union was a means of preserving states’ rights, rather than the amply-documented intention of preserving slavery. These same Lost Cause narratives whitewashed the experiences of slaves, justified violent suppression of freed people, and dismissed Southern white Unionists (when not ignoring them altogether) as ignorant, lawless poor whites. The accompanying proliferation of monuments during the early twentieth century literally etched in stone this Lost Cause version of Civil War history.
Still, not all Civil War monuments are offensive, or at least they need not be. Some, as the following article demonstrates, preserve the memory of ordinary soldiers who died in a war not of their making. —-Vikki Bynum
Camp Morton: “A Black and Damning Trail”
By Chuck Shoemake
The words etched in granite on a monument in Indianapolis pay solemn tribute to Confederate prisoners of war—some with unique ties to Jones County—who died while incarcerated at Camp Morton during the Civil War. A monument to the men erected in 1912 includes the names of at least 173 prisoners who were members of Mississippi units. Four were soldiers from the 7th Battalion Mississippi Infantry, including Alfred Britt and Nelson Cooley, J. H. F. Harper, and Allen J. Bodie.
Although the monument is dedicated to Confederate soldiers, among those who survived time at Camp Morton were eight members of the anti-Confederate Guerrilla band known as the Knight Company of the infamous “Free State of Jones.“
Merida Coats, James M. Collins, Simeon Collins, James Eulin, Drew Gilbert, Martin Valentine, and Patrick and William M. Welch were captured at Kennesaw Mountain during General William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. They too were soldiers in Mississippi’s 7th Battalion after being forced to return to the Confederate Army and fight the Yankees after deserting their posts, taking to the swamps, and proclaiming loyalty to the United States.
The leader of the Knight Company was Newton Knight, a farmer, soldier and Southern Unionist. From late 1863 to 1865, the Knight band allegedly fought as many as fourteen skirmishes with Confederate forces. Authorities received reports that deserters had captured Ellisville and raised the Union flag over the Jones County courthouse. By early spring of 1864, the Confederate government in Jones County had been effectively overthrown. On July 12 of that year, the Natchez Courier reported that Jones County had declared its independence and seceded from the Confederacy.
Determined to end the Mississippi insurrection, Confederate authorities sent two regiments, the first commanded by Col. Henry Maury, the second by Col. Robert Lowry, into Jones County in March and April of 1864. The Lowry raid delivered a devastating blow to the Knight Band, executing ten deserters, including Newt’s cousin Benjamin Franklin Knight, and capturing Simeon Collins and several other members of the band. The captured men were forced back into the Confederate army, while many other members escaped south to New Orleans where they joined the Union Army. What was left of the Knight Company remained a potent force in Jones County, fighting its last skirmish at Sal’s Battery on January 10, 1865, and fending off a combined force of Confederate cavalry and infantry.
After being forced back into the army, the Knight Company men captured by Col. Lowry joined other Jones Countians of the 7th Battalion at Kennesaw, Georgia, where they soon engaged in the heaviest fighting they had yet endured. “The shot and shell tore through the timber, cutting down trees and large branches. It was a terrific fire, and lasted until dark” (Hess, Kennesaw Mountain p. 38).
At the break of dawn on July 3, 1864, the same day that Simeon Collins and his compatriots were now captured by Union forces, Confederate troops withdrew from Kennesaw Mountain and retreated toward Marietta and Atlanta. In addition to several Knight Band members, others from Jones County who were sent to Camp Morton included William Bryan Valentine, also captured at Kennesaw on July 3, and Jesse and Francis M. Herrington, captured near Marietta, Georgia, on June 19, 1864. Interestingly, Herrington was allowed to join the U.S. army in March of the following year. Perhaps, like Jones Countian Wilson L. Jones, he managed to convince authorities of his loyalty. Jones’s military records note that his Union captors believed Jones when he claimed to have been “forced to enlist in Rebel Army to avoid conscript, and deserted to avail himself of Amnesty Proclamation, etc.” There is evidence that a number of Knight Band members made the same claim after being captured by Yankees, but only Wilson Jones and Francis Herrington appear to have been freed on condition of joining the Union army (Compiled Military Records, 7th Battalion, Mississippi Infantry).
Camp Morton, named for Indiana Governor Oliver Morton, was located just north of Indianapolis, Indiana. Its many uses during the Civil War included a Union military training ground, Confederate prisoner of war camp, and a place for detention of Union soldiers on parole. In the early days of the war there was little organization for handling prisoners by either the North or the South. Expecting the war to be of short duration, there were no attempts by either side to detain captured soldiers. They were released to return home after being paroled on oath not to return to the field of combat. But as the war dragged on, that would all change.
Prior to the war, the 36 acre site served as the fairgrounds for the Indiana State Fair. With its establishment, Camp Morton was initially used as a military training ground with the first Union troops arriving at the camp in April 1861. After the fall of Fort Donelson and Fort Henry, the site was adapted for use as a prisoner of war camp with the intention of accommodating only infirm and injured prisoners. Over time, however, it became one of over 150 prisoner of war camps, and the third largest in the North. More than 1,616 Confederate soldiers would die within the confines of its walls.
Considered during its time to be one of the best Northern prison camps, the real truth about Camp Morton is that it was a place of pain and suffering where Southern soldiers struggled to survive.
In principal, as stated by Montgomery Meigs, U.S. Quartermaster General, “prisoners of war are entitled to proper accommodations, and to courteous and respectful treatment” (Gillispie, Andersonvilles of the North p.74). In reality, prisoners were poorly clothed, ill fed, and inadequately sheltered. Unused to the northern climates, and weakened from recent battles and life in the field, many of the prisoners fell ill, and many died.
The first Confederate prisoners arrived by train on February 22, 1862, forlorn, bedraggled and “as nearly dead as alive.” On March 4, 1862, the Indianapolis Journal reported that “of the sick prisoners at the military prison and hospitals in this city, the greater proportion are Mississippians. Many are under eighteen years of age, and the large majority are persons of feeble constitution.” It was a rarity to find any of the men dressed in anything resembling a uniform. Few had blankets and it was more common to see them with squares of carpet draped about their shoulders. Fortunately for the prisoners, Colonel Richard Owen, an experienced soldier and able administrator, was appointed the first commandant of the camp and brought to his position the qualities of strength, discipline, gentleness and sympathy. Having to formulate his own rules, which virtually established self-government among the prisoners, he handled the situation skillfully. After a general prisoner exchange in August 1862, the camp was all but emptied. Among a crowd of spectators, 1,268 prisoners departed Indianapolis for home. Life for the Confederate prisoners under Colonel Owen had been tolerable, but that would soon become a distant memory.
By January 1863, Camp Morton was again functioning as a prison, leaving the best period in the past. After a series of short term (and largely ineffectual) commandants, Colonel Ambrose A. Stevens was placed in the position of running the camp. Although well-intentioned, Stevens lacked the skills of Colonel Owen, and conditions in camp steadily worsened. The battles of Arkansas Post and Stones River near Murfreesboro resulted in the capture of thousands of Confederate soldiers. Their defeat at Port Hudson, Louisiana would again swell the ranks of the camp, contributing to an already overcrowded situation. By December 1863 the camp’s prison population had grown to over 3,300, with 91 deaths recorded that month.
Though Camp Morton’s buildings were “much dilapidated and sadly in need of repairs,” little time or money was spent on improvements. The barracks’ lacked floors, creating a damp and dirty environment, and ventilation depended on the state of disrepair. From 1863 to 1865, inspectors’ complaints and recommendations went unheeded.
The winter of 1863-1864 was bitterly cold, with temperatures falling as low as 20 degrees below zero. As a result, prisoner deaths that winter exceeded 263. John A. Wythe, a young private in the Alabama cavalry, wrote that “there were wide cracks, through which the winds whistled and the rain and snow beat in upon us,” (Hall, Den of Misery, p. 59). Clothing received by prisoners, often delayed and condemned by government inspectors, failed to meet their needs, especially during the harsh Indiana winters. Although the unusual cold continued into the spring, conditions in camp improved with the arrival of warmer weather, resulting in a noticeable drop in illness and deaths.
On October 22, 1863, Medical Inspector August M. Clark filed a distressing report on the deplorable conditions he found in the camps medical facilities: “Condition of men—in hospital, miserable. Hospital buildings—two, one dilapidated and utterly unfit for use. Hospital discipline—none to speak of. Hospital diet and cooking—very little if any attention paid by officers. State of surgical instruments—none in hospital. State of hospital records—carelessly kept. Medical attendance—virtually none. Nursing—by prisoners. Medical officer—Acting Assistant Surgeon Funkhouser. This officer is utterly unfit for the post he holds” (Winslow and Moore, Camp Morton, p. 93).
Though Funkhouser claimed “it is no fault of mine,” the report, coupled with the camp’s overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, led to his replacement by Dr. W. A. Johnson. With Johnson’s appointment, there was reason to hope, and significant improvements in medical conditions were underway by the end of 1863.
Inspector Clark’s report also revealed deplorable conditions throughout the camp. Latrines, no more than open pits, went unattended until filled to capacity. Drainage ditches became trash pits; barracks were found to be filthy and overcrowded. At the end of January 1864, Clark again visited the camp and submitted his findings, commending Stevens’s for striving to remedy the situation. Though not exactly a resounding endorsement, Inspector Clark stated that “the present commandant is rapidly improving the condition of the camp.” But by no means was Clark suggesting that Stevens and Johnson had performed a miraculous transformation. Substandard living quarters and unsanitary conditions throughout the camp continued to be a problem and would remain so until the end of the war.
Rations, deemed adequate by camp officials, were at times lacking in quantity. Vegetables, with the exception of potatoes, were a small part of the prisoner’s diet and fruit was not provided at all, making the resulting outbreaks of scurvy inevitable. The daily ration was three quarters of a pound of bacon or beef, wheat bread, hominy, coffee, tea, sugar, vinegar, salt, pepper, potatoes and molasses. The food was of good quality with each man cooking for himself or in small groups. To “protect” their ration, men often ate the entire day’s allotment in a single sitting.
Reform measures, taken to reduce wasted food and fuel, included the installation of huge kettles called “farmers boilers,” that cooked 30 to 120 gallons of stew at a time. A large oven for baking up to 7,000 loaves of bread a day was constructed within the prison. A proposed reduction of rations, approved by Congress and imposed on Union soldiers as well, was implemented to further reduce waste. While molasses disappeared completely, bread was reduced from 18 to 16 ounces a day, potatoes from 30 pounds to 15 pounds per hundred men, and the salt portion lessened. Sugar and coffee were withheld from all but the sick and wounded. The reduction of salt and potatoes had detrimental effects.
Devotion to freedom, fed by sheer determination, led to frequent escape attempts, though they were seldom successful. Punishment for such acts ranged from a reduction of rations, already at times meager, to hard labor or hanging by the thumbs. A search conducted after a tunnel escape in March 1864 uncovered four additional tunnels in progress, and despite elaborate precautions, at least twelve more tunnels were discovered soon after. On November 14, 1864, a spectacular escape attempt began when 50 to 60 prisoners rushed the high board fence on the camps’ perimeter, surprising the guards who fired few shots. The attempt proved successful for 31 of the men who were able to scale the fence and disappear outside of the walls. They were never recaptured and may have found shelter with Confederate sympathizers.
By July 1864 the prisoner population had reached 4,999. Overwhelmed by the growing numbers, camp authorities found it difficult to cope. Combined with overcrowded barracks and poor sanitation, the oppressive July heat precipitated the spread of diseases such as pneumonia, malarial fevers, cholera, dysentery and smallpox. Thomas Spotswood, an Alabama cavalryman, would recall that “men died constantly, seemingly without cause. They would appear less cheerful and less interested in life, and next morning, when summoned to roll-call, would be found dead” (Hall, Den of Misery, p. 87).
The fall and winter of 1864 brought marked improvements to the camp. Though the population remained high, overcrowding was eased by the enlargement of the camp. Repairs were made to the barracks and new hospital facilities were constructed. Clothing and shoe shortages were remedied and vegetables were issued in greater quantity. The latrines were better attended, new drainage ditches were dug, and the prisoners were put to work policing the grounds. Camp Morton’s local inspector, Lt. J. W. Davidson, reported that “the general condition of both prison and prisoners is being improved each day in the way of cleanliness.”
On August 18, 1864, General Grant wrote to General Butler, Union Exchange Agent, that “it is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it’s humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on,” (Exchange of Prisoners in the Civil War—Civil War Home). But Grant relented and on the October 15 he began the business of exchange. During the final months of the war, from February to March, over 2,000 prisoners were paroled in a prisoner exchange. Many of those remaining were discharged with Lee’s surrender on April 9.
On May 18, 1865, another 600 were released, among them former Knight Company guerrilla Simeon Collins, who would die soon after. The final prisoners were released on June 12, 1865. With their departure, a reporter for the Indianapolis Journal wrote “War is a hard thing and it leaves a black and damning trail.” Mitchell Houghton, a camp survivor, recalled that “it was a ragged, emaciated lot of men, spiritless and weak from long confinement and ill treatment that once more entered Dixie” (Hall, Den of Misery, p. 85).
Approximately 1,700 prisoners died between 1862 and 1865 while incarcerated at Camp Morton. The death rate ran close to 20% of those imprisoned, with estimates of at least 9,000 prisoners having passed through the gates during its’ 25 months of operation. Local newspapers regularly printed the names of prisoners who died, though often they were listed as “unknown.” Their wooden coffins were placed in trenches in City Cemetery, later to be renamed Greenlawn Cemetery. The original gravesites were marked with wooden headboards bearing identification numbers that time would soon erase. Some remains were exhumed and returned to family members.
Area construction in the 1870s necessitated the removal and reinternment of the remains in a mass grave. In 1931 the remains from the Confederate gravesite were again moved to a mass grave in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. The site would become known as Confederate Mound. Ten bronze plaques and monuments with the names of 1,616 men who died now mark the gravesite.
After the war the camp was returned to the City and again used as the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Turn of the century rezoning permitted construction of residential housing at the former camp, an area now known as the Herron-Morton Place neighborhood. The monument erected in 1912 to honor the Confederate dead at Greenlawn was moved to Garfield Park in 1928. A small playground, where you can now hear the laughter of children, endures where the entrance to the camp once stood. A simple stone monument was placed by students and teachers of Indianapolis Public School 45 in 1916 and the brief inscription, Camp Morton 1861-1865 Erected by School Forty-Five 1916, serves as the camp’s epitaph. The only other tribute on the grounds of the former camp is a plaque erected by the Indiana Civil War Centennial Commission in 1962. Both can be found in the playground on Alabama Street.
On June 14, 1865 the Indianapolis Journal reported that “yesterday, the last remnant of the rebel prisoners confined in Camp Morton were released. In our heart there is no bitterness of feeling against them; and we are glad, without qualification, that they were free once more.”
Only the end of the war stopped the suffering and hardship of soldiers held as prisoners of war, and the subject is still an emotionally charged issue today. Medical practices, quarters, sanitation, rations, clothing, every aspect of prison life, in both the North and the South, is still debated. “Intent and malice were never intended,” said James Robertson, a history professor at Virginia Tech. But was everything that was humanly possible done to ease the pain and suffering of the men incarcerated in prisoner of war camps? The times, knowledge, resources, and fortitude of those in charge hold the answer to that question.
On a recent Friday morning, my wife and I visited areas of Indianapolis connected to Camp Morton. We were pleased to find the memories of soldiers who passed through the camp, both Union and Confederate, still very much alive.
At the Confederate monument located in Garfield Park, we met a man who appeared deep in thought as he sat on a bench located in front of the monument. The name of his 2nd great grandfather, a Confederate POW who had died at Camp Morton, he told us, was inscribed on it. We also visited the Herron Morton Historic District, an area where many beautiful turn-of-the-century homes are in various stages of rehabilitation. Here, we encountered a man who had only recently moved to Indianapolis with his family. He shared with us that his 2nd great grandfather had trained at the camp as a young Union soldier. Finally, we visited Confederate Mound in Crown Hill Cemetery, a well maintained and beautiful setting befitting the men honored there. Flowers had recently been placed on several of the markers.
Because I too have a distant relative, Alfred Britt, who died while imprisoned in Camp Morton, researching the camp’s history has brought me full circle with my own history, enriching my life in the process.
James M. Gillispie, Andersonvilles of the North
Winslow & Moore, Camp Morton
James R. Hall, Den of Misery
Victoria E. Bynum, The Free State of Jones.
Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, The State of Jones.
Categories: The Free State of Jones