Hell on the Potomac – Point Lookout, Maryland


Point Lookout
Point Lookout

In June of 1865, as the war fizzles to its end, the Union disgorges hundreds of thousands of Confederate POWs, some held as long as mid-1863. Everyone has heard of the horrible conditions at Andersonville prison in Georgia – the victors write the history books. Though Commandant Wirz’s neck broke on the gallows for his “war crimes” at Andersonville, many recognized that the Confederates did the best they could for these POWs with what they had – after all, Sherman was doing his best to starve everyone in Georgia.

But how does one account for Federal death camps such as Camp Douglas, Rock Island, Elmira, Fort Delaware and Lookout Point, where the Yankees had no such excuses? There was plenty of food and medicine in the North – just not for captured Confederate farm boys.

The numbers tell the story. According to U. S. Secretary of War Stanton, out of roughly 270,000 Federal POWs in Confederate hands 22,576 died, while of the 220,000 Confederates in Federal hands 26,436 died. The percentages are 9% versus 12%, respectively. One would expect the side which had its medicines blockaded and crops burnt would do much worse. But no Yankee commandants were hung or even tried for that troubling discrepancy.

These 50,000 deaths were largely avoidable and were the result of a cynical change in policy mid-war by the U.S. government, which up until then had honored a July 1862 agreement which provided for the orderly exchange or parole of prisoners. On July 3, 1863, as Pickett was charging at Gettysburg and Vicksburg was falling, the Federal government unilaterally suspended the prior agreement. On July 4th, Lee sent a proposal to Meade to exchange prisoners. Meade refused, citing lack of authority under new general orders – even after Lee had actually released 2-3,000 out of 6,000 Yankee captives in reliance upon the stipulated procedure.

Why the change in policy? As Grant explains a year later: “On the subject of exchange … it is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man 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 until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught, they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time, to release all Rebel prisoners North would insure Sherman’s defeat, and would compromise our safety here.” In other words, Grant appreciated that 23 million Yankees would quickly overwhelm 9 million (minus 3.5 black non-combatant) Southerners if the captured Confederates could not reenter the army or otherwise support the war effort. It may also be an unintended affirmation of the Southern conceit that one Butternut was worth ten Yankees.

This brings us to Point Lookout in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Point Lookout refers to the very tip of the peninsula between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. During the War of 1812, it served as an early warning station for the British fleet threatening the Bay, at least until the British occupied it. There was a lighthouse there after 1830. Then a large resort hotel graced the breezy beaches, together with summer cottages for those affluent enough to escape summer in the cities. In 1862, the Union army established a camp, supply depot and hospital there. Then, in August of 1863, Hammond Hospital, a large establishment with wards arranged like spokes on a wheel, opened for the care of the wounded of both armies.

Marylanders sympathetic to the South were detained at these facilities, sans habeas corpus, of course. But Point Lookout is best known as the largest Confederate POW camp. In August of 1863, just after Gettysburg and the North’s repudiation of prisoner exchanges, Camp Hoffman was established between the hospital complex on the point and Fort Lincoln further inland. Two separate stockades were built, one for officers, another for enlisted men. Housing was mostly tents. On the outside of the stockades was a catwalk along which the guards patrolled. Inside the stockade was a “dead line” – a ditch which if crossed justified summary execution by the guards above.

The camp was a hellhole. Charles Loehr, captured at Five Forks in April 1865, left an account of his ten week ordeal. Put on a steamer at City Point, he and 2000 other prisoners were offloaded at the wharf on April 5th. Their captors took possession of every piece of equipment stamped U.S. and kicked it into the Bay – a major inconvenience since practically all of their gear was captured.

Then: “After putting us in light marching order, we were marched into the prison-pen, or ‘bull-pen,’ as it was called. The prison consisted of a space of about twenty acres, surrounded by a high board fence, on the outside of which there was near the top, a platform for the guard to walk upon. The guards consisted of negroes of the worst sort. Inside of the grounds, about fifteen feet in front of the fence, was a ditch called the ‘dead line.’ The sentry fired upon any one who crossed it. The camp was laid in regular rows of small tents, each double row being a division, of which there were ten. These were again sub-divided into ten companies of about two hundred men each. Through these streets or rows there ran small ditches; but the land being very shallow, the drainage was very imperfect–Point Lookout being a tongue of land where the Potomac joins the Chesapeake Bay, barely over five feet high at its highest point; and herein was the worst feature of the prison. There was no good drinking water to be had; the water was impregnated with copperas, and tasted quite brackish. To this source was a great deal of the fearful mortality that occurred there traceable.”

Loehr notes that the stockade was already overcrowded, with men sleeping on the ground because of the shortage of tents. Rations were both short and unpalatable, the men starving. He says it was not unusual to lose 60-65 men in a night and thinks 8600 were buried nearby. Hammond Hospital was built for 1200 patients, but had 6000 sick and dying, many packed into overflow tents. Several hundred sick with dysentery remained in the main camp.

Especially galling to the Southerners were the guards – mostly United States Colored Troops. Here is Loehr in his own words: “Next our guards. As already stated, they were negroes who took particular delight in showing their former masters that ‘the bottom rail was on top.’ On one occasion one of the North Carolina men, who have a habit, which is shared by our Virginia country cousins, in whittling every wooden object they come across, was enjoying this sport on the prison gate, when one of the colored soldiers shot him down, nearly blowing his head off. This created some little excitement, but what the result was I never learned. During the day we had access to the sink [latrine] built on piles in the bay, but at night the gates were closed, and boxes were placed in the lower part of the camp, to which the men were allowed to go at all hours of the night. There were hundreds of sick in camp, cases of violent diarrhoea, reducing the men to skeletons. As these men were compelled to frequent these boxes, the negroes would often compel them at the point of the bayonet to march around in double quick time, to carry them on their backs, to kneel and pray for Abe Lincoln, and forced them to submit to a variety of their brutal jokes, some of which decency would not permit me to mention.” Their white sergeants were equally brutal, kicking prisoners too sick to move out for roll call. Sometimes they dunked prisoners headfirst in the urine barrels.

Loehr was lucky – he was released after two months and put on a boat to Richmond in mid-June, as the camp was being shut down. Probably few soldiers interned in the summer of 1863 lived to see the summer of 1865. Lice and malarial mosquitoes were a given. A lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter made winters on the wind-blown peninsula very hard; in the winter of 1863, 9000 prisoners were crowded into 980 tents, often without firewood. Many lacked shoes and there were fewer blankets than men. Prisoners ate rats, crabs, raw fish, seagulls and whatever they could scavenge from the kitchen gutters to supplement their lean rations. Periods of high water left the prisoners living in mud. Very few – maybe 50 – escaped. Water and swamp on three sides, with naval vessels standing ready to shell an uprising, a Yankee fort inland with its cannon trained at the compound, camps in the way – and if one got out, a long swim home to Virginia.

Point Lookout was not a death camp by circumstance, but by official government policy. Here is the preamble of the Retaliation Resolution debated by the Senate in January 1865: “Rebel prisoners in our hands are to be subjected to a treatment finding its parallels only in the conduct of savage tribes and resulting in the death of multitudes by the slow but designed process of starvation and by mortal diseases occasioned by insufficient and unhealthy food and wanton exposure of their persons to the inclemency of the weather.”

Point Lookout interned an estimated 52,264 Confederates; perhaps 14,000 died there. Only 3,384 of these are accounted for as being in the prison cemetery; these graves have been moved twice as water encroached and now rest in one mass grave. This mass grave is marked by an 85 foot obelisk erected by the Federal government. Much of the original camp has washed away in the last 150 years; this doubtless accounts for many lost graves.

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the repatriation of Point Lookout’s survivors – an acknowledgment that the war really was over and that these men would fight no more. When Lee surrendered, there were more Confederates at Point Lookout than in his army. There will be a commemorative reenactment of the release ceremony on the weekend of June 13-14th, starting at 11:00 each day at the park.   Go, and as you enjoy the soft June breeze, remember what the Federal government did here.

Sources: Descendants of Point Lookout Prisoner Organization, http://www.plpow.com/PrisonHistory.htm
Point Lookout, an address by Charles T. Loehr, Richmond Times, Oct. 11, 1890, http://www.csa-dixie.com/csa/prisoners/t59a.htm
Point Lookout, Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources, http://dnr2.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/southern/pointlookout.aspx
Retaliation Resolution, Congressional Globe, 38th Congress, 2nd session, 1/24/1865, pg. 381.

Written by: Doug Coleman
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@coleman-lawyers.com.    

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